Why merging CIDA into Foreign Affairs strengthens Canada’s aid program

Scott Gilmore explains why it makes good sense to put the team in the same locker room
Scott Gilmore
Syrian refugee children pose at a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Yayladagi in Hatay province June 9, 2011. More than 2,400 people have crossed Turkey’s borders fleeing violence in northern Syria, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Thursday. REUTERS/Osman Orsal (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which provides humanitarian relief and fights poverty overseas, is being merged with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. While most Canadians would see this as a boring bureaucratic footnote, a precious few believe it to be the death of “Canada the Good.” Both views are wrong.

CIDA spends approximately $4 billion a year in some of the world’s poorest countries. This money has saved or changed the lives of millions, providing access to AIDS treatments, building schools, and strengthening emerging democracies. In many parts of the world, like rural Afghanistan, CIDA is Canada’s calling card. A significant change to this agency is not meaningless; it will affect a great number of people and the way we are viewed as a nation.

But this particular change is a good one, and marks a strengthening of our aid program, not its destruction.  For years, people inside and outside the Canadian government have complained about the lack of co-ordination between the CIDA and other agencies. I remember listening to a CIDA staffer explain to me once: “It may be a government of Canada priority, but it is not a CIDA priority.” In some of our embassies, the development and diplomat staff would work in respectful ignorance of each other. In others, it was openly hostile.

This changed significantly in recent years, heralded by the successful “Whole of Government” or “3D” approach in Afghanistan, where defence, development and diplomatic staff lived and worked together. The results were sometimes mixed, but there was a consensus that everyone came out ahead. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in its peer review of CIDA, applauded this approach and recommended that it be applied more broadly. If the teammates need to co-ordinate better, putting them in the same locker room is a logical step.

Diplomats won’t be the only other ones in that locker room. The new expanded department also includes International Trade. Right now, foreign direct investment into Africa is now larger than aid transfers. This increased trade, much of it coming from Canadian mining companies, is what is winning the war on poverty. The merger will allow CIDA to work with Trade Commissioners to ensure this investment does as much good as possible for those living at the base of the economic pyramid.

Critics are calling for CIDA to be left alone, or even to be moved out as an arms-length agency. They mistake the aid industry for a sacrosanct priesthood. While the bureaucrats in CIDA do good work, it’s not holy altruism. Their developmental goals can still be reached while also supporting Canadian foreign policy and trade objectives. It is not a zero-sum game.

This reality is being recognized by the British and other European aid agencies who have adopted similar approaches. Ironically, this idea has been kicking around Ottawa for more than 15 years and has been proposed to previous governments. In a typically Canadian way, we waited until someone else adopted our good ideas, before we found the courage to do the same.

Scott Gilmore is the Founder of the social enterprise Building Markets and is a frequent critic of the aid industry.