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CIDA: a broken agency that needs to be overhauled Add to ...

In a rapidly changing world, Canada needs to be able to respond quickly to urgent development needs overseas. Yet the agency tasked to do this is so overburdened by complex bureaucracy and excessive compliance requirements that it can take as long as 43 months for aid projects to receive approval. This is depriving Canada of its ability to address global inequities, and extend its power and influence in the world.

Canadians have also been deprived of their right to judge whether our foreign aid is effective and efficient.

The problem isn't that Canada is too generous. In fact, with an annual $5-billion earmarked for overseas development assistance (1.5 per cent of our national budget), we are decidedly in the middle of the pack, ranking 14th out of 23 OECD countries. Prime Minister Stephen Harper doubled aid spending for five years, before capping it this year.

The problem is that there is no way to judge the success of the programs Canada funds, which range from delivering medicine to Haitians and helping to reform Mexico's police, to supporting Ghana's transformation to a middle-income country. A recent report by the U.K.-based advocacy group Publish What You Find ranked Canada 23rd out of 30 countries on aid transparency.

Ottawa is not a member of the International Aid Transparency Initiative, a coalition of donor governments, developing countries and non-governmental organizations that aim to improve aid effectiveness and make aid spending accessible.

Instead, the Canadian International Development Agency - which distributes the bulk of Canada's aid - is so secretive and bureaucratic that projects require 28 different documents from conception to inception. More than 1.4 billion people still live on less than $1.25 a day, and they cannot wait for boxes to be ticked off, and forms to be filled in. The more time and money spent on compliance, the less is spent on the underlying goals of poverty alleviation, global health and human rights. This creates a risk-averse culture and discourages transformation and innovation.

The very goals of development have become subverted to those of "results-based management tables," says James Haga, of Engineers without Borders. The group is part of Foreign Assistance Reform Network, a coalition of development organizations lobbying to reform Canada's approach.

International development requires stability and predictability. Yet a 2009 Auditor-General's report found that donors, recipient governments and program staff are "unclear" about CIDA's direction and its long-term commitment to specific countries. CIDA has gone through five different ministers of international co-operation and four different agency presidents since 2000.

Many other countries, as well as once famously opaque institutions, such as the World Bank, have embraced the need for transparency. Britain has completely revamped its CIDA-equivalent, resulting in increased efficiency and credibility, and creating a model that survived a change of government. "CIDA should create a new open-data web portal based on the U.S. government's and the World Bank's," says Mr. Haga. "The government spends a lot of money on foreign aid. It's your money. Don't you want it to be spent really well?"

A recent report undertaken for the Canadian International Council called for the organization to be liberated and reinvented. "CIDA suffers from a range of institutional problems that constrain its ability to deliver aid effectively, flexibly, and in a focused manner," the report concludes.

And yet, in spite of this abysmal situation, during last week's election debate, the only reference to foreign aid was a criticism by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff of the government's decision to reject a $7-million funding request from KAIROS, a church-backed aid group. Where was the larger debate about the broken delivery system? The proposals for reform? The cries for transparency for an organization that receives $5-billion a year?

CIDA may be the most over-studied government agency, with countless reports documenting its many problems. And the agency has implemented some reforms, including streamlining its list of recipient countries and thematic priorities; introducing a competitive bidding process for projects; and implementing new time frames for approving proposals. Another promising initiative is the $250-million Grand Challenges Canada, a family of grants for projects aimed at overcoming barriers to progress in a given field, including global health.

These changes, however, have not fomented the revolution that is needed to propel CIDA forward.

To accomplish this goal, Canada must join the International Aid Transparency Initiative, and appoint a minister who can credibly engage Canadians in a conversation about why aid efficiency matters. The agency must divide priorities clearly into humanitarian projects and longer-term initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions. These goals should be measured accordingly. CIDA should also tie aid to democratic governance, where appropriate.

Transparency, accountability and rigour are needed so that Canada's precious aid dollars can be spent well. There may be failures - but they shouldn't stem from the victory of administration over innovation. The fight for success is paramount.

Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version incorrectly stated that the $5-billion Canada annually earmarks for overseas development assistance amounts to 1.5 per cent of GDP. This online version has been corrected.

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