Foreign Policy Coherence and Aid: More of the Same

In recent years, CIDA has been cited as one of the poorest international performers in fragmentation and policy coherence.  In 2008 Canada ranked as the second worst bilateral donor (following Germany) in terms of fragmentation in aid programming. Similar studies have shown that Canada ranks in the bottom 20th percentile for aid fragmentation amongst the largest 40 bilateral and multilateral donors.

One of the key challenges that historically threatened the coherence of Canadian aid policy was the inability of CIDA to focus on specific priority countries and sectors.  Over the past decade, Canada has shown some improvements towards focusing aid spending, with aid concentration in priority countries (as a percentage of total bilateral aid) trending upward, peaking at 47% in 2010.  However, in 2011, that number fell to 39%, roughly half of what the target was expected to be.  With the remainder of bilateral funding spread between 126 additional bilateral recipients, efforts to reduce fragmentation through channeling more aid to fewer priority recipients appear to have been limited by CIDA’s continued allocation of a large proportion of aid funds beyond the stated priority recipients; it will be interesting to see whether these numbers change over the next few years.

Essentially, the challenges facing the coherence of Canadian aid extend beyond any single determinant of fragmentation.  While reducing the number of priority recipients and sectors promises to lessen fragmentation through improving the concentration of aid (which has to a certain extent taken place already), problems associated with fragmentation remain grounded in larger government priorities and broader policy incoherence.  Indeed, without wider policy change, in terms of improved policy alignment between Canadian foreign, commercial, and developmental interests, challenges associated with fragmentation, which are rooted in deeper policy incoherence, are likely to remain a key constraint to the effectiveness of Canadian aid.

The most significant differences between the CIDA’s merger and the transitions undertaken by other countries such as the UK’s DfID and Noway’s NORAD, is the absence of a clear, transparent and coherent political vision for development programs from the Canadian government.  In the case of both DFID and NORAD, the relative success of each institutional arrangement, and the ability for each agency to transition without subordinating development objectives to the Foreign Office and MFA respectively, was grounded in a strong and clearly articulated development vision from the federal government.

For DFID, the strong emphasis on poverty reduction taken by the Labour government, which was formalized in a series of White Papers, raised the profile of development priorities and ensured that the Foreign Office supported development efforts, rather than exclusively commercial and strategic interests, within their policies.  Similarly, Norway’s explicit attempt to politicize aid in efforts to support foreign policy priorities clearly and unequivocally subordinated development policy to foreign policy interests.

Historically, the Canadian Government has failed to clearly define a strategic focus for Canadian aid, opting instead to forward an ever-changing list of priority sectors and preferred recipients for Canadian aid. Essentially, by failing to provide a specific and clearly defined strategic focus for CIDA policies, the ability for CIDA to navigate institutional changes at the policy level appears hampered.  In terms of policy, the absence of a clear mandate for development policy objectives leaves the development agenda vulnerable to usurpation by the stronger, larger, and presumably more clearly oriented Foreign Affairs agenda.

If we accept the argument that DFAIT has historically maintained ties with as many partner countries as possible, arguing that Canada cannot afford to ignore any part of the world, then the potential for fragmentation in Canadian development assistance appears to be more likely; where development policies may begin to mirror foreign policy objectives, and threaten to subordinate aid policies in favour of trade and strategic policies, and ultimately reduce the likelihood that the merger will contribute to greater policy coherence between government agencies.

Additionally, a further difference between CIDA, DFID and NORAD is the absence of strong political leadership and clear institutional vision supporting the merger from within the Canadian government.  For DFID, Labour opposition critic Robin Cook, committed Labour to stop allocating aid based on political strategy.  Along with Claire Short, the pair pushed for institutional change and lobbied the government to grant development a larger and more significant function and space within the domestic institutional environment.

In Norway, the then Minister of Development Hilde Frafjord Johnson pushed for the integration of NORAD into the MFA.  Similarly, in the German case, even if as noted above it is still too early to assess implications, the Development Minister, Dirk Nieble led the charge to improve the effectiveness of the German development system by creating GIZ. Interestingly, the merger of CIDA with DFAIT appears to have been curiously devoid of any real leadership.  With the announcement of the merger hidden in the 2013 Budget Bill, there was little political ownership associated with the government’s plans to unite CIDA with DFAIT.  Essentially, the lack of clear leadership behind the merger raises questions for the effectiveness of the change, particularly concerning the ability for (what was) CIDA to retain ownership over development programming within the larger ministry structure.  Indeed, in the absence of clear policy goals for development, the lack of clear leadership provides a further threat to the coherence of Canadian development policies, leaving Canadian aid without a clear voice or political agenda to drive development policies and to ensure that development priorities are not overshadowed by strategic interests.

The role of foreign aid, whether to further Canadian interests, promote development, or any combination of the two, remains undefined.  In the absence of a clear vision concerning the intended purposes of foreign aid, the CIDA merger with DFAIT becomes increasingly murky, as the new institutional closeness threatens to more explicitly align aid with broader foreign policy concerns.  However, the Canadian government’s unwillingness to admit the strategic uses of aid, and a continued rhetoric of altruism, suggests that the merger will continue to perpetuate policy incoherence, where a lack of vision for aid policies and the new institutional arrangement, threatens to hinder the government’s ability to focus aid policy.

David Carment, Teddy Samy and Rachael Calleja

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