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The Mandate of Poverty Reduction Must Not Be Lost in CIDA's Merger

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In yesterday's budget the government announced that Canada's International Development Agency (CIDA) will be merged within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT). A new Department -- possibly with the amusing acronym DFATD -- will be created, although we have no idea how soon and at what cost.

Let's be clear: placing CIDA within DFAIT is not, in principle, a bad idea. In fact, this kind of arrangement has worked fairly well in other countries, including Norway, the Netherlands, and Ireland -- all respected international donors with strong records.

However, for this to produce effective results, the international assistance programme must have a strong development mandate, a strong Minister with cabinet support, and a strong aid budget. In the context of the Conservatives' dismal record on aid, there are reasons to be worried on all of these fronts. As a result, Canadians can hardly have confidence that this structural change will strengthen the place of development in foreign policy, as it should. It's more likely to be a disappearing act.

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The issue of mandate is key. First, by law, CIDA and DFAIT have different mandates. According to the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act (ODAAA), passed by Parliament in 2008, Canada's development assistance must contribute to poverty reduction, take into account the perspectives of the poor, and be consistent with international human rights standards. This is distinct from the mandate of DFAIT, which is to promote Canada's interests abroad. The merger of these departments must be done without watering down CIDA's mandate.

But there is little respect for the mandate shown to date. In recent months we have witnessed a shift in focus with Minister Julian Fantino pushing partnerships with the private sector -- mainly the extractive industry -- and suggesting that CIDA's goal should be to open new markets for Canada. Cultivating trade opportunities is important, but the promotion of trade priorities is not the business of CIDA, and it should not be its mandate.

There is also the question of appropriate funding, which is essential for aid effectiveness. The merger is even more problematic if it will be accompanied by further reductions in Canadian development assistance. This week, the United Kingdom announced in its budget that it will reach its 0.7 per cent of GNI target in ODA -- while Canada is falling below 0.3 per cent of GNI, approaching record lows. New Democrats have long advocated for Canada to set a schedule to achieve our 0.7 per cent of GNI UN target for aid. Alongside Canada's NGOs and the Reverse the Cuts campaign, we have called for a reversal of the damaging cuts made to Canada's International Assistance Envelope in last year's budget -- $377 million over three years.

Leadership also matters. Since his appointment as the Minister for CIDA, Julian Fantino has shown a lack of leadership and understanding of his role. To take but one example, he has admitted to not knowing the principles of the OECD Paris Declaration of donors, which is central to CIDA's work . CIDA -- or its new incarnation within DFAIT -- needs a strong Minister who understands the purpose of development assistance.

We also need a leader who will be able to deliver. Under the Conservatives, we have seen delays in funding approvals and a non-transparent and infrequent process for calls for proposals. We worry that, in the new department, these trends could get worse.

To deliver, the Minister must consult with others. In this respect, it is sad but predictable that this merge came as a complete surprise to CIDA and DFAIT staff, given that last year's closure of Rights & Democracy was revealed to staff only via a press release. More worrisome is the complete lack of consultation with Canada's international development partners, including the NGOs who implement much of CIDA's funding. Many questions remain on the time frame for the transition and the impact on upcoming partnerships, and rumours are flying that the government will abandon its countries-of-focus approach. To perform well, Canada's aid sector needs predictability and real answers. The Harper government's lack of transparency is, frankly, inexcusable.

The Conservatives also noted in yesterday's budget that they will "enshrine in law" the Minister's responsibilities. This could be good news, if it builds upon the ODA Accountability Act. But here again, given the Conservatives' refusal to enforce the Act and their turn away from our international commitments, we can hardly trust them when it comes to legislating action on global poverty. In the end, this merger will only be as good as the government leading it. Considering that the Conservatives have spent the last seven years making a mess of our international reputation, we hold out little hope for this latest move.