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Politics IDRC vacancies mean development organization can’t meet quorum

International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino in his office on Parliament Hill, Monday December 3, 2012.

Fred Chartrand/The Globe and Mail

Ten of the 14 positions on the board of a long-standing Canadian international development organization have been allowed to go vacant, raising questions about the Crown corporation's future.

The International Development Research Centre provides funding for research in developing countries aimed at addressing social, economic and environmental challenges. It is often seen as a complementary organization to the larger Canadian International Development Agency. Its board typically consists of international development professionals and political appointees from Canada and abroad.

Earlier this year, the Conservative government announced it would merge CIDA with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in a move that is expected to more closely align Canada's development work with its diplomatic and trade priorities. International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino has said Canada's foreign aid will continue to focus on poverty alleviation under the new arrangement.

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The announcement did not mention the IDRC, but the lack of new appointments to the Crown corporation's board has prompted concern among some international development professionals that the decades-old organization could be scrapped.

Five members of the IDRC's board of governors had their terms expire earlier this week, including Margaret Biggs, who is also CIDA's president. Another five positions, including the chair of the board, were previously vacant and have not yet been filled, according to the federal government's appointments website.

With a total of three remaining governors and the interim president, the board does not have enough members to meet its quorum, which means it cannot act until new governors are appointed.

The IDRC has also been without a permanent president since March of this year. The board recommended Kevin McCort, currently the head of non-governmental organization CARE Canada, to fill the position before the past president's term expired, but the appointment was not immediately approved by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and an interim president was formally named to the position in May.

Ron Harpelle, a professor at Lakehead University who co-wrote a documentary film about the IDRC in 2010, said the organization's approach is unique because much of its funding is directed to researchers based in the developing world.

"If the number [of board members] has dropped, then the board isn't giving the kind of direction it was supposed to give when the IDRC was created, when it was designed. So that is a concern and it should be a concern to Canadians," he said.

"The IDRC is a remarkable Canadian achievement and it would be really terrible if we didn't replace our board members and continue the IDRC's function," he said. All board members are appointed by the Canadian government.

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A spokeswoman for the IDRC referred questions about the appointments to Mr. Baird's office. Mr. Baird's staff sent questions to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, which said the government is "taking steps" to fill the vacancies.

"The government will have more information on this soon," Department spokesman Ian Trites wrote in an e-mail.

The IDRC reported about $288-million in revenue for the fiscal year of 2011-2012, most of which came from the federal government. Last year, it closed regional offices in Singapore and Dakar, Senegal and reduced the number of regular board members from 18 to 14 to absorb federal budget cuts.

It is not the only organization to face a shortage of board members. Two of Canada's three positions on the International Joint Commission, which is responsible for Canadian and U.S. shared water bodies, are also vacant. A Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman said earlier this month that the department was "hopeful" that those appointments would be made soon.

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