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Abolish CIDA? …In an Era of More Government?

September 28, 2009

“The era of big government is over”, Bill Clinton famously said in 1997. Coming from a Democratic President, it was a clear recognition of the power and influence that neo-liberal conceptions government had achieved.  Skepticism of big government and faith in free markets were the zeitgeist of the times.

A lot has happened since 1997.  The tech bubble burst in 2001.  Business and stock scandals, both in Canada and the United States, rocked the corporate world, Enron and Nortel being two notable cases.  Calls for greater regulation and oversight from lawmakers continued through-out the decade.  Sarbanes-Oxley resulted.  And finally, the epic failure of free markets in 2008, around the world but most notably in the United States, ushering in a new era– perhaps foreshadowed for years — not necessarily of “big” government, but at least more government.

So why is it that even with these important changes, the first reaction that a politico or talking head has to problems within a government agency is to turf the thing?  Abolish it? Tear it down? End it? Fini? Apparently, the era of more government has not resulted in an era of less people calling for less government.

CIDA is the latest target. After the jump, I explain who’s doing the targetting and why they might be wrong.

So despite this era of more government, I offer you, sirs and madams, the recommendations of one Bhupinder Liddar, the scion of CSIS debacles, recent Diplomat, and now, with one masterstroke, the new enfant terrible of the Canadian foreign policy establish.  That’s right. Having just left Canadian Foreign Affairs, where he  would have dealt with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Liddar comes now to Ottawa not to praise CIDA, but to bury it.   Claiming that CIDA has done only harm by creating “dependency” rather than “capacity building” in countries receiving its aid, Liddar recommends abolishing CIDA entirely.

Well, let me offer a lukewarm defense of CIDA.  While it is true that CIDA makes mistakes. And creates dependencies. And, as can be easily argued, shouldn’t be prioritizing business interests over poverty or conflict prevention.    But pretending that Canada can have an effective foreign policy without an aid agency is naive and, well, silly.  People can disagree about the method of administering funds, what projects are targeted, funding priorities, “countries of concentration”, etc.  But all that just means greater focus on CIDA’s mission and methods, not sacrificing it, in toto, on the alter of political grandstanding or tunnel-vision foreign policy, both of which, I would suggest, apply here. Yes, bilateral engagement is important to effective diplomatic and foreign policy, but it isn’t everything; it can be costly, time consuming, and sometimes offer very little for efforts made.  In many cases an aid agency with the proper funding and focus can produce similar or better results, while eating up less time and even costs.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2010 8:18 am

    Very good journey and experience!

  2. nmboudin permalink*
    September 30, 2009 11:39 pm

    My brother worked for CIDA in Namibia. His particular role was to try to utilize the culturally cohesive power of sport to teach about HIV/AIDS prevention strategies.

    I had reservations with some of what they were teaching. My brother told me that that they tended to put the onus on the girls to demand protection, when the level of infection can only be significantly reduced if the fellows take equal responsibility.

    That said, what I found admirable about that project was that a central part of the organizers’ mandate was to make themselves unnecessary. The sport and games they utilized were local (excepting the universally loved sports of soccer and boxing), and they trained local community members to organize their own awareness campaigns.

    I do not know if CIDA creates mass dependence in the aggregate, but they were aware that such a result was something to be avoided and active in employing strategies to create local self-sufficiency.

  3. September 30, 2009 9:15 am

    Good post! Thanks.

  4. September 30, 2009 8:23 am

    Although it is a lukewarm defense, it is a necessary defense. For years I have been on the periphery (sometimes in the middle) of conversations to abolish CIDA. The conversation has become sport for some. I have many disagreements with how CIDA has operated over the last twenty years – how risk adverse it has become, how its focus on aid effectiveness has not necessarily brought more accountability to Canadians or how it has morphed with each new political master (and there have been many).

    But, and it is a big but, it is an essential institution – however it is constructed. Margaret Biggs, its current leader is strong and smart. In fact there are many smart people within CIDA and I wish they had more opportunity to act. But, when you change your minister every year, it becomes more than a little hard on the department to stabilize and focus its energies.

    I think you are right to point out that we cannot have an effective foreign policy without an aid agency. But I’m pleased to see that there are some good efforts – both within CIDA and externally through groups like the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation – to rethink how we deliver foreign aid. I think you are correct in suggesting that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. But I do think we need to rethink our foreign aid and to look at aid as part of a broader tool kit to meet our international commitments to reduce poverty (which can include investment, reduction in trade barriers for developing countries products, debt relief, etc)

  5. Brenton permalink
    September 30, 2009 8:10 am

    Why did the press give his opinions any credence? They seem a little half-baked. Immigration system isn’t working that well and he doesn’t know how to fix it? Thanks for that gem.

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