The CIDA Merger: Realism Defeats Humanitarianism

CIDA is no more. In unveiling its Economic Action Plan 2013, the Canadian government announced that CIDA would be absorbed into DFAIT. According to the Conservatives, the merger was motivated by a desire “to enhance co-ordination of international assistance with broader Canadian values and objectives, and to put development on equal footing with trade and diplomacy.”

For returning readers, you may remember my first post on this blog (found HERE). In it I discussed CIDA’s recent policy shifts and its adoption of what I characterized as a Canada-first development program. The CIDA/DFAIT merger represents the logical conclusion of the Conservative Party’s integrated international policy. Before discussing the merger in more detail, I am going to post a few excerpts from a paper I wrote last year on this very topic.

Since the leadership of Lester B. Pearson, a concern for global human welfare has become a fundamental component of Canadian national identity. Four decades later, we continue to personify Canada as a “generous and enlightened country that has an international mission as a peace-keeper and problem-solver.”[1] In a May 2012 survey, Inter-Council Network (ICN) measured Canadian, American, and British opinions regarding development issues. The majority of Canadian respondents agreed that Canada has an obligation to alleviate global poverty, which they associated with reducing conflict, HIV/AIDS and gender inequality. Conversely, British and American respondents were significantly less optimistic – 15 to 20 percentage points – about the potential benefits of poverty reduction. Respondents from all countries agreed that their respective government aid agencies are the most responsible actors for managing international development. Thus, Canadians confirmed CIDA as their leading representative for alleviating global poverty. In its published report, ICN concluded that “Canadians still care about global poverty and tend to be motivated by a strong sense of social responsibility.”[2] However, laudable as these ideals are, humanitarianism is not the sole motivation for generosity in donor nations.

International development assistance regimes – in both developed and developing countries – have emerged for a multitude of reasons since the Second World War. The two theories that generally explain why countries allocate and distribute foreign aid are international realism and international humanitarianism. While the former prioritizes the donor states’ political, socioeconomic and security interests, the latter is guided by ethics, compassion and altruism. Consequently, international humanitarianism prioritizes the world’s poorest citizens while the realist paradigm is closely aligned with the foreign policies of individual donor governments.[3] In a 2007 study of politics and foreign aid, Carol Lancaster concluded that development assistance was originally inspired by realism during the Cold War, but has since become defined by a fusion of the two paradigms.[4]At first glance this assessment appears to hold true in the Canadian context. However, a closer examination of CIDA’s recent policy reviews unveils a shift toward realism, despite previous and ongoing declarations of Canada’s humanitarian motivations.


Officially, CIDA is responsible for directing the majority of Canada’s development assistance. One consistent criticism of CIDA[5] is that the department was never afforded a “clear, top-level statement that sets out its vision for development.”[6] Lacking legislated autonomy, CIDA has historically been a politically weak institution in Ottawa. Unlike most federal departments, CIDA’s budget is not legislated and is therefore prone to annual swings in budgetary allocations. With 80 percent of its budget consisting of discretionary grants, CIDA’s budget – and thus institutional influence – is not guaranteed year over year. For example, when Finance Minister Paul Martin embarked on a mission to erase the government’s budget deficit in the 1990s, CIDA’s precarious position left it unguarded against his search for cuts. Consequently, CIDA’s funding declined 33 percent between 1988/89 and 1997/98 while the government’s overall expenditure declined only 5 percent over that same period.[7] As a result, Canada’s ODA contributions as a percentage of GNI dropped dramatically. However, CIDA’s vulnerability extends beyond its budgetary concerns. CIDA’s weak institutional status ultimately limits its ability to guard against politicization and influence from other departments.

Between 1989 and 2005 CIDA was led by 10 different Ministers, which prevented experienced leadership from developing within the department.[8] Due to CIDA’s weak political position, junior Ministers with limited influence in Cabinet have ran the department while senior Ministers typically refused the post. Harsh repercussions from policy failures have also fostered a risk-averse culture, which diminished CIDA’s initiative and allows greater influence by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the Privy Council Office (PCO).[9] Moreover, ‘strong’ departments like the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) – a department that prioritizes Canada’s national interests – have established considerable influence over CIDA. Consequently, Bernard Wood claims that CIDA has traditionally maintained “a sideshow status in Ottawa,” dominated by competing business, political, and bureaucratic interests.[10] Without strong ministerial leadership, CIDA’s budgets and its objectives are open to influence from special interests or major policy shifts by the government. Thus, despite broad mandates to help alleviate global poverty, the where and how of CIDA’s mission is susceptible to influence from the government of the day.

