Canada shutters its development agency, assures everyone it’s no big deal

While British and U.S.-based humanitarian organizations have been campaigning hard to preserve political support for their countries’ investment in foreign aid and development, few noticed what was happening in Canada.

That a chronic problem, not noticing what’s going on in Canada.

What had happened is that the government up north has quietly shuttered its Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), moving their offices into the newly formed Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.

CIDA and its chief Julian Fantino make the full move, effectively keeping the agency alive with a new boss. Much like how USAID comes under the State Department, the move houses CIDA inside Canada’s foreign department in order to streamline its international efforts.

Fantino assured foreign aid supporters that the agency would continue its development work saying, “The new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development will maintain the mandate of poverty alleviation and humanitarian support. This decision will have no impact on Canada’s international assistance budget.”

Reactions from NGOs and pundits ranged from concerns about the new direction to applause for the decision.

The United States made a similar move during the Bush Administration when USAID, created as an independent development agency in the Kennedy administration, was pulled under the umbrella of the State department by the Bush Administration.

“[S]ince the attacks of September 11th there has been a drastic shift in U.S. foreign assistance that has blurred the lines traditionally separating development and humanitarian aid from political and military action,” said Oxfam America in response.

The use of a hepatitis vaccine (corrected) to try to capture Osama bin Ladden in Pakistan has been cited as a recent example of aid being used for purposes of national security. When polio vaccine workers were being killed in late 2012, a group of deans from public health universities issued a letter condemning the practice.

“International public health work builds peace and is one of the most constructive means by which our past, present, and future public health students can pursue a life of fulfillment and service. Please do not allow that outlet of common good to be closed to them because of political and/or security interests that ignore the type of unintended negative public health impacts we are witnessing in Pakistan,” they wrote.

Opponents to the CIDA move cite the politicization of aid as a reason for concern.

“We are extremely concerned that this new direction for CIDA means that development assistance will be used to advance Canada’s prosperity and security, rather than focusing solely on the needs and aspirations of the poor. It speaks of linkages between Canada’s development and trade objectives growing at an equal pace, rather than valuing development objectives and the needs of the poor in their own right,” said World Vision Canada in response.

However, a significant number of people have come out in favor of the annoucement. The NGO CARE delivered a luke-warm statement and UNICEF Canada also situated itself towards the middle.

“We wish foreign aid was altruistic, but it’s always been an expression of foreign policy,” said David Morley, president of UNICEF’s Canadian operations to The Star. “Sometimes you felt the two (CIDA and Foreign Affairs) were going off into different worlds. This could be good, getting the aid portfolio closer to power.”

Meanwhile former Canadian minister of foreign affairs, Lloyd Axworthy, endorsed the move.

“A prime example of how an integrated approach should work is in the emerging issue of food security and how root causes such as environmental degradation, poor governance, conflict suppression of women’s rights, and lack of international co-operative action need to be dealt with in a comprehensive strategy,” wrote Axworthy in a short column for The Globe and Mail.

Other supporters looked towards the ability to shift the focus of Canada’s development work from solely aid to trade. Scott Gilmore, founder of Building Markets and a former member of the Canadian foreign service, cited the successful whole of government approach taken in Afghanistan where defense, development and diplomatic staff closely collaborated.

“If the teammates need to co-ordinate better, putting them in the same locker room is a logical step,” writes Gilmore.

He concludes by taking on critics of the move by pointing out that the foreign aid industry is not a ‘sacrosanct priesthood.’ It is a general sentiment that Lucas Robinson, former senior advisor with CIDA, and Owen Barder, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, agree upon in their Globe and Mail column.

“CIDA’s move into the newly titled Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development is both a risk and an opportunity. The risk is that development becomes a secondary goal in a department with bigger fish to fry. The opportunity is that by putting development at the heart of a more powerful department with a broader remit for foreign and trade policy, Canada will now be able to promote development-friendly policies across the wide range of issues which most affect poor countries. It is not CIDA but Canada as a nation that needs to do more,” they write.

Questions still remain as to how the transition will work in practice. James Haga of Engineers Without Borders Canada offered three points of advice for the government: 1) create a coherent department; 2) do not promote economic development at the cost of social development; 3) transition to longer term investments that go beyond the current 5 year project cycles.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a Maine-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.