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Geoffrey York has written that shutting down CIDA's office in Malawi is evidence of the ways political interests trump common sense in Canada's foreign aid program. Yet, the lowering of the Maple Leaf flag in Malawi is just the latest symbol of CIDA's inability to maintain high standards of performance when compared to counterpart aid agencies in the global development community.

Geopolitical interests in Canadian aid have been the silent killer of CIDA's efficiency and effectiveness. While all foreign aid must balance strategic foreign policy interests with international solidarity aims, CIDA has been particularly vulnerable to meddling by politicians eager to pander to ethnic voters, corporate interests, and nationalist sentiment. In the world of international aid, Canada is reputed as a money-grubbing flag planter rather than effectively and selflessly serving the world's poor.

The minister of international co-operation, responsible for CIDA, had traditionally been a comfortable resting spot for loyal mid-ranking politicians with little apparent interest or commitment to development issues. In the past 10 years, we have seen no fewer than six ministers come through the turnstiles at CIDA's office, most of whom haven't had a tenure exceeding two years. In contrast, Britain had six uninterrupted years of high-level stewardship by the international development secretary, Clare Short, until she finally resigned over the development debacle that was Iraq.

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Needless to say, the ebb and flow of political appointments to CIDA has not engendered a stable backdrop for effective development policy-making. As each minister reinvents priorities and programs to suit their pet interests, so too does CIDA's effectiveness wane.

With such short political tenures, CIDA projects that can demonstrate quick measurable results are favoured over interventions that might offer better value for money in the long run. Ministers prefer to see taxpayer dollars used to purchase textbooks for Malawian school children rather than to invest in the salaries for the teachers who supervise their reading of them. Books are visible demonstrations of Canada's generosity; salaries are hidden in government budgets with no maple leaf attached to them. And yet adequately paid teachers are key for improving school attendance, ensuring the quality of education that is provided, and in the long run improving economic growth.

The instability caused by the political contamination of our aid agency is best illustrated by the flip-flopping on who should constitute Canada's top aid recipients. Under the Liberal government of Paul Martin, a list of 25 countries of focus was drawn upon in the 2005 International Policy Statement that sought to turn CIDA into "the world's best development agency."

The list never resonated with the Harper regime, and so last February the government constructed its own top 20 list. The reduction in African countries and the increase in emphasis on Latin America and the Caribbean region has met with consternation, and yet this outrage is too little, too late. Newcomers to Canada's list of aid recipients, including Afghanistan and Haiti, have actually been key aid recipients since 2003. We have never provided much aid to African countries, with countries that CIDA recently removed like Rwanda and Niger never having made it into our top 20 in the past five years.

All this suggests a more entrenched problem for Canadian aid, namely its public profile. CIDA's politicization at the most senior levels of the bureaucracy is having spillover effects within the bureaucracy and among the public. Employee motivation in CIDA is said to be at an all-time low, with many suggesting it no longer attracts the quality of civil servant that it once did. In contrast, a job in Britain's Department for International Development is one of the most popular choices for a newly minted civil servant.

As the politicization of CIDA continues unabated, the only solution seems to lie with an equivalent politicization of the Canadian public. Raising awareness of development policy, including the need for more aid effectiveness, needs to be part of any strategy for renewing Canada's foreign aid. We need to mobilize people from all walks of life to protest against the world's inequalities and injustices and to carefully reflect on their own complicit contribution to them.

There is a need for public discussion, writing campaigns and carrying your views on development to the ballot box. Tarnishing our reputation as a committed development actor with the stains of Canadian provincialism and petty politics needs to stop before the marks are irreversibly made.

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Nilima Gulrajani is an assistant professor in development and political science at the London School of Economics.

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