The government’s decision to fold the Canadian International Development Agency into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was long overdue and welcomed by most.
The public and media reaction to the decision has been generally positive. Even the Globe and Mail, whose editorial page is not always charitable to the Conservative government, applauded the decision. Save for a few predictable critical voices, there was surprisingly little gnashing of teeth in Canada’s development community with most NGOs preferring to take a quiet, wait-and-see attitude to the bureaucratic restructuring and reordering of priorities that will soon follow.
The truth of the matter is that CIDA increasingly had become a dull instrument of overseas development assistance (ODA), rendered increasingly obsolete by the changing global context of development assistance and a growing awareness that development is not really about “poverty alleviation” per se, but economic growth, investment, good governance, and the empowerment of marginalized groups like women and youth through education and access to opportunity.
The poverty alleviation narrative also has become less persuasive as the actual number of low income countries (LICs) continues to shrink. China and India, which on a per capita basis aren’t major aid recipients, have lifted themselves out of the poverty trap by their own bootstraps and the workings of the global economy.
LICs are understandably the target of ODA, but in foreign policy terms some of the most politically troublesome and unstable states are Lower Middle Income Countries (like Pakistan, for example) where there are wide disparities in wealth and income between different parts of the country, a lack of state control over areas where there are local insurgencies, and chronic but enduring state failure. These countries typically are ineligible for development assistance according to poverty-level benchmarks.
With the stroke a pen, development assistance moves from the periphery of government (CIDA had become an orphan in our foreign policy machinery) to the center (that, at least, is how DFAIT would like to see it itself). Canada’s three principal instruments of foreign policy will now be concentrated in what should be a more coherent, more complementary and more effective whole.
Even so, the devil is in the details and the manner in which the restructuring of Canada’s roughly 4 billion dollar aid program will be implemented. Questions persist about the effectiveness of virtually all bilateral ODA efforts by governments. Various models for delivery have been tried. The aid business is plagued by the ebb and flow of new fashions and fads as the cottage industry built around the study of development processes criticizes old ways of doing business and constantly tries to offer something new. Taxpayers are left wondering what is being done with an ever-changing cluster of programs and whether they are having the desired impact.
Genuinely independent approaches like that of the Gates Foundation and some, select NGOs tend to get higher accolades, but the track records and analyses of results are checkered.
Extra layers of administration do not really help. In the delivery, governments too often see self-aggrandizement by the recipients as the most visible consequence.
In 2009, the Afghan panel critically noted the reluctance of CIDA to launch signature projects like hospitals, schools or irrigation dams, preferring instead to emphasize somewhat opaque (and purportedly neutral) objectives like “capacity building,” forgetting that the needs were more fundamental. Besides, Canadian taxpayer support for ODA depends on the awareness of the public of tangible success stories, which are rarely trumpeted and leave a lingering sense that they are far and few. Constant program reviews have been, at best, inconclusive and the lessons from developing countries which have made a successful transition are not easily transferable.
CIDA’s own administrative structures also became progressively more cumbersome over the years as the government raised the bar on accountability. This raised the transaction costs for those with whom CIDA did business. The common refrain from many NGOs was that they got 10 per cent of their funding from CIDA — and yet CIDA’s reporting procedures accounted for 90 per cent of their paperwork.
Some these complaints undoubtedly were exaggerated, but many of CIDA’s NGO and even intergovernmental partners were joyless companions in the development enterprise.
Notwithstanding such complaints and criticisms, it is important to recognize that CIDA has performed nobly if not ably over the years. There has always been a consistently high degree of professionalism in its own officer corps.
Even so, CIDA’s geographic and functional focuses were shuffled regularly in line with prevailing trends and its administrative tail grew excessively. (The headquarters-to-field ratio was 7:1 or 4:1, versus 2:1 for DFAIT). A steady rotation of junior ministers overseeing the agency was about the only constant, but certainly not one that was conducive to coherent strategy or impact.
By becoming an integral part of DFAIT, and with at least one senior minister to call on, development assistance has a chance of being more relevant and more effective.
But this should not be left to chance alone. During the 2006 transition to the Harper government, an attempt was made to move CIDA organizationally into what had become by then a bifurcated DFAIT. The move was resisted by senior bureaucrats in a manner that would have made the writers of the “Yes Minister” series proud. “Too complicated, likely to arouse negative reaction, too technical and not worth the agony,” etc. Those sentiments prevailed on CIDA. Instead, efforts to reintegrate Trade back into Foreign Affairs succeeded even though key instruments of trade policy were left in departments like Finance and Agriculture.
The “Yes Minister” problem will still be there in the implementation of this new reorganization unless the government’s fights bureaucratic inertia and makes a concerted effort to change fundamentally the way we target and manage our ODA.
In the end much will depend on the leadership given to Canada’s ODA programs by ministers and officials wherever they reside but, if more of what we do is presented as reflecting or reinforcing our foreign policy principles and priorities, that is as it should be.