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Is Changing Canada's International Development Policy Possible?



Notes for panel remarks by Hon. David Kilgour



Engineers Without Borders (EWB) National Conference

Westin Hotel


26 January 2007


The overall theme of your conference is how organizations like EWB and individuals can achieve government policy changes in the field of international development. I think this really means dealing with CIDA and the roughly $3 billion it currently spends on programs and projects yearly.

Permit me first to make a couple of references to the External Voices Project, which was written a few years ago by Robert Greenhill, who has since become President of CIDA.

First, however, an anecdote about Greenhill himself. Shortly after he assumed office about two years ago, Inter-Pares, the respected NGO, was desperate about renewed funding for the back pack medics on the Thai-Burma border, who do such important work in saving lives inside Burma. Someone faxed a letter to the new CEO about the matter. Within about twenty minutes, Greenhill personally called the sender to say that he’d have a decision the next day. He did and the funding replenishment was done on time for the annual conference of the medics. That was a large breath of fresh air for all who know CIDA.

Here are a few conclusions from Greenhill’s report about CIDA’s and Canada’s development and diplomatic practices:

It cited three essentials missing from Canada’s approaches in recent years:

* first, a willingness to make clear choices;
* second, a consistency in those choices and relationships over time;
* and, third, a determination to build world-class assets in the particular areas in which we choose to lead.

Development experts from the developing world, Europe and the U.S. told Greenhill that during the 1990s Canada lost leadership on many issues, including education and gender issues. Funding was identified as one of the major causes; our official development assistance declined to a low of 0.24 percent of GDP from 0.5 percent a decade earlier. In dollar amounts spent yearly, Canada is now only spending half as much as the Netherlands, having a much smaller population.

A second reason for problems with development he was told is that Canada has had fully ten CIDA ministers since 1989. As soon as one of them gets to know the issues, he or she is replaced. “Starting about 1990, CIDA started to lose its edge: it became exceedingly bureaucratic.” Another expert noted something familiar to many Canadian development professionals: “We made a proposal; a year later they [CIDA] contacted us to say that they had lost the original proposal and asked for another copy. Several months later they contacted us with an approval and said the money had to be spent by the end of the planning year--in 60 days.”

On the other hand, CIDA did enjoy some real successes in the 1990’s: Internet inter connectiveness in Africa by joining African universities to the rest of the world. CIDA and the IDRC assisted in one of the best experiments anywhere in health care systems in Tanzania. The problem was that such successes were “sporadic and disjointed.”

The roles and responsibilities of civil servants and politicians

The candid answer from my own experience is that MPs and senators have no real role on what CIDA and its officials do. The last time I looked, CIDA did not even have its responsibilities set out in legislation. The minister responsible for the agency certainly has a function to fulfill, but, as you just heard, everyone at CIDA knows that he/she will learn little before being moved out.

Thus the question really becomes ‘what is the role of civil servants at CIDA?’-something I’ve observed for about 27 years with fascination and concern. What do I mean?

1. As with all federal government departments, there are some capable and truly dedicated people at CIDA doing excellent projects in many corners of the world from Bolivia to Rwanda to Mongolia, but also major institutional confusion about its most effective purposes in a new century.

Permit me to insert here some points about Africa:

o Its almost 900 million residents should be the first priority for development co-operation from any wealthy country.
o The continent today dismayingly generates less than five percent of global economic output and its share of world trade is about half of what it was in the 1980s. Its peoples are probably worse off than in the 1950s despite receiving more than $1 trillion in assistance. Half live on less than $1 per day. All of the 25 countries ranked lowest on the UN development index are African.
o Canada and other wealthy nations block African agricultural imports by our quotas on their products and steep tariffs. Rich countries together subsidize farm producers more than $1 billion daily. I recall, for example, noting that Kenyan producers send vegetables and cut flowers daily by airplane to Europe, but their vegetables are barred from Canada because of our pesticide code. In other words, Europeans can eat them, but they are too risky for Canadian consumption. What nonsense!

2. Perhaps related to role confusion at CIDA as an institution is what some of us irreverently refer to as “whimmanship” in some of its management, who seem to prefer to indulge their own personal world views rather than apply well-known Canadian values, including the prudent use of tax money.

As an example, about a year ago, some others and I visited the CIDA country rep in an African capital city. My notes of the conversation include these points:

o He told us about the important diplomats he’d eaten with in recent weeks,
o He declined to answer specific questions put to him, presumably on the basis that an MP had no right to know,
o He indicated thinly-disguised scorn for the NGOs in the country (The aid rep of another donor country confirmed the next day that the country has a number of responsible and effective NGOs) and implied that he preferred to hand Canadian taxpayer money to UN agencies and the government of the country despite its huge human rights abuses.

The meeting with this CIDA rep was unsatisfactory from various points of view. You’ll have to decide for yourselves how you’ll respond to such an attitude when you encounter it.

3. CIDA management used to insist that the agency did not make policy-something I’ve seen disproved in a host of programs and projects in numerous countries over many years. The real issue is whether it’s good or bad policy, so let me raise three development issues here:

o First, security because you cannot have development without reasonable safety for local residents and development staff, whether in Afghanistan or anywhere else. In my experience, CIDA is-hopefully now was- basically unable to accept that there are situations where it must assist meaningfully in building security. In the past, security was in effect a four-letter word in CIDA culture.

o Second, democratic development and good governance. For a long time, CIDA was hesitant here, presumably because it thought the concept smacked of politics, but it has now come on board fully. As Mark Maloch Brown noted when he was head of the UN Development Program, “A project in a valley--a bridge or a dam--helps the residents of the valley, but doing something about governance can benefit every national in a developing country.”

o This brings me to corruption and corporate social responsibility. CIDA is now pretty good on both issues. If you want more details, please refer to the search device on my website ( As an Alberta MP for many years, I must pay respect to Syncrude and Nexen as Alberta companies for their highly-developed sense of CSR.

That said, CIDA itself has suffered in the past from serious governance issues no doubt created in fairness by politicians. At one point, CIDA ministers had to sign off on any contracts larger than one million dollars, creating at least the perception of possible patronage abuses (I don’t know if this is still the case for contracts). There are still many problems with equal access. In the past, I’m told that applicants outside Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa were informally told to hire Ottawa consultants to bid on CIDA contracts.

o Third, the demographics of CIDA’s personnel. About a decade ago, as I recall, only about five percent of all employees were Canadians whose families originated in the so-called developing world. Recently, I was told that this figure has now reached about 15%-better but probably still inadequate.

Two recommendations to improve CIDA beyond what has already been indicated or implied:

1. With retirements happening aplenty now, lots of personnel additions at all levels, with newcomers who represent the regions and diversity of our country better than in the past.

2. More opportunities for public input on policy. How many of you attended the recent public consultation by CIDA in Ottawa? Try to attend such events and be heard.

Some other suggestions:

3. Get to know your local MP-or some other one in your region which you admire-and build up their confidence in you. They will then no doubt be pleased to have advice from you on development issues.

4. In addition to EWB, you might also support other good NGOs such as Results Canada and the Foodgrains Bank.

5. Building coalitions is probably the most effective way to change CIDA policies, although it is no sport for the short-winded. You retain your own identity but you work on common objectives.

Good luck to all of you! What you and others are doing on policy should be very important to CIDA in future.

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