Canadian foreign aid entered a new era this week as the 45-year-old Canadian International Development Agency was folded into the foreign affairs and trade department and officially disappeared.
The government says it remains as committed to helping the world’s poor as ever, and that the merger of Canadian foreign assistance with broader diplomatic and trade objectives will produce better results for both Canada and developing countries.
But the end of CIDA also marks the culmination of a tumultuous few years for Canadian international assistance riddled by frustration and anger, international embarrassment, deep budget cuts, and allegations of a hidden agenda.
And while CIDA will no longer exist as a stand-alone federal agency, many of the concerns and emotions that have emerged over Canadian foreign aid will continue to swirl as the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development moves forward.
“I’d love to be positive and think of the opportunities that are being created here,” said Canadian Council for International Co-operation president Julia Sanchez, “but it’s hard given the context that this is happening in.”
The government revealed it was doing away with CIDA as a separate entity in the most recent federal budget, and the change was formalized Wednesday when the budget bill received royal assent.
By Thursday morning, online references to the aid agency had been deleted from government websites, and employees of the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development had a message in their inboxes heralding the change.
“In advancing our own security and prosperity, we must work to advance the security and prosperity of others,” the message reads. “A single department, fully integrated across geography and themes, will ensure that diplomatic, trade and development resources and expertise around the world are fully leveraged to that end.”
Signed by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Trade Minister Ed Fast, International Development Minister Julian Fantino and Minister of State for the Americas Diane Ablonczy, the message said the new department would continue to focus on eliminating poverty by “fostering sustainable economic growth in developing countries.”
“We firmly believe that a consolidated foreign ministry will be more effective and yield greater results for Canadians.”
The ministers concluded by saying they “look forward to a smooth transition” — though if recent history is any indication, a smooth transition is unlikely.
Questions about focus, effectiveness and accountability have hovered over Canadian international development efforts for decades.
But they have taken on a life of their own in recent years as the Conservative government has quietly — and sometimes not so quietly — overseen the dramatic reshaping of Canadian foreign aid policy that led to CIDA’s merger with foreign affairs.
This has included shifting focus from poor countries in Africa, particularly those that are French or in North Africa, to middle-income trading partners in Latin America like Colombia and Peru.
The government has also cut CIDA’s long-standing ties with international development groups like Kairos, Development and Peace, and the Canadian Council for International Co-operation in favour of closer partnerships with Canadian mining companies.
And it is in the process of slashing at least $377 million, or 7.5 per cent, from the $5-billion aid budget even as other donor countries facing worse economic situations have continued to give more.
Briefing notes obtained by Postmedia News show that CIDA officials warned last year that Canada was poised to slip from 14th to 18th out of 23 donor countries in terms of gross national income devoted to foreign aid.
The government has said it is simply responding to the changing nature of international development, where business and the private sector are playing a greater role and developing countries are asking for more focus on economic development.
And it maintains what’s needed isn’t more money, but better co-ordination, transparency and accountability for what money is spent.
But the fact many of these decisions were taken in secret without any consultation or debate — including the decision to merge CIDA with Foreign Affairs — have only increased concerns.
That is why even some supporters of CIDA’s amalgamation have called for transparency as the merger unfolds to ensure foreign aid isn’t subsumed by Canadian diplomatic and trade priorities, including putting profits for Canadian companies ahead of helping the world’s poorest people.
“Now that we’ve seen that agency folded into the Department of Foreign Affairs, it’s critical that the government outline how they in fact intend to make development issues not the poor cousin of diplomacy issues, of broader foreign policy objectives, and of trade,” Engineers Without Borders policy director James Haga said earlier this month.
A number of other donor countries have also rolled international development into their broader foreign affairs departments with positive results, including Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark.
Even opposition parties say there is the potential for making a real difference by bringing CIDA into the broader foreign policy fold, though they say the way international development has been treated over the years doesn’t inspire much confidence.
“Instead of seeing it as a new dawn of promise and hope for the future, the skies are simply filled with question marks about what is going to happen,” said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar.
“Not because the idea isn’t good, but because we don’t know if the political masters who are executing this change are going to further undermine our development goals and our foreign policy objectives abroad.”