Ottawa’s elimination of CIDA brand signals end of a foreign-aid era

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino during a September, 2012, visit to a school in Mentao Refugee Camp in Burkina Faso run by CARE with CIDA support. (ACDI/CIDA)

Ottawa is moving swiftly to eliminate a brand that has been the face of Canada’s international development efforts since 1968, marking a fundamental shift in the country’s approach to development and foreign aid.

The Canadian International Development Agency was formally merged into a new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development this week when the government’s omnibus budget bill became law. While Canada’s development work will retain CIDA’s poverty-alleviation mandate, it will also become increasingly integrated with the government’s foreign policy and trade objectives.

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The merger comes as CIDA looks to strengthen its ties with the private sector, which it says is essential to lifting people out of poverty. The agency recently posted a new e-mail address for use by companies interested in collaborating on development projects and has promised that new private sector-focused opportunities would be made available “in the coming months.”

The decision to merge CIDA’s work with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has prompted criticism from some international development experts, who worry the move will affect how Canadian foreign-aid dollars are spent, tipping the scales to place greater emphasis on foreign policy and commerce objectives than poverty alleviation and humanitarian relief.

International Development Minister Julian Fantino has made it clear in the past that he believes aid should advance Canada’s interests. And a message sent by ministers to staff at the new department on Wednesday says the government expects the new department to “vigorously promote and defend Canadian interests and values abroad.”

Ian Smillie, a consultant and a founder of the Canadian aid group Inter Pares, said he is concerned that the focus of the merger frequently seems to be on what development can do to advance the government’s other objectives.

“I don’t hear any talk from the Trade Minister or [Foreign Affairs Minister] John Baird, for that matter, about how trade and foreign policy are going to advance the purposes of our official development assistance. It’s all in the other direction,” he said.

But others have voiced support for the change, which they say could increase the potential impact of Canada’s development efforts abroad. Scott Gilmore, CEO of the not-for-profit organization Building Markets, debated the merits of the merger with Mr. Smillie earlier this year in a conference organized by the Canadian Association of International Development Professionals.

He said trade already plays a greater role in reducing global poverty than development. “Being able to put CIDA staff in the [Department of Foreign Affairs] building means that those trade commissioners are now going to understand how to make their trade deals more pro-poor, and how they can use tariff reductions, for example, in sub-Saharan Africa as a major catalyst for agricultural growth,” Mr. Gilmore said on Wednesday.

CIDA has already established partnerships with mining companies and non-governmental organizations, and Mr. Fantino recently told the Mining Association of Canada that there are “huge opportunities” for the industry to work with Canada in developing countries.

The agency also works with small- and medium-sized businesses in developing countries and has indicated that it will continue to fund microfinance projects through its private-sector work.

This week, links to CIDA’s website were changed to direct users to a splash page for the newly amalgamated department. And while web pages containing more detailed information about Canada’s development and aid efforts retained the same look as CIDA’s former website, references to the agency’s name are gradually being removed.

At the same time, CIDA staff are switching over to new e-mail addresses, and signage outside the agency’s Gatineau, Que., building now bears the name of the amalgamated department.

Aileen Carroll, who was a minister of international co-operation under Paul Martin’s Liberal government, said CIDA – and the aspect of Canada that the agency represented – will be missed. “The brand once was a good brand,” she said, adding, “Whenever I was overseas, I certainly felt that there was a lot of cachet to that name.”

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