CIDA could only exist in an ideal world

Thursday’s federal budget marked the end of an era in Canada’s approach to foreign aid with the merging of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). To some this might seem like just another bureaucratic shuffle, meaningless in the broad scheme of things. To others, in the NGO community in particular, who rely on CIDA funding to do their jobs, this move represents the end of the world as they know it.
For the public servants who have to execute this merger it will be a bureaucratic nightmare that makes major corporate takeovers pale by comparison. The new ministry will likely take years to jell into an effective organization.
The last big bureaucratic merger Ottawa went through was the post-911 attempt to create a Canadian version of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, when the Martin government established Public Safety Canada by merging the Department of the Solicitor General and its associated agencies, with the Border Services Agency and the Office of Critical Infrastructure and Emergency Preparedness. That new super ministry took years to come together effectively. Some claim it still has teething problems a decade later.
The last time a shotgun marriage of this scale was attempted in the foreign relations machinery was in the early 1980s when Trade, Immigration and External Affairs were merged by the Trudeau government to create what was popularly known as the Three Headed Monster.
It is a truism that smashing together big bureaucracies does not make for snap efficiencies — the new organizations can take years to deliver on the promise of their architects. This is particularly the case when you are dealing with departments or agencies with strong cultures, rigid ways of doing business, and vocal clientele groups, all attributes that apply to CIDA.
From the time it was founded as an independent agency in 1968, CIDA was always a horse of a different colour. It was mandated to work multilaterally outside the traditional strictures of foreign policy. The president who saw CIDA through its formative years in the 1970s, Paul Gérin-Lajoie, nurtured a very different — practically monastic — culture from that of the traditional Ottawa foreign affairs apparatus. Whether as a Crown agency or reporting through a minister as it did in later years, CIDA always staked the claim that it defined Canadian development interests. The fact that CIDA was parked across the river from Fort Pearson reinforced its independence from the mother ship.
The CIDA culture and mandate may have been high-minded in the best “soft-power” tradition, but this was always a roadblock to getting the agency focused on the same objectives that the prime minister and the foreign affairs and defence ministers might have been pursuing. In the post-Cold War period in particular, when Canada has been involved in numerous international peace and security operations, foreign affairs and defence ministers often saw CIDA as a critical instrument of broader foreign policy that needed to conform better to their priorities. CIDA frequently resisted this.
During the early years of Canada’s involvement in Kandahar, for example, the tension between CIDA and DFA/DND priorities became increasingly clear. Afghanistan was not initially a top priority for CIDA, even though it was the government’s central foreign and defence policy preoccupation. The CIDA minister often clashed with the foreign and defence ministers, as a result. The Afghanistan fault line might have marked the beginning of the end of an independent CIDA.
There is an inescapable reality now that runs contrary to CIDA’s culture and history. Namely, when your soldiers and diplomats are heavily and routinely involved on the ground in failed and failing states, they more often than not need money delivered quickly and efficiently to aid and reconstruction projects in those countries — so-called high-impact projects — to maximize Canada’s effectiveness. That is what that tired old “3-Ds” (the integration of defence, diplomacy and development) notion is all about. Unfortunately, neither DFA nor DND have discretionary budgets or authorities for this purpose. CIDA is the only existing pot of money for such things, even if it really isn’t set up for that purpose.
In an ideal world, CIDA would be left to its own devices to fight global poverty, and Foreign Affairs and National Defence would have a separate fund they could tap to advance Canada’s broader foreign interests, particularly in places where the Canadian Forces are deployed. That ideal world has never existed, and it certainly doesn’t exist in the age of austerity. And that is probably one of the central reasons for the government’s decision to merge CIDA with Foreign Affairs and thereby bring a 45 year experiment in Canadian foreign aid policy and administration to an end.