It's not yet clear how the move will affect the work of the Canadian International Development Agency, which is currently the responsibility of International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino, but the fact the minister's powers are about to be enshrined in law is seen as a positive sign for its future.
In the past, ministers in charge of CIDA haven't had the same enshrinement in law as other federal cabinet ministers.
The new department will be known as the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. Ottawa MP John Baird leads Canada's foreign affairs work, with British Columbia MP Ed Fast running international trade.
Non-governmental organizations that currently receive CIDA funding for their humanitarian and development aid projects were scheduled to have a conference call at 4:30 p.m. ET, at which time it was expected the affected groups would be briefed in some detail about the changes.
Sources inside CIDA and the Department of Foreign Affairs, however, said they didn't get any information about the move until after 5 p.m. ET, and that they learned of it through the media.
The Harper government has been reviewing and in some cases overhauling CIDA's programs for months. For example, bilateral aid programs have been revised in order to target funds more precisely and work more with the private sector.
Fantino has raised concerns about the effectiveness of current practices, stirring some controversy in January by freezing assistance to Haiti after expressing concerns over the slow progress of development in Haiti and the work of some non-governmental organizations.
International development experts have warned that humanitarian aid and long-term development assistance for third-world countries are not always neatly compatible with trade or political agendas.
A donor country seeking its own economic gains may make different decisions than one focused more on basic humanitarian assistance, human rights, democratic government or environmental protection.
A number of aid agencies said they were worried about what the change could mean for CIDA's current goal of reducing and alleviating poverty around the world.
"We are extremely concerned that this new direction for CIDA means that development assistance will be used to advance Canada's prosperity and security, rather than focusing solely on the needs and aspirations of the poor," Dave Toycen, president of World Vision Canada, said in a news release.
"There are so many voices in the world today speaking out for the needs of business and the powerful and we're concerned that those few voices that prioritize the poor risk being lost."
"We are particularly concerned about the needs of children who are living in extreme poverty and are subject to malnutrition and exploitation. Responding to their needs might not get us closer to our trade objectives. Responding to their needs might not get us closer to our foreign policy objectives. But doing so reflects the compassion of Canadians who expect Canada to be a substantive leader in responding to the needs and aspirations of the poor."
Anthony Scoggins, Oxfam's director of international programs, told Evan Solomon, host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics, that CIDA has a fundamental commitment to poverty reduction and humanitarian assistance, which "should not be compromised by self-interest."
Concrete examples of that, Scoggins said, could include how Canada chooses where to provide aid.
"It could be obviously in terms of troubled areas where there are conflicts, where Canada decides to provide humanitarian assistance or not, maybe are governed not by humanitarian need but by political interest that we see as a nation. Another example would be obviously in terms of the tie-in, not so much with foreign affairs but with international trade, the link to tying in humanitarian or development assistance to Canada's self-interest and those of our corporations."
Not the first changes at CIDA
CIDA has seen high turnover among the ministers it's had, something that has led to frequent priority changes and policy shifts.
But NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, in an interview with Solomon, said this change may not be a bad idea.
"I think that it could be a good idea if the money flows, if there's proper money for it. Administratively that could make sense. But what we're worried about is it's a way of masking what is in fact going to be a cut," Mulcair said.
The main spending estimates tabled recently showed the sunsetting of the Global Peace and Security Fund, which had a budget of $132 million in its last year. A 2011 evaluation of this fund had concluded it was effective and in line with government priorities.
Around the world, some countries include their humanitarian and development aid budgets under the auspices of their foreign ministers, such as Scandinavian countries, the CBC's Evan Solomon reports. Other countries, including those in the G8 such as the United Kingdom, maintain separate ministries to differentiate between agendas.
A confidential draft document obtained by CBC News last fall outlined the broad strokes of a foreign policy shift toward focusing Canada's international efforts primarily on one goal: forging new trade deals and business opportunities in the rapidly expanding markets of Asia and South America.
The document made scant mention of Canada's traditional roles as peacemakers in war zones like Afghanistan or foreign aid providers in disasters such as Haiti. It also did not mention using trade deals to pressure countries such as China on human rights and other matters of democratic principle.
China recently cut off from aid
The Canadian Press reported Thursday that China is one of 14 countries that will see their aid either reduced or eliminated by the end of next year as the CIDA slashes $377 million in aid spending by 2014-2015.
Critics persistently questioned why China received bilateral aid from Canada, given its economic superpower status, military muscle and increasing influence on world affairs, including a growing development budget of its own that it uses to compete with Canada for influence in regions such as Africa.
In 2010-2011, Canadian taxpayers contributed close to $30 million to China, via both bilateral and multilateral channels. Most was funnelled to capacity-building programs that worked on helping the Chinese reform their legal and environmental policy.
Other countries seeing bilateral aid budgets eliminated are Cambodia, Malawi, Nepal, Niger, Rwanda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, for a total of $39 million in savings.
Budgets for aid to Bolivia, Pakistan, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Tanzania and South Africa are being reduced to save $76 million.
Of the six countries seeing their budgets pared back, five belonged to the so-called "countries of focus," a select group of 20 nations who together received 80 per cent of Canada's international aid.
The program was started in 2009 by the Conservatives after criticisms aid was too scattershot and not reaping enough rewards either for taxpayers or for the countries in need.
But now the concept of "focus" countries seems to be falling out of favour.
Security problems and accountability issues have made many countries less attractive for direct support than they were in the past.
Meanwhile, the idea of the program is seen by the Conservatives as potentially restricting their desire to align aid spending with their declared policy priorities.
That includes focusing on helping specific industries grow in the developing world.
Aligning with commercial interests?
"We will continue to seek out innovative ways to partner with the private sector, such as the agriculture industry, so that we can achieve greater development results which are more sustainable over the long-term," Fantino said.
The New Democrat critic for international development said her concern is that aid budgets seem to shift on a whim.
"CIDA is not the minister's pet toy to do with what he wants to do with it," said Hélène Laverdière.
The non-governmental organization sector says while it would obviously like to see more international assistance spending, the real issue now is a lack of clarity on where — and how — the government wants to spend what scarce dollars remain.
It's been two years since CIDA actively solicited program ideas from the not-for-profit sector.
"Suddenly, there are no more funds available and no direction whatsoever on what to expect, and how and why," said Chantal Havard, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Council for International Co-operation.
She said some hints can be gleaned for which countries remain on the focus list — Colombia, Peru, Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh, all trading partners for Canada.
"The trend that we see is that there is more and more an alignment of Canada's commercial interests, foreign policy and the international development agenda," Havard said.Suggest a correction