It was perhaps inevitable that Canada’s aid agency, CIDA, would be folded into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade on foreign minister John Baird’s watch; it is said he has been gunning for CIDA for a long time. The merger – more like a takeover – is not necessarily a bad thing. There is internationally no perfect structural model for managing international assistance. The Scandinavians, lauded for their work in the developing world, run their aid programs out of their foreign-affairs departments. But Britain has a stand-alone agency that is equally admired.
Historically CIDA has fiercely protected its “independence,” under some presidents isolating itself and regarding it as almost a religious dogma that the government should be ignored. As a result it could fly off in directions totally opposite to Canadian interests. In the process it became bloated, funded too many little projects in scattered locations, and was at times totally captive to the NGO community.
This was the case in the Mulroney years, during my tenure as minister at External Affairs, as it was then known. With my encouragement, senior staff produced a well prepared plan for CIDA, not to merge the agency into the department, but to make it more responsive to changing needs in the developing world. (For example to put more emphasis on funding for neophyte democracies to establish good governance; less emphasis on agriculture). But we underestimated the strength of the non-governmental organizations, which at that time was formidable, and the plan was dropped.
Today CIDA is more responsive, more disciplined, and better managed. Internal management is highly regarded. NGOs themselves are more professional and less ideologically driven. And everyone recognizes that the needs of the developing world have evolved, and will continue to.
How the integration is managed and its final structure are unknown, and will have a significant impact on the success of the merger. Other factors include the minister’s commitment to ensuring a strong international assistance program, stable funding over time from the department of finance, strong committed leadership among officials from both streams.
The aid and diplomatic cultures are very different, although in countries where Canada is a major donor, it has often appointed a CIDA official as ambassador. Institutional integration is difficult at the best of times, as we have seen all too often in the private as well as the public sector, and success is not the norm. Since diplomacy and foreign aid are both pillars of Canada’s role in the world, Minister Baird has his work cut out for him.
Barbara McDougall, Secretary of State for External Affairs from 1991 to 1993, is an adviser to the Toronto law firm Aird & Berlis LLP.