The “folding” of CIDA into the Department of Foreign Affairs is a sad day for Canada’s role in the developing world. Once a leader, we have become an also-ran, absenting ourselves on critical development issues, cutting aid to the poorest, stalling projects, driving NGOs to bankruptcy and using aid money in the most blatant ways to promote short-term Canadian commercial interests. This has been the government’s aid policy over the past five years. One can only guess at how the pace will accelerate under Foreign Affairs.
With the merger, the position of development minister will remain, and the government says it plans to enshrine in law the roles and responsibilities of the position. This is unnecessary. Canada already has an Official Development Assistance Accountability Act that requires CIDA to devote its spending to poverty reduction, to take into account the perspectives of the poor and to be consistent with international human rights standards.
There is good reason for this law, one that extends beyond the seeming impossibility of holding governments to account on development spending. It goes beyond the wishy-washy charity ethic that so many, including the current government, seem to think infuses professional development thinking.
Poverty is not good for the poor, but it’s not good for the rich either. Poor countries are bad for trade and investment. Pandemics, people, pollution and dangerous ideas can no longer be contained within national borders. Poverty is a fertile breeding ground for all of these, and for conflicts that can and do spread like wildfire across entire regions. The current combined UN peacekeeping budget in Liberia, Congo and Côte d’Ivoire for one year alone is more than $2-billion. Through assessed UN funding, every Canadian taxpayer contributes to this, and to many other fire-fighting efforts that might not have been necessary if the development promises of the last 50 years had been kept.
Poverty reduction and long-term development are in the interest of every Canadian, and mixing this up with trade and diplomacy will only create greater confusion. Canada’s international development effort requires autonomy and a full cabinet position, as in Britain, where the development message is front and centre as a key plank in overall foreign policy. Aid has to be more than an afterthought with the occasional-feel-good initiative tacked on the side. It needs to be freed for genuine development purposes from the short-term commercial and political gain that is becoming the Canadian norm.
Ian Smillie, an Ottawa-based writer and consultant, is a member of the McLeod Group and the author of Freedom from Want.