The merger between CIDA and DFAIT announced last Thursday in the Federal budget has been almost universally applauded in the Canadian media…
It is claimed that integration will improve development and foreign policy coherence, advance a progressive trade agenda, expand access to the corridors of power and increase aid’s focus and efficiency. Integration with DFAIT is portrayed as the only cure to solve Canada’s aid woes. It is simply not.
This government is prescribing Canadian aid with the wrong medicine. Global evidence points to the value of empowering independent development ministries to achieve real development results, not just through big bang restructuring but also through real changes in policies and political commitments. In an environment where aid policy is increasingly skewed to service domestic and commercial interests, this merger is bound to dilute Canadian development commitments so that it serves the interests of private and parochial constituencies rather than the world’s poor.
Here is the evidence.
In the UK, development policy is implemented through an independent Department for International Development (DFID) since 1997. This restructuring was accompanied with the appointment of a strong-willed Minister committed to using aid money to achieve development good. As a Minister, she had a seat at the Cabinet table, and so had the power and the courage to badger the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance whenever development policy was getting the short end of the stick. She also had a Parliamentary Committee entirely devoted to pushing excellence in development policy. Gleneagles. Make Poverty History. The Commission on Africa. All of this originates from moving development to the heart of government.
The UK aid budget became a potent tool, funding development research, building a storehouse of knowledge and experience, and putting DFID on the map as an aid agency that knew the difference between digging wells and building effective states. It supported multilateral institutions like the World Bank, merging its funding with theirs to improve efficiency in aid distribution but also strengthening its global voice on development policy.
DFID lobbied and won exceptionalism from Treasury fiscal rules, allowing it to make long-term financial pledges to projects that sought to address the causes of poverty rather than just treating the symptoms. It also began to directly fund the central budgets of aid recipients and NGOs located in developing countries, actors closer to the beneficiaries who better knew the needs and wants of local communities than any expat. Independence and political championship gave it the courage to implement legislation with real teeth, making it illegal for narrow special interests to overwhelm its development aims.
DFID improved staff morale by attracting top civil service recruits, young people motivated by a powerful mission to help but no longer encumbered by the legacies of British colonial history. It decentralized staff all over the world and gave them more authority to disburse funds, trusting them to do this well rather than monitoring their every move and burdening them with forms to fill for their London-based managers.
Since 1997, DFID has skyrocketed to the top of international rankings of donor agencies. Make no mistake, it has had its problems and still continues to have them. Nevertheless, independence from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office gave DFID the space to flex its political muscles. A powerful minister will always be attracted to a powerful ministry. Making DFID more autonomous was the bedrock for enhancing political commitments to development, which in turn has turned both the agency, and the UK, into a world-class center for all things development.
Compare this to Norway and you see why Canada’s making a huge mistake with this merger. In 2004, Norway’s development directorate, NORAD was merged into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The move was largely motivated by bureaucratic politics at the time, especially the desire to rein in NORAD, which had both autonomy and a global profile that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs lusted after.
Integration has come with real reasons to believe that Norway suffers from “doublethink.” Aid is used more than ever to cultivate its geopolitical aims, especially in NATO and the Arctic. Aid has been dangled as a carrot in front of fragile governments in Angola to land lucrative commercial contracts for Norway in its Oil-for-Development Programme. Its trade policy is among the most self-serving of OECD nations, with high tariffs on agricultural products and high levels of domestic agricultural subsidies minimizing possibilities for exports from the Global South. Policy coherence has become a euphemism for development policy dilution and advancing other, more vested, interests.
The merger has also been financially costly, increasing contract administration in embassies and worsening operational dispersion. Yet, these costs have remained hidden from view because of Norway’s rising aid budget that has surpassed the 0.7% global aid target. Norway is now officially the most generous donor in the OECD.
In the absence of a rising budget as in Norway or strong political obligations to development like in the UK, the decision to merge CIDA with DFAIT is a grave mistake. The real travesty is that it could have been wholly avoidable if Canada bothered to make policy with the benefit of global evidence.
Nilima Gulrajani is Senior Researcher at the Global Economic Governance Programme at the University of Oxford.