Many supporters of DFAIT’s recently announced takeover of CIDA are invoking spurious arguments. More fundamentally, most commentators are missing the crucial point that this new arrangement will do little or nothing to fix the actual problems with Canadian foreign aid. In fact, it is likely to make them worse.

Many proponents of the merger actually do not seem to understand the basic principles of development assistance. For instance, a Canadian Press article cites former Conservative insider Derek Burney criticising CIDA’s agenda, saying, “For a long time, it was capacity building. How opaque is that? Hey, if you’re talking about poverty, food, education, clean water, health—I understand those things.”

Such statements illustrate the dangers of making important decisions based on insufficient grasp of the development process. Capacity building is simply, as the old adage would have it, teaching people to fish rather than merely giving them fish – hardly a complicated or esoteric concept, let alone a controversial principle. Not understanding the term is no reason to deride it and even less to justify abolishing CIDA and ignoring development expertise.

CIDA has its internal problems, but the responsibility for biggest ones lies firmly at the feet of the federal government itself.

Moreover, much of the argumentation is severely flawed. For instance, several pundits cite as supporting evidence the fact that some countries, such as Ireland and Norway, have placed their aid programs in their foreign ministry, arguing that their model works better than having a separate aid agency like Canada does. Conveniently, they ignore the fact that other countries, for instance the UK, have an independent department for foreign aid, and also outperform Canada. Nilima Gulrajani recently argued in a book I edited on CIDA and Canadian foreign aid, Struggling for Effectiveness, that one should therefore “reject the tenet that changes to donor-governance structure are the key to unlocking excellence in aid agencies”. There is actually no reason to believe that the new DFATD megalith will deliver aid any more effectively than CIDA.

Struggling for Effectiveness brought together the expertise of 15 specialists from various backgrounds. Common conclusions arising from their research about the causes of the mediocrity of Canadian foreign aid include the government’s lack of an overarching policy and vision for development, numerous misguided, politically motivated policies, and an overall lack of commitment to using foreign aid for its central purpose, as defined in the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act—namely, poverty reduction.

CIDA has its internal problems, but the responsibility for biggest ones lies firmly at the feet of the federal government itself. Over the past decade, the Liberals and especially the Conservatives have politicized CIDA programming and used it to support strategic and commercial goals, from counterinsurgency in Kandahar to the promotion of Canadian mining companies. Past experience has shown that such behaviour only hampers aid effectiveness at fighting poverty—and usually doesn’t achieve the other objectives either.

By hijacking funds meant for long-term development to satisfy short-term political purposes, and by consistently sidelining CIDA’s development expertise, the Canadian government has sabotaged the agency. In a self-serving argument, it has then blamed CIDA for its lack of effectiveness, using that to justify its abolition. (This is reminiscent of how the Harper government fatally undermined and then closed Rights and Democracy, an institution established by Parliament that Canadians could previously be proud of.)

If the new mega-department improves policy coherence in the areas of trade, diplomacy and development, this is highly unlikely to benefit poor people in developing countries. Even as a stand-alone agency, CIDA was having trouble resisting government pressure and keeping true to its poverty-reduction mandate. Ministers of International Cooperation Bev Oda and Julian Fantino often imposed the government’s self-interested perspective on the agency. For instance, Fantino made clear in an interview with the Globe and Mail last December that he believed “Canadians are entitled to derive a benefit” from Canadian foreign aid.

Development experts in the new DFATD stand little chance of convincing the rest of the department to put the long-term interests of the poor first, given that everyone else will be scrambling to promote quick wins for narrowly defined Canadian interests (including those of the Canadian private sector). What is really needed, rather than greater integration, is more insulation: ring-fencing the aid budget to protect it from being raided by self-interested actors, and ensuring that aid programs meets OECD aid guidelines and respect the provisions of Canada’s Official Development Assistance Accountability Act.

One of the key reasons why some other countries’ Ministries of Foreign Affairs use aid money effectively is that they—and their governments as a whole—have a strong commitment to development and an overarching vision that focuses on fighting poverty. Sadly, that is not the case in Harper’s Canada.

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