The Conservative government will introduce new legislation to govern Canada's international aid work, adding commercial and foreign-policy considerations to a mandate that has, until now, focused exclusively on poverty reduction.
The legislation is expected to formalize efforts to link Canadian interests more closely to the way aid dollars are spent, a move International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino has been openly advocating since last fall.
The change is part of a government decision, announced in Thursday's budget, to dismantle the Canadian International Development Agency in its current form. The agency, which has handled the country's core development assistance and humanitarian aid programs for the past 45 years, will be folded into a newly titled Department of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Development, which will have responsibility for the bulk of Canada's future aid programming.
Poverty alleviation will remain at the core of Canadian development assistance, Mr. Fantino has said. The legislation is expected to affirm that commitment, while adding new guidelines on how international assistance can be run so that it also boosts the government's foreign-policy objectives, including Canada's long-term security and prosperity.
Aileen Carroll, who was international co-operation minister under Paul Martin's Liberal government, said she sees nothing wrong with the idea of aligning Canada's aid work with foreign-policy interests, "so long as you continue to understand what development is." But she said she is concerned that a growing focus on trade and other commercial objectives could cast a shadow on the more altruistic purpose of foreign aid.
Ms. Carroll and other CIDA ministers have recommended a legislative mandate for the aid agency in the past, she said. "But that of course was a mandate that I would have wanted to endorse and legitimize our development priorities."
Some non-governmental organizations, including World Vision Canada, have said they are concerned the merger could undermine Canada's response to the needs of the most vulnerable people in developing countries.
Canadian foreign aid was initially run through the Department of External Affairs, but CIDA has been operating as an independent agency for the past several decades and once enjoyed a degree of autonomy other government departments do not have.
That independence has been eroded in recent years, however, and the decision to bring international development work under the purview of Foreign Affairs will give the government more freedom to match development priorities with other objectives.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said on Friday that the change will make for "better and more focused" international development assistance.
"Development now will have the full strength of our international presence abroad rather than, you know, just putting a few CIDA people there," Mr. Baird said after Question Period. "The people there will be able to work as a team under the leadership of the ambassadors which are overwhelmingly public servants."
Mr. Fantino will keep his position as the minister in charge of Canada's foreign aid, although his title could change after CIDA is dissolved. The government has said the changes will put him on an equal footing with Canada's foreign affairs and trade ministers and lend more heft to Canada's development work going forward.
CIDA has long been criticized as an agency that has been slow to adapt to change and is hampered by a bloated bureaucracy concentrated heavily in the National Capital Region, with only a limited presence in developing countries.
Canada's Official Development Assistance Accountability Act, which governs all federal departments that deliver international assistance, came into force in 2008 and requires that funds contribute to poverty reduction, take the perspectives of the poor into account and respect international human rights standards. But there has never been a distinct legislative framework laying out how CIDA was expected to operate.
Keith Ogilvie from the Canadian Association of International Development Professionals said the group is hopeful that the promised legislation will boost Canada's commitment to development assistance. "It always comes down to interpretation of the legislation. It could actually lead to a strengthening of development assistance and greater visibility," he said. But he added he is also concerned that it could result in a conflation of development aims with other government priorities.
The move to bring CIDA's work under the umbrella of Foreign Affairs mirrors a similar process in the United States, where that country's aid agency operates as part of the U.S. State Department. Norway follows a similar model, with the Norwegian Agency for Development Co-operation operating as a "specialized directorate" in the country's Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Mr. Fantino, who is said to be the driving force behind the merger, outlined his views on CIDA's role in an interview with The Globe and Mail last year, saying that CIDA is "a part of Canadian foreign policy," with a duty to ensure that Canadian interests are promoted.
"I find it very strange that people would not expect Canadian investments to also promote Canadian values, Canadian business, the Canadian economy, benefits for Canada," he said at the time. "This is Canadian money. ... And Canadians are entitled to derive a benefit. And at the very same time ... we're helping elevate these countries out of poverty."