In so many ways, as seasoned observers warned, it was inevitable that the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) would be facing its own mortality with the appointment of Julian Fantino as its new minister. CIDA is not a full ministry or department, but an agency -- created or abolished by the will of the Foreign Affairs Department. It was in the mid-1990s, as the Western world wrestled with international poverty and targets like the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs), that the foreign aid and development arms of governments in countries like the U.K., America and Canada raised their game.
The high water mark for funding came under the Brian Mulroney administration, when Foreign Affairs Minister Joe Clark took a highly activist role in the pursuit of international development. Then came the Chrétien government's decision to introduce CIDA as an agency with its own minister under Foreign Affairs. Subsequently, Paul Martin's commitment to double aid to Africa was viewed as a deeper refinement to Canada's commitment to the troubled regions of the world.
Alas, that was when the nation boasted of billions of dollars in surplus and committed partnerships with other G8 nations for helping the world's poor. A stubborn global economic downturn and a lowering of expectations and commitments exemplified by the Harper government's decision to freeze aid and alter downward the formula used for Paul Martin's Africa promise have sent a chill through CIDA. For well over a decade the agency has been pushed from pillar to post, reeling from the constant shifting of priorities and downsizing of funding. As one senior official informed me in Ottawa in 2011, the Agency could "no longer afford to dream of making a key difference in the lives of the world's poorest." Quietly, and with sadness, CIDA has watched many of its key personnel leave in favour of more imaginative posts in the United Nations or the NGO field.
Julian Fantino's arrival at CIDA months ago signaled that the Agency might very well be on life support. A minister who knew far more about policing than about the complexities of foreign aid and developmentwas really the last thing CIDA required if it was to remain relevant.
We learned this past week that a few months back CIDA personnel raised private concerns directly to Fantino over the political ideologies and intrusiveness of politics in the Agency's policies and practices. Especially troubling was the government's cut of almost $320 million from the Agency's budget.
The most telling observations came from seasoned CIDA personnel who observed that where decisions on aid were once made in the field, close to the action, the minister's office now exerted more direct control, often politically motivated. "The Fantino consultation was the most deeply disillusioning exercise many of us in the Agency have gone through," an official told me a month later.
The problems of exerting political control go much deeper in the Agency. Staff complain of being muzzled, even in their work with other country partners. Statements were posted on the Agency's website dissing opposition parties, in a practice that was formerly prohibited in what is supposed to be a non-partisan government arm. When Haiti's ambassador to Canada discovered from a reporter that Fantino had said he would "freeze" aid to that struggling nation, alarm spread among NGOs and repeated the earlier pattern of African ambassadors learning of CIDA cuts to their respective countries through the media. I was with the former CIDA minister at the United Nations three years ago when Canada's commitment to helping Haiti recover from the devastating earthquake was praised by all present -- including Bill and Hilary Clinton. The former president told me of how impressed he was with the level of Canada's commitment. What would he say now?
With such patterns it remains almost impossible for committed CIDA personnel to carry out the precepts of the Aid Accountability Act that had been approved in the House of Commons after Stephen Harper was elected. The world has become a different place -- leaner, less promising, and definitely meaner. That Canada has added to that perception by falling short of promises that only a short while ago appeared to signal this country's renewed commitment to the desperately poor of the world has further tarnished our image in a time when renewed hope is required more than ever.