Lowered expectations and the CIDA-DFAIT merger

Testimony yesterday at the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development revealed that senior CIDA and DFAIT officials learned of their respective departments’ arranged marriage only on the day of the 2013 budget.   Though the concept of a CIDA-DFAIT merger may not have come as a surprise to many in the Canadian development community, to learn that the impending amalgamation was decided upon without consultation with the highest ranks of CIDA and DFAIT management is more shocking.

Why would a decision with consequences for both departments be made without consulting those best positioned within the Public Service to advise on the merger?  Some might argue that this speaks to the patent mistrust of the bureaucracy by the Harper Government, while others could suggest that it simply reflects the exigencies of Budget Day.  Regardless of the government’s reasons for keeping quiet about the merger, choosing instead to announce it as yet another item in a multitude of omnibus budget line items, the process through which the merger has been conceived raises serious concerns regarding what DFATD will look like going forward.  What sort of model is envisioned for these reforms?

As with any momentous reform of this nature, it is not uncommon for governments to look for other examples of similar processes and how they have been handled by other countries or jurisdiction.  As a political sociologist, I know only too well how powerful mimicry and imitation are as processes for the spread of policies and institutions among countries. Indeed, I study this phenomenon and how it plays out in the foreign aid sector in Canada and other major western democracies.

It is not surprising, then, to learn that one of the ADMs of DFAIT testified to the Standing Committee yesterday that he had visited several countries that have experienced a merger of their foreign aid and foreign policy bodies in the past: Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium.   This sort of consultation – especially given the seeming absence of domestic consultation on the issue – should be lauded.  How better to sort out the mess that will be the birthing of DFATD than to look at other positive experiences of the same? People in the development industry fetishize this sort of emulation under the label of ‘best practices’ all the time.

Want to promote economic growth? Best practices. Want to lower maternal mortality? Best practices.  Want to arrange a marriage between your aid agency and ministry of foreign affairs? Best practices.

Problems arise, however, when we reflect on the fact that best practices do not always yield the ‘best’ solutions for a given problem.  A recent book by Harvard scholar Matt Andrews drives home this point. There are no cookie cutter solutions in developing countries.  So what can we reasonably expect of applying best practices of other donor countries to the CIDA-DFAIT union? It remains to be seen and likely will be influenced by which countries Canada tries to emulate.

If we look at the list of potential role models visited by the DFAIT ADM, concern emerges about whether Canada is looking at the right sort of donor countries to emulate.  This is not to say that they are bad role models, but are they the right donors for Canada to aspire to resemble?  Sadly, based on one of the most commonly referred to donor metrics, these role models are out of Canada’s league.

Looking at the measure of aid generosity in terms of official development assistance (aid dollars) as a percentage of national income (Gross National Income or GNI) in the figure below we can see that the comparison countries being visited by DFAIT and CIDA officials are far more generous with their aid funds than Canada has been – ever.  Three of the four merger role models exceed the international aid target of 0.7%. The other, Belgium, provides nearly 70% more aid as a percentage of national income than does Canada.   When it comes to generosity, Canada is not in the same orbit as these donors – some of the most generous countries in the world.

Aid as percent of GNI, 2011
Aid as percent of GNI, 2011


So what mischief can come with Canada looking to donors who have by all accounts merged their development and foreign policy arms successfully, but did so in a more generous and development-friendly context?  The simplest answer is unrealistic expectations.  If Canada looks at the Norwegian, Danish, or Dutch experiences and thinks we can reasonably expect to come out of this merger resembling these donors with high levels of aid and development at the centre of their foreign policy, I would hazard to suggest we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.   Instead, the Canadian public, the Harper Government, and the poor bureaucrats at CIDA and DFAIT should pause and hope that Canada is also looking to the experience of merging bureaucracies in countries where development has lower priority and generosity is the exception, not the rule.

Because, as much as it pains me to write, at the end of the day, Canada is more likely complete this merger looking more like Australia or Portugal in terms of aid levels and donor self-interest than we are to resemble Norway and its generous altruism.  Perhaps if the lucky officials at CIDA and DFAIT tasked with pulling this off temper their expectations and look to other role models to emulate, we might avoid further disappointment in the Canadian development  community as we come to grips with a merger that is already being labelled a ‘dead-end’ by influential thinkers in the community.  After all, aren’t lowered expectations better than no expectations?

This post originally appeared on the Ottawa Citizen Aid & Development Blog on 2013/05/22.