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A Canadian flag flies on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A Canadian flag flies on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

COLIN ROBERTSON

The CIDA move's not radical. Canada is just playing catch up Add to ...

The re-integration of CIDA into Foreign Affairs and International Trade is a sensible move.

Sensible because, notwithstanding best efforts at the senior political level, whether the government of the day was Conservative or Liberal, there has too often been a disconnect in the field in the conduct of our foreign policy objectives and delivery of development assistance.

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Also sensible because it will likely require a change in the current culture of CIDA and the capacity of Foreign Affairs to rise to the challenge. Neither is certain. It remains to be seen if they can also overcome tensions between domestic priorities and international commitments in the development sphere.

CIDA emerged during the initial expansionary phase of government in the early Trudeau years from the External Affairs Aid Office. It was intended to operate in the field as a development delivery agency, a bit like immigration selection. Instead, under the direction of Paul Gérin-Lajoie, the former Quebec education minister who served as CIDA president during this period, it developed an arguably independendist personality and a distinct culture.

Operating from its base across the Ottawa River in Quebec, there was no way CIDA would take direction from the striped pants brigade in the Pearson building. Long-term development, argued the prelates at CIDA, should not be subject to short-term diplomatic imperatives.

CIDA officers at missions overseas took their cue accordingly and, armed with separate and substantial budgets that eclipsed those of Foreign Affairs, they could and would often operate independently of the Ambassador or High Commissioner, even though the latter was intended to have overall responsibility. Immigration officers operate on a similar basis but their strict regulatory code is transparent and designed to protect the ambassador from facing invidious local pressures.

At home, CIDA has become the sustainer and often principal source of a plethora of non-government groups, all of which claimed to have development objectives, some of which were not in alignment with government policy.

Letting a thousand flowers bloom can have advantages, but over time these relationships came to resemble that of patron and client. There were a couple of problems with this approach.

First, CIDA became a policy center with a network of clients who, in turn, developed a sense of entitlement.

Second, the direction was not always congruent with our foreign policy. In the development world there is a tendency towards moralism and a disdain for the urgencies of realpolitik.

There were awkward conversations with foreign governments when the NGOs and, occasionally, the CIDA operative in the field, failed to appreciate the distinction between development and interference in the host country’s domestic affairs. This did not advance Canadian interests.

In recent speeches , CIDA Minister Julian Fantino has promised a new direction that would link CIDA programs directly to our trade and foreign policy objectives because “we have a duty and a responsibility to ensure that Canadian interests are promoted.”

CIDA partnerships would be broadened to include business as well as NGOS and multinational organizations. Mr. Fantino had no time for the moralists saying that “this is Canadian money” and that he found it “very strange that people would not expect Canadian investments to also promote Canadian values, Canadian business, the Canadian economy.” Nor would, he said , “NGOs be funded for life” scotching the belief that “CIDA only exists to keep NGOs afloat.”

This philosophical shift is not unique to Canada.

It is supported by an emerging school of thought that argues that after half a century and $2.4-trillion in investment the old approach to aid has not worked. In White Man’s Burden, William Easterly writes that multilateral and national aid agencies are staffed by well-meaning planners who see “poverty as a technical engineering problem that [their] answers will solve” when in reality “poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional and technological factors.”

Even more radical is Dambisa Moyo, who argued in Dead Aid that aid is the fundamental cause of poverty and therefore eliminating aid is critical to spur growth in ailing African states.

We are not the first government to bring aid back under the direction of foreign affairs or to try to instill a ‘business’ perspective. The British, Australians and New Zealanders as well as other European countries are aiming at the same objective. As Britain’s Aid Minister Justine Green put it this past week, her objective, “for developing countries is an end to aid dependency through jobs.”

To end the turf battles over authority and accountability, former U.S. president George W. Bush brought US AID under the direction of the State Department and established the Millenium Challenge Corporation to address corruption. It added strict accountability measures and good governance conditionality to its grants with the hope that it would become the model for U.S. 21st-century development assistance.

The Obama Administration kept this structure and as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised to make US AID the premier development agency in the world. She described development an “indispensable foreign policy tool for advancing American interests and solving global problems.” But judging outcomes is difficult and he jury is still out on whether the approach is working.

The integration of CIDA into Foreign Affairs and the congruence of development and diplomatic policy makes sense and it should help Foreign Minister John Baird put flesh onto his ‘dignity agenda. But it will take much effort.

Hard questions will need to be asked on how and where our foreign aid is spent. The emphasis will need to be on outcomes that visibly advance development as well as Canadian interests. No easy task.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president and senior fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and senior strategic adviser to McKenna, Long and Aldridge.

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