Who owns Canada’s aid policy?
by David Carment, Teddy Samy, and Rachael Calleja
October 23, 2013
In the few years that preceded its demise, the now-defunct Canadian International Development Agency had been cited as one of the poorest international performers in fragmentation and policy coherence.
In a 2008 paper, William Easterly and Tobias Pfutze ranked Canada in the bottom 20th percentile for aid fragmentation among the largest 40 bilateral and multilateral donors.
One of the key challenges that historically threatened the coherence of Canadian aid policy was its inability to focus on specific priority countries and sectors. Efforts to reduce fragmentation through channeling more aid to fewer priority countries did not really work, as our aid dollars continued to be spread thinly across more than 120 countries during the last decade.
Today the challenges facing the coherence of Canadian aid extend beyond any single determinant of fragmentation. While reducing the number of priority recipients and sectors promises to lessen fragmentation through improving the concentration of aid, problems associated with Canada’s aid policy remain grounded in larger government priorities and broader policy incoherence.
Indeed, without wider policy change, in terms of improved policy alignment between Canadian foreign, commercial, and developmental interests, challenges associated with fragmentation will continue to render Canadian aid less effective than it could be.
For example, consider that the most significant difference between the CIDA merger, and the transitions undertaken by the UK’s Department for International Development and Norway’s Agency for Development Cooperation, is the absence of a clear, transparent and coherent political vision for development programs from the Canadian government.
In the case of both DFID and NORAD, the relative success of each institutional arrangement and the ability for each agency to transition without subordinating development objectives to the Foreign Office and Ministry of Foreign Affairs respectively, were grounded in a strong and clearly articulated development vision from within their governments.
For DFID, the strong emphasis on poverty reduction taken by the Labour government, which was formalized in a series of White Papers, raised the profile of development priorities and ensured that the Foreign Office supported development efforts, rather than exclusively commercial and strategic interests. Similarly, Norway’s explicit attempt to politicize aid in efforts to support foreign policy priorities clearly and unequivocally subordinated development policy to foreign policy interests.
Historically, the Canadian government has failed to clearly define a strategic focus for Canadian aid, opting instead to forward an ever-changing list of priority sectors and preferred recipients. In terms of policy, the absence of a clear mandate for development policy objectives has exposed the development agenda, making it vulnerable to usurpation by the larger, and presumably more clearly oriented, Foreign Affairs agenda.
If we accept the argument that the old department of foreign affairs and international trade has historically maintained ties with as many partner countries as possible, arguing that Canada cannot afford to ignore any part of the world, then the potential for fragmentation in Canadian development assistance appears to be more likely after the merger.
Additionally, a further difference between CIDA, DFID and NORAD is the absence of strong political leadership and clear institutional vision supporting the merger from within the Canadian government. Interestingly, the merger of CIDA with foreign affairs appears to have been curiously devoid of any real leadership, which raises questions for the effectiveness of the change, particularly concerning the ability for (what was) CIDA to retain ownership over development programming within the larger ministry structure.
Indeed, in the absence of clear policy goals for development, the lack of leadership provides a further threat to the coherence of Canadian development policies, leaving Canadian aid without a clear voice or political agenda to drive development policies and to ensure that development priorities are not overshadowed by strategic interests.
As long as the role of foreign aid remains undefined, policy incoherence will persist and hinder the Canadian government’s ability to focus aid policy, regardless of the organizational structure that supports it.
David Carment is the editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal and a CDFAI Fellow. Teddy Samy is an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University and a fellow of the North-South Institute. Rachael Calleja is a doctoral student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.