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CIDA's Death Leaves a Foreign Aid Skeleton

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The young agency didn't even make it into its 20s. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) burst into public notice with the announcement of its first minister in 1995. Sadly, with yesterday's Conservative budget, CIDA suffered a premature passing.

Prior to that moment in 1995, Canada's foreign aid and development projects and policies were worked out and monitored under the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Yet under Brian Mulroney's government, and in partnership with Foreign Affairs Minister Joe Clark, government commitment to the world's needy took on a far more prominent role and Clark made it a matter of principle to ensure that the world understood that this country took its role in foreign aid seriously.

It was a time of new perspective, as donor nations like Sweden, Britain, and the United States began to put more emphasis on destitute poverty. The time seemed right for some kind of breakthrough. It occurred in the 1990s, when those governments mentioned above opted to provide their foreign aid officers with money, access, and most important of all, their own separate profiles in the forms of new agencies or full-blown departments.

Canada wasn't far behind. Building on the Mulroney/Clark foundation, Jean Chretien made CIDA its own agency and provided it with its first minister. There were growing pains, to be sure, but the decision by the G7 nations at the Kannanaskis summit, chaired by Jean Chretien, to concentrate their efforts on Africa, saw the building of a global poverty alleviation movement that ultimately resulted in the United Nations Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) and Canada's own promise, under Paul Martin, to double Canadian aid to Africa at the Gleneagles summit in 2005. Suddenly being international was cool again.

For a time following the Bush Jr., David Cameron and Stephen Harper electoral wins it appeared as though the trend might continue. It wasn't to be. Canada, Britain and the Americans maintained high levels of donations but in a boutique fashion that ultimately undermined the holistic pursuits of the MDGs and their emphasis on a coordinated approach across different sectors.

In my time as a Member of Parliament and Opposition critic for CIDA (2006-2011), it was becoming increasingly clear that the prior efforts of Mulroney/Clark and Chretien/Martin held little appeal to the new Conservative government. They lifted two of the MDGs -- child and maternal health, and food distribution -- from the more complex goals and opted to pursue them in a fashion that was skewing the growing coordination of foreign aid and development aims of previous governments. It wasn't a good time.

Through my office in West Block flooded an ongoing stream of non-government organizations and their leaders fretting that the kind of imagination and ingenuity required to deliver foreign aid effectively was badly slipping. They were right, of course, but in Ottawa everything is political, not necessarily rational, and they couldn't get a hearing from the government.

Worst of all was what was running through the minds of CIDA workers themselves. Their ship had hit an iceberg, and being the professionals they were, they comprehended that it was perhaps fatal, even if others refused to acknowledge it.

Well, they were right, too. Some CIDA workers learned of the Agency's demise in yesterday's budget through a memo released earlier that day. There was little preparation for it, and even less understanding of what this would signal to our international partners and recipient nations worldwide.

They had watched in growing alarm as Canada continued to shrink in international standings. While Canadians and their government clung to the belief that they were fine because their economy might have been doing better than other nations, their international partners could see the writing on the wall, especially when Canada was denied its seat on the UN Security Council.

Above all else, CIDA was part of an idea that was emerging in numerous countries at the same time and which introduced a new era of Canadian compassion to the world. It was smarter, keener, cooler and substantial. Yesterday, the dream ended.

Many of us knew it was coming, but its axing in the budget is a far more significant blow to this country's reputation that the Harper government realizes. Very good men and women in CIDA had built solid and progressive relationships with their partners in other countries, and though Canada's foreign aid will continue in various capacities, the dream of the kind of international interventions of compassion that made a clear and multi-dimensional difference is over.

While I mourn CIDA's passing, my ultimate grief is felt for all those qualified men and women in the Agency, who, despite all the odds, struggled to make our compassion known. They deserved better, as did the country.

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