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On the Topic of Foreign Aid, Everyone's an Expert

03/25/2013 12:05 EDT | Updated 05/25/2013 05:12 EDT
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Trivia time! Finance Minister Jim Flaherty released Canada's 2013-2014 budget on Thursday. What was the most important thing it contained?

Program cuts? Boutique tax credits? Lowered tariffs on imported hockey sticks?

Well, whatever you said, you're wrong. The correct answer, at least in the eyes of the Canadian editorial page scene, is "the restructuring of foreign aid bureaucracies."

Though buried in page 145, Flaherty's cost-cutting announcement that Canada's overseas humanitarian aid would henceforth be provided directly by the foreign ministry and not a specialized separate agency was evidently news of such significance no amount of commentary was too much -- at least in the Globe and Mail.

By my count, that esteemed pape churned out no fewer than 10 editorials on the subject within 24 hours of budget day, thereby making Canadian foreign aid restructuring the Globe's single most comment-worthy event of 2013. Certainly more important than snooze-fests like Obama's second inaugural or the Syrian civil war. I mean, there are agencies involved!

In the extraordinary unlikely case you don't already possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the bureaucratic flowchart that governs Canadian foreign policy, here's a quick backgrounder:

There's this thing in Ottawa called the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT). It makes foreign policy decisions for Canada. For example, "Canada doesn't like the Republic of Corruptistan and isn't going to give them any money." Then there's this other thing called the "Canadian International Development Agency" (CIDA). It gives money to countries that want it. The Republic of Corruptistan, perhaps.

Despite their mutual foreigner focus, the two agencies are run completely independently from each other, which can result in fun contradictions now and then. Old man Harper thinks this is bad, so he's decided CIDA's foreign aid duties should be reassigned to DFAIT and good ol' John Baird, who's gonna become Canada's first-ever minister of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. Mrs. Baird must be ecstatic.

Is this the right thing to do? Your guess is as good as mine. Luckily Canada has an abundance of people whose job it is to have opinions on this sort of thing (and a hotline to the Globe opinions editor to boot!).

Take McLeod Group foreign policy analyst Ian Smillie. He ain't too smily over this "sad day for Canada's role in the developing world." Ian thinks foreign aid is too important to be a mere "afterthought" of DFAIT's agenda, which, in his mind, mostly centers around the vulgar business of promoting "short-term Canadian commercial interests" instead of helping the poor. Mixing CIDA and DFAIT is like mixing chocolate and pretzels -- possible, but disgusting.

Bah, replies director of Munk School of Global Affairs Janice Gross Stein, there's nothing gross about ensuring Canada's foreign policy bureaucrats are all "singing from the same songbook" when it comes to deciding which countries deserve our cash. And speaking of cash, she adds, a merger is just the thing to help "push scarce dollars to the poor," since now there'll be a lot fewer "layers of vice-presidents and assistant vice-presidents" at a redundant agency to sop them up.

For what it's worth, two ex-Canadian foreign ministers agree with Janice (we're still in the Globe and Mail, BTW). Even Llyod Axworthy, the epic Canadian statesman we're all supposed to care about for some reason.

When I was foreign minister, writes Lloyd in an inspiring 191-word editorial, "I believed that we needed an integrated approach to our foreign affairs" just like the one Ottawa's pushing today. True, I didn't actually do anything to make that goal a reality, but I believed it pretty hard. Can I have another Order of Canada now?

I'm also into this CIDA "takeover," chirps Barbara McDougall, Canada's foreign minister from 1991 to 1993 who Wikipedia informs me is best known for being Canada's foreign minister from 1991 to 1993. In my day, says Babs, it was "almost a religious dogma" among CIDA-types that they should ignore DFAIT and the result was an aid department almost "totally captive to the NGO community," rather than me, Barbara McDougall. So good luck getting those cats in line, John Baird. He's got "his work cut out for him."

Landing square in the middle, meanwhile, is Global Brief editor Irvin Studin, who declares himself "perfectly agnostic" on the merger. Yeah, whatever, says Irvin, I guess this thing has "as many merits as it has demerits," but can we talk about how the Harper gang is "painfully short on good foreign policy ideas" overall? The fact that this lame-o bureaucratic rejiggering is the most exciting Canadian foreign policy development of recent years sure doesn't say much about Ottawa's interest in "making a difference in the world."

Studin thinks part of the problem lies with this country's "weak national foreign affairs culture," where there simply aren't enough Canadians gabbing and writing and caring about foreign affairs stuff, and thus "little public accountability brought to bear on governments for such poor performance."

And maybe he's right. Or, maybe Canada has a foreign affairs culture that's not weak enough, with a supply of foreign policy experts, scholars, think tanks, agencies, advisors and consultants that vastly exceeds this small country's demand, and breeds a proliferation of unrealistic expectations for what Canada can achieve internationally. And then fills our newspapers with indignant essays when we don't measure up.

To put it another way, all these people are presumably getting some sorta pay cheque. And they're all debating foreign aid.

This started out as a budget matter, right?

Ottawa Shuts Down CIDA