The Conservative government has signalled that it will keep the core mandate of its international development program intact, easing concerns that a planned merger with the Department of Foreign Affairs will hurt Canada's commitment to poverty reduction and humanitarian aid.
Ottawa announced last month that it will dissolve the Canadian International Development Agency and merge its functions into a new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, a move that caught staff and organizations that work with the agency off-guard. The decision sparked fears that CIDA's foreign aid budget could be used more explicitly to promote Canada's commercial and foreign policy interests abroad to the detriment of its poverty alleviation efforts.
New legislation tabled on Monday states that International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino will continue to be responsible for the bulk of Canada's development assistance work, and his core job in the new department will be to "foster sustainable international development and poverty reduction in developing countries and provide humanitarian assistance during crises."
He will also be responsible for forging links with other countries and development organizations and ensuring Canada's contributions are "in line with Canadian values and priorities."
The legislation is part of the government's budget implementation bill, tabled on Monday in the House of Commons.
Mr. Fantino's job description was a relief to non-governmental organizations and aid experts, some of whom had worried that poverty alleviation might be dropped from the minister's mandate or that other considerations might be added. Julia Sanchez, president of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, said she was encouraged by the language of the legislation and called it a "good starting point."
"We don't see any big red flags," she said after discussing the proposed changes in a conference call with other development experts and NGOs.
"I think people are pleased with this as an outcome, especially from a starting point where we were very concerned."
Ms. Sanchez said she hopes the new legislation will pave the way for future consultation with development experts about how Canadian aid is delivered.
CIDA was already working to develop stronger links with the private sector before the merger was announced, and Mr. Fantino has made it clear that he believes Canada's commercial interests should play a role in development assistance. Critics of the policy shift have argued that the agency's partnerships with corporations, including some mining companies, could detract from its goals and make Canadian aid less effective. Those in favour of the shift insist it can help direct private sector money toward poverty reduction projects and contribute to economic growth in developing countries.
Hélène Laverdière, the NDP's international development critic, said she continues to worry about the direction Canada's international development program is headed after seeing the new legislation.
"We already see that the development focus is being overshadowed by trade interests..." she said. "So I'm afraid we can just expect more of the same."
Elly Vandenberg, a policy and advocacy director at World Vision Canada, said the organization was encouraged by the new legislation.
"The key thing for us is that it really affirms Canada's commitment to poverty reduction," she said.
Under the proposed changes, references to CIDA will be replaced by the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.
Mr. Fantino's title will change from International Co-operation Minister to Minister of International Development, and the president of CIDA will become the deputy minister for international development.
Current CIDA staff will become employees of the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.
Like International Trade Minister Ed Fast, Mr. Fantino will be required to perform his job with the "concurrence" of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, which means both will effectively be junior ministers in the new department, according to the legislation.