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As one who was closely involved in the establishment of the Canadian International Development Agency, I am deeply concerned with the fundamental and largely negative effects of the changes recently announced by the government to Canada's development assistance program.

Restructuring CIDA, and giving it the formal status within government that it never really had, is a positive step.

But what Canadians really need to focus upon are the dramatic changes to the purpose and the mandate of Canada's foreign-assistance program. The deep cuts that the government has made in development assistance have already had a major impact on Canada's reputation as a leader in the international-development community. Now, the commercialization of our development funding further discredits Canada's commitment to supporting the progress of developing countries. This commitment has long won us the respect of the international community and a relationship of trust and confidence with developing countries for which Canadians can take pride.

It has always been true that development assistance contributes in varying ways to Canada's own economic interest. But making commercial interests the main purpose of our program will undermine its effectiveness – quite apart from its damage to our credibility and influence.

This policy – if the government proceeds with its implementation – will further undermine Canada's respect in the international community. This government's negative positions on climate change, its repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol, and its withdrawal from other United Nations, environmental and related programs have already transformed us from leader to laggard.

The international community was stunned by the latest example of Canada's position on international development, when Ottawa withdrew last week from the Convention to Combat Desertification. It is now the only country that does not participate in this convention, which is of such great importance to the poorest developing countries, especially in drought-prone areas of Africa.

On a more hopeful note, this government has demonstrated that it is willing to make changes in policies when it becomes clear that they do not have wide public support. But this only occurs when it becomes clear that Ottawa's position is unpopular. Development assistance and the government`s new approach to it are of such importance that they deserve widespread understanding and dialogue.

The role of the media in fostering this dialogue and ensuring that it is fully informed is critical. It is also the clearest way to demonstrate that Canadians care about their spending on international development and the importance of ensuring that it serves the real needs of developing countries.

Maurice Strong, as a deputy minister for foreign aid under Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, was the founder of the organization that came to be called the Canadian International Development Agency, and served as president of CIDA from 1966 to 1970. He has also served numerous senior posts in the United Nations and the private sector.