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Why We Shouldn't Mourn CIDA

03/28/2013 12:39 EDT | Updated 05/28/2013 05:12 EDT

When I first heard about the dismantling of the Canadian International Development Agency in the government's recent budget, I was rather dismayed. This is, after all, an agency with a very noble and commendable mandate, namely to "support development in developing countries in order to reduce poverty and contribute to a more secure, equitable, and prosperous world."

Having worked for an NGO in Sri Lanka, the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, I'm aware of the immense importance of international aid for grassroots organizations trying to make a positive difference in developing countries. Nonetheless, upon delving into the issue further, it became clear that my initial reaction was quite misguided.

International aid from Canada is not coming to an end; the budget has merely initiated the merging of CIDA with the Department of Foreign Affairs. The aim is not to slash aid, but rather to have a more synergized approach to its deliverance in developing countries.

Canada's former ambassador to the United States, Derek Burney, described this as a "coherent decision that's going to make our assistance program more relevant to our foreign policy." The idea of the Harper government is that instead of handing out money as per the latest fad, as Burney alleged CIDA currently does in an interview this past friday, Canada's billions of dollars of aid should be distributed as per a specific focus, allowing us to consistently work towards specific goals until we achieve success.

Although critics, such has Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, have shown concern about the merger, stating that he'd "like to make sure that this is not the beginning of the end of Canada's official development assistance," such concern is utterly unwarranted.

This merger does not constitute a withdrawal of commitment towards providing foreign aid for those who need it most; it is simply the bureaucratic overhaul of an entity Professor Barry Cooper of the University of Calgary described to me as "an administrative mess." In fact, Dr. Cooper stated that the merging of these two innately correlated agencies, as successfully redone with foreign affairs and international trade in 2006, shall actually make the deliverance of aid "more rational."

Dr. Joerg Friedrichs of Oxford University, who taught me about the Politics of NGOs at a graduate seminar at Harvard this past summer, concurs "incorporating a country's international development agency into foreign policy apparatus can improve efficiency and upward accountability of development NGOs, which will be forced to operate more coherently in support of a country's foreign policy agenda."

Nevertheless, the professor did indeed caution that, by the same token, "this may reduce the downward accountability of these very same NGOs to the beneficiaries or targets of their activities which in turn may impair efficacy." He went on to say that "ultimately, there is a careful balance to be struck between the legitimate desire of a country like Canada to make sure that the development NGOs that it funds are upwardly accountable to Canadian decision makers (and, ideally, taxpayers) on the one hand, and on the other hand the need to give NGOs enough leeway to do what's possible and what's reasonable in local contexts that are difficult to understand from the vantage point of an imaginary foreign policy czar in a far-away capital."

Dr. Friedrichs concluded "there is nothing wrong in principle with the idea of bringing CIDA into the fold of the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs but it's important that the agencies involved understand that too much streamlining can be counterproductive."

Although too much streamlining can no doubt be counterproductive, as made clear by the Oxford lecturer from the department of International Development, an utter lack of synergy has proven to be so as well.

In the past, separate agencies and departments of the Canadian government would hardly communicate with each other, resulting in varying messages being sent out by the government in recipient countries. CIDA has been known to often operate wholly independently, absent collaboration with other relevant departments, especially the DFAIT.

In an effort to rectify this, there will now be a newly named Department of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Development, through which Canada will finally be able to provide a consistent message and focus towards international policy around the world. With trade interests, the development sector and the foreign affairs office working together, achieving positive and sustainable results will become far more feasible.

University of Calgary political science professor, Thomas Flanagan, who has served as an advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the past, summarized the matter to me in but a few words. "It makes sense for foreign aid to be part of the international relations department," he wrote in reply to an email. "Foreign aid should be a tool of foreign policy, carried out in Canada's national interest."

Dr. Flanagan makes a very important point in that the over three billion dollars that we spend on CIDA every year should be spent with Canadian interests in mind. Canadians are fortunate enough to live in a developed country in relative well-being, however taking this for granted and spending money in a way that could detrimentally affect national interests should not be accepted. This is taxpayer money after all, which is being shipped out across the world. Although we are a country and people with a steadfast commitment towards using our resources to uplift those not as fortune as us, it should not be done at a risk to our national interest.

The merger of CIDA with DFAIT ensures the money our government spends internationally will be more focused, effective and better reflect and preserve the national interests of Canada. Although the mandate of CIDA was undoubtedly commendable, the bureaucratic structure in which this mandate operated was not.

With the restructuring initiated through the recent budget, Canada will be able to effectively "support development in developing countries in order to reduce poverty and contribute to a more secure, equitable, and prosperous world," while keeping its own national interests in mind.

Budget Highlights 2013