Dear Julian Fantino: Foreign aid isn’t much like running a police force or buying fighter jets, so there’s a few things to think about if you want more joy as International Co-operation Minister than poor Bev Oda.
All the churchy do-gooder stuff might not seem as macho as the gangs and guns of police work, but if you look closely, this is meaty stuff. The Canadian International Development Agency has a $4-billion-a-year budget, and it’s one of Canada’s biggest connections to capitals around the world, even if it doesn’t get the best seat at Ottawa’s cabinet table. Running this poor dysfunctional agency really matters.
It can’t be a bad move for you. As associate minister of defence responsible for buying military equipment, you didn’t really run anything and had to play political tug-of-war with the defence minister, the public works minister, and the generals. Then Prime Minister Stephen Harper took the F-35s off your plate. At least here, there’s a job to do.
But try to keep it simple at CIDA. And take note of Ms. Oda’s weaknesses.
It’s not that Ms. Oda did everything wrong, even if her swank hotels and limo rides clashed audibly with her task of fighting poverty. She deserves credit for some things, such as following through on a promise to “untie” aid, so that goods donated to places such as Africa don’t have to be bought in Canada. She presided over a modest trimming (to 20 from 25) of the list of countries to which Canada donates most of its bilateral aid, a good idea to cut overhead, even if the list itself has critics.
But for years, she claimed to be making Canadian aid much more effective and, let’s face it, she didn’t really build a better mousetrap. That wasn’t all her fault. The Prime Minister didn’t give her much power anyway, and the PMO micromanaged her decisions until she seemed paralyzed. CIDA became a secretive star chamber. And it was all compounded by the confusing mumbo jumbo that accompanied Ms. Oda’s efforts to proclaim new priorities and themes for Canadian aid.
In a perfect world, people might have hoped for a masterful communicator and House of Commons debater to replace Ms. Oda and represent CIDA, but here you are instead. At least the bar is low. Presumably, Mr. Harper has chosen you because of your experience running large organizations as chief of four big police forces and Ontario’s commissioner of emergency management.
It can’t hurt that you’re seen inside government as a guy with drive who cares about results. CIDA is mired in problems. Its senior executives keep leaving. The staff don’t know what the goals are, or what they’ll be next year. New ministers and governments change ideas. PMs and Foreign Affairs diplomats have fads. “They’ve seen 15 revolutions,” said Barry Carin, a former senior Foreign Affairs official now a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
So steer clear of revolutions. Try simple things instead.
First, fence off CIDA’s main task – long-term development programs to reduce poverty – from other agency business. In 2008, Mr. Carin and Gordon Smith, a former deputy minister of foreign affairs, suggested that CIDA have a fixed annual budget for humanitarian assistance, so funding disaster relief doesn’t interfere with longer-term development plans. Fend off most requests for a new CIDA program to match foreign-policy initiatives – let the Foreign Affairs Department fund those from its own budget.
Second, don’t revamp the list of target countries and themes – children, food security and economic development – even if you think you can do better. Results matter more than moving goalposts.
Third, do things in the open. Explain why CIDA’s backing one project, and not another. CIDA should encourage a race for better projects, not a culture of silence.
The problem, of course, is you’re doomed to fail if you don’t get more backing from the Prime Minister. With hope, Mr. Harper will trust your judgment because having the reins jerked by the PMO made CIDA slow-moving and dysfunctional. CIDA needs a sure hand, and a minister with some weight to push back against the PMO or Foreign Affairs. Without it, the waste will be more than $16 for some orange juice. Oh, and steer clear of room service and limos.