Canadian International Development Agency CIDA under attack (from its own government Minister)
The Harper government seems to be planning a hatchet job on the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and it looks like Bev Oda, the minister in charge of the agency, is wielding the axe. At first glance, this might sound far-fetched. After all, the Conservatives have been increasing the foreign aid budget steadily since they were elected. Last year, Canada spent more than $5 billion on aid, a record high. Along with the recent doubling of assistance to Africa and a promise to untie aid completely, these achievements and promises signal a firm commitment to helping poor countries.
Or do they?
Gone are the days when Ms. Oda bragged about CIDA's expertise and excellent results. In a recent interview in Embassy magazine, she suddenly went on the attack. CIDA lacked in-house technical expertise, she said. She complained that the agency, for instance, did not have a single health specialist whom she could consult regarding a proposed new health project. This statement came as quite a shock for the five or more health experts at CIDA. In an even more shocking statement, Ms. Oda claimed that CIDA employees and its NGO partners only looked at how much could be spent, not what results would be achieved. In fact, CIDA and the organizations it funds are required to use a tool known as "results-based management." It is simply impossible to focus only on inputs. As minister-in-charge of CIDA for almost two years, she has to be aware of this.
Why the sudden and patently unfair attacks on the agency she is in charge of? This is probably part of a deliberate government strategy to discredit the agency prior to freezing or even cutting its funding. Ms. Oda appears to be laying the groundwork with a smear campaign that will unfold in the coming weeks and months. Tellingly, the minister also stated in her interview with Embassy that there would be â€śno new major injections of funding until she is satisfied the agency is working properly." Given the current recession-induced deficit, the next federal budget could enact harsher measures.
Ms. Oda's unfair attack on her own agency is but the latest installment in the gradual undermining of the humanitarian principles of foreign aid. For the past few years, in a process that began under the Paul Martin Liberals, the government has been steadily shifting its justification and use of foreign aid. First, aid is being taken away from those who need it most. Now that the target of doubling aid has been achieved, the government will shift its focus to the Americas. A few months ago, it announced that it was dropping eight African countries identified as recently as 2005 as priority recipients of Canadian aid.
Second, decisions are being based on the benefit to Canada rather than to the recipients themselves. Last month, CIDA President Margaret Biggs openly told her audience at Simon Fraser University that Canadian foreign policy objectives were one of three criteria used to determine where CIDA should concentrate its assistance. CIDA will now focus on several Latin American countries with which Canada has been negotiating or recently signed a free-trade agreement.
This is being done in spite of the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act, also known as the Better Aid Bill or C-293, a law that stipulates that all Canadian foreign aid must focus primarily on poverty alleviation. Basing aid on donor self-interest, rather than recipient need, contradicts the very principles of aid effectiveness, just like tied aid, a practice that Canada is finally abandoning. Rather insidiously, Ms. Oda invokes aid effectiveness to justify changes to Canadian policies. This is an Orwellian use of the term. For aid to be effective, there is a general consensus that, among other things, it should be aligned with the planning mechanisms of recipient countries and that the flows should be predictable.
Canada committed itself to these principles when it signed the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness in 2005. In practice, with the constant changes in Canadian policies and priorities, Canadian aid flows are increasingly volatile. Similarly, when Canada prioritizes prominent stand-alone â€śsignature projectsâ€ť to elicit gratitude or otherwise promote our supposed national interests, the effectiveness of our aid suffers. By all means, let's criticize CIDA for its deficiencies and seek to improve policies and practices. Let's not, however, be fooled by lies and unfair distortions and let politicians use them as excuses for cutting assistance to those who need it most.
*Stephen Brown is an Associate Professor of political science at the University of
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