In my previous posts, I analyzed CIDA’s recent focus on middle-income countries and its mining partnerships, and concluded that these initiatives were demonstrative of foreign and trade policy influence. In 2013, Canadian foreign aid will no be directed by a weak agency influenced by DFAIT – it will now be directed by DFAIT itself.

In 2008, the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act decreed that Canadian aid must prioritize the global poor. Furthermore, the Act established a framework for Canadian aid: “The purpose of this Act is to ensure that all Canadian official development assistance abroad is provided with a central focus on poverty reduction and in a manner that is consistent with Canadian values, Canadian foreign policy,” and international obligations. Ultimately, the Act sought to bind Canadian aid to one single principle – poverty reduction. In the UK, DFID’s reformation during the late 1990s and early 2000s institutionalized its responsibilities and mandated poverty reduction as its guiding principle. It is protected by law and legally required to spend 90 percent of its bilateral aid budget in low-income countries.

So, what does this all mean? Are we still working towards the MDGs? Should Canadian development assistance be guided by humanitarianism  realism, or a combination of the two? Although Canadians self-identify as compassionate humanitarians, our development agency has adopted a much different image under the current government. Unlike DFID, CIDA’s recent policy shifts have been accompanied by public announcements focused on Canadian values and interests. The global poor appear to serve only a tertiary purpose. Perhaps our government believes that we cannot fix the world’s problems and that we should instead invest in mutually beneficial projects, even if that means turning our attention from the world’s poorest citizens. Based on Fantino’s explanation of the merger, this scenario may not be far from reality. I view the merger as the logical conclusion to the Conservative’s integrated foreign policy, under which CIDA’s mandate has been progressively co-opted by Canadian foreign policy and trade interests. A final quote from my paper:

Since 2001 CIDA has consistently established poverty reduction as its guiding principle. Under Liberal governments (2001-2005), humanitarianism and the world’s poorest citizens were compatible with Canadian foreign policy goals. However, after the Conservative victory in 2006, Canada implemented a Canada-first foreign policy. While CIDA remained publicly committed to poverty reduction, it has shifted its attention from Africa to middle-income countries and prioritizes Canadian foreign and trade policy interests. CIDA’s subordination to Canadian interests was especially clear in the recent formation of CIDA-mining partnerships. Since 2009 the justifications for CIDA initiatives have been remarkably Canada-centric, and the government has consistently reaffirmed the primacy of Canadian interests. Thus, today Africa is no longer compatible with Canada’s integrated international policy, and CIDA’s inability to guard against political and business interests has fostered a Canada-first development agency.

Perhaps it is time to accept that this is how the current government plans to operate internationally. But perhaps it is also time for this government to adopt many of the buzz words it has preached – such as accountability and transparency – by giving DFAIT’s new development arm a more legitimate mission statement. Perhaps something like: “To lead Canada’s international effort to help people living in poverty, but only in disaster situations or when doing so offers some benefit for Canadians.”

If international humanitarianism no longer has a role in Canadian development, should we care? Have your say below.


[1] Chris Brown and Edward T. Jackson, “Could the Senate Be Right? Should CIDA Be Abolished?” in Allan M. Maslove (ed.), How Ottawa Spends 2009-10 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009): 160-3.

[2] ICN. “Canadian Engagement on Global Poverty Issues,” The Inter-Council Network (May 2012): 29-38.

[3] Stephen Brown, “‘Creating the World’s Best Development Agency’? Confusion and Contradictions in CIDA’s New Policy Blueprint,” Canadian Journal of Development Studies (2007) 28, No. 2): 214.

[4] Carol Lancaster, Foreign Aid: Diplomacy, Development, Domestic Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007): 25-60.

[5] CIDA has also been criticized for issues related to transparency, accountability, efficiency, and its generalized culture. These topics are outside the purview of this study. For a discussion of these criticisms, see: Stephen Brown, “‘Creating the World’s Best Development Agency’? Confusion and Contradictions in CIDA’s New Policy Blueprint,” Canadian Journal of Development Studies (2007) 28, No. 2): 213-28.

[6] OECD. “Canada: Peer Review 2012,” Development Assistance Committee (May 2012): 9-10.

[7] Brown, “Could the Senate Be Right? Should CIDA Be Abolished?” 160-3.


[9] Barry Carin and Gordon Smith, “Reinventing CIDA,” Canadian International Council (May 2010), 3-5.

[10] Adam Chapnick, “Canada’s Aid Program: Still Struggling After Sixty Years,” CIC: Behind the Headlines 65, No. 3 (May 2008): 11.


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