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Opinion Ending CIDA’s independence can only make our foreign policy more coherent

Howls of outrage erupted at the announcement of the merger of Canada's international development agency with our department of foreign affairs and international trade. Canada's commitment to assist the poor, critics charge, will be subordinated to foreign policy interests. I do not agree. Let's take a closer look at the restructuring.

Canada's development agency has lost its status as a stand-alone agency. It will be integrated into a newly named Department of Foreign Affairs, International Trade, and Development. One of the problems that has plagued Ottawa as it has engaged with the world is the silos among its departments. For years, Defence did not talk to Foreign Affairs and CIDA barely talked to either. Successive prime ministers have had to bang heads to bust the silos, with only limited success. In one fell swoop, this government has forced the integration of two of Canada's principal agencies. Think for a moment how this will play out on the ground. In our embassies around the world, Canada will no longer be running two separate programs – one led by our ambassador and the other by the senior CIDA official working out of the embassy. Ambassadors will have overall responsibility for an aid program that is integrated within the broader context of our relationship with foreign governments. That cannot but improve the coherence of our policy and increase our influence and impact. Our representatives will be singing from the same songbook.

What about the allegation that our commitment to the poorest of the poor will be diluted? The scope and size of Canada's development assistance program was always determined by the prime minister of the day. When our forces were deployed in Afghanistan, our largest aid program was – surprise – in Afghanistan. Our foreign policy priorities have always influenced our development assistance programs. In the restructuring, we will continue to have a Minister of International Development, who will argue for development funding in Cabinet with his colleagues. What will disappear are the layers of vice-presidents and assistant vice-presidents within our development agency, as aid programs are increasingly integrated into regional programs and bureaus. If this works well, Canada should be able to put larger and better integrated teams into the field as they thin out staff at headquarters.

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This restructuring offers a real opportunity to improve the quality of our programming and to push scarce dollars to the poor as the costs in Ottawa go down. Canada should also speak with a more coherent and effective voice.

Stay tuned.

Janice Gross Stein is the director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

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