OTTAWA - The seeds of the Canadian International Development Agency's demise were sown in the days before Stephen Harper was sworn in as prime minister.
After the Conservatives won power in January 2006, the veteran diplomat and public servant leading Harper's transition team recommended the merger of CIDA with Foreign Affairs, but he was slapped down by a hostile bureaucracy that included the Privy Council Office.
"It was one of the things I recommended during transition way back in 2006," Derek Burney recalled Friday in an interview.
"Have you ever watched the Yes Minister program? The bureaucratic resistance — it was not worth the fight," Burney added.
"When PCO reacted in shock and horror and all the rest, I said, 'look I'm not going to fight an organizational issue like this'."
Burney said he was pleasantly surprised to see the idea at last come to fruition in Thursday's federal budget.
And he shot back at the various non-governmental agencies that reacted with strong criticism of the Harper government's decision to fold the aid agency into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
Burney called the concerns raised by aid agencies "nonsense" and "typical whining from the NGO community," which he said relies on the government for much of its funding.
"It's a coherent decision that's going to make our assistance program more relevant to our foreign policy," said Burney, who served as Brian Mulroney's chief of staff as well as ambassador to the United States. "That's what it should be. We're not saving the world here."
Back in 2006, Burney said he had to make due with reuniting Foreign Affairs and International Trade under one department, reversing an unpopular decision by the short-lived Liberal government of Paul Martin.
"I wasn't successful then, but I put a higher priority at that time on trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again at DFAIT after Martin had tried to disintegrate the place," he said.
Harper's office declined comment Friday.
Burney said he never got the chance to discuss the idea with Harper directly in 2006, but he and others offered harsh public criticism of CIDA in the 2008 report of the Independent Panel on Canada's Future Role in Afghanistan.
The panel, led by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley, criticized the way CIDA delivered aid in Afghanistan and urged it to create "signature projects" that would be publicly branded as Canadian.
"They have their own agenda … they accept the fad of the moment," said Burney.
"For a long time, it was capacity building. How opaque is that? Hey, if you're talking about poverty, food, education, clean water, health — I understand those things."
Burney said that the United States has integrated its aid agency, USAID, into the State Department with great success.
Peter Maurer, the Geneva-based president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, was in Ottawa on Thursday for meetings at Foreign Affairs and CIDA just hours before Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's budget was tabled in Parliament.
In an interview on Friday, Maurer — whose organization is the world's largest independent humanitarian agency — said the Harper government's decision was an internal matter.
"We see a lot of shapes and forms in different countries on how you integrate or separate aid, trade, development, and humanitarian and so-called foreign policy agendas," he said. "I don't think there is one model which primes over others at the present moment.
"In Sweden, you have a strongly independent development agency. Norway, next door, has integrated much stronger, humanitarian development aid in the foreign ministry."
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Friday he looks forward to working co-operatively with Julian Fantino, the new development and humanitarian assistance minister, and International Trade Minister Ed Fast.
"We're not doing this as a cost-saving measure," Baird said. "We're doing it to deliver better and more focused development assistance.
"There's great synergy between the work we do internationally with trade and with diplomacy. I think that'll be the case with development as well."
Having CIDA operate as a separate agency created an unnecessary duplication of resources in foreign missions, said Fen Hampson, director of the global security program at the Waterloo, Ont., Centre for International Governance Innovation,
"You have your CIDA officers, you have your ambassadors, they're both doing development, but they're marching to a different set of priorities," said Hampson, who regularly writes opinion columns with Burney.
Hampson said the move will help the government meet the stated goal of the merger, to better align foreign policy, development and trade policies.
The government offered few details Friday on how the integration will play out.
Baird said the government was taking it "one step at a time," but he signalled that aid groups worried about future funding should cool their concerns.
"Any NGOs delivering good quality, effective aid will have nothing to worry about."
NDP aid critic Helene Laverdiere said Friday that the humanitarian agencies she has spoken to are divided over the merger.
"Some people don’t like the idea of moving within DFAIT," she said. "Others say it's not that terrible.
"But I think everybody is worried by what has been happening in recent years and the cuts to the funding and the lack of true leadership and the lack of respect for what is CIDA's mandate. Those are key worries."
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