Canada’s International Development Agency Is No Longer; Maybe That’s Not Such A Bad Thing

Since last Thursday, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is no longer. The Canadian government has decided to integrate the agency into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), which will now be called the Department of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Development (Acronym TBD!).

Canada plays an important role in global development. It is the eighth largest contributor to foreign aid in the world, giving about $5.4 billion in official development assistance last year. A bureaucratic reshuffle in Ottawa could have profound impacts on the global development landscape writ large.

So far, this move has been mostly hailed as a positive step towards improving the efficiency and logic of Canadian engagements abroad, including by some of Canada’s most progressive and liberal thinkers. The integration of CIDA into DFAIT is a sign of the times – indeed, international development in 2013 is not the same as it was in the 80s, 90s, and, arguably, even at the turn of the new millennium. To be sure, famines, natural disasters, conflicts and poverty are and will continue to be issues that require humanitarian responses by a country like Canada. But in a world in which the most rapid economic growth is happening in developing countries; where huge strides toward improving child and maternal health have been realized in recent years; and where increasing local capacity, educational attainment and institutional changes are paving the way for locally-led development, the role of development aid must necessarily shift as well.

Most of the positive commentary emanating from Canadian analysts focuses on the potential for improved policy coherence. Since last summer, when Julian Fantino – a controversial, conservative career police officer-turned-politician – replaced Bev Oda at the helm of the agency, CIDA has been consolidating a shift towards increasing cooperation with the private sector to achieve development aims, and uninhibited about the need to ensure that development aid benefits not only its intended beneficiaries, but also Canadian interests.  In Burkina Faso, for example, CIDA partnered with Plan Canada and extractive company Iamgold to fund skills training and education projects in the country, a decision which has been fraught with consequences for the NGO. But these types of private-public partnerships, we know, can be very effective – if the right balance is struck between development goals and the interests of the private partner.

Indeed, as Roland Paris points out in his commentary for the Globe & Mail, integrating Canada’s development agency under foreign affairs, along with international trade, can be beneficial, so long as policy direction is clear. Furthermore, as several commentators and analysts have noted, having a rational, coherent, comprehensive approach to foreign policy which includes diplomacy, trade and aid is desirable, particularly given the changing face of global affairs and international relations.

In a way, the decision to integrate development into foreign affairs reflects an understanding that development aid is not a stand-alone activity on the sidelines of international affairs. Development aid has gone through many incarnations over the last few decades, not just in Canada, but throughout the Western world, and the current trend seeks to frame of development as empowerment and not as charity. The absorption of CIDA into the Department of Foreign Affairs should help reframe Canadian development aid in this forward-thinking manner, and should also help reduce siloing and improve efficiency and impact.

That said, for development aid to be meaningful, it should not merely be relegated to second – or third, in this case –  fiddle, and should not always be trounced by commercial or political interests. How this delicate balance will be achieved, and maintained, is likely the biggest challenge ahead for the new Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Development.

[NB The Globe & Mail has put together an excellent feature on the integration of CIDA into DFAIT, bringing together some of Canada’s leading voices on international affairs. Highly recommended for additional perspectives.]