Is the IDRC the Next Target?

This post originally appeared on the Ottawa Citizen Aid & Development Blog on 2013/05/30.

Canada’s present government has not cultivated a strong reputation when it comes to evidence-based policy or support for science and research. This has manifested in the muzzling of government scientists, the cancellation of the 2011 mandatory long-form census and the defunding of the Experimental Lakes Area in recent years. Yesterday, the Globe and Mail reported that the government has been dragging its feet on filling spots on the Board of Governors of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

The bulk of the Canadian public is likely to respond to this news with a resounding “So what?” Unfortunately, the effect of this inaction is that one genuinely unique Canadian contribution to the field of international development is hamstrung without its governors; the work of the IDRC may grind to a halt.

The IDRC is a Canadian Crown Corporation tasked with funding practical research on some of today’s most challenging barriers to development: disease, malnutrition, security, and technology. Staffed largely by technical experts with advanced degrees in engineering, sciences, and the social sciences, the IDRC is a funding agency for development research informed by elite researchers.

For a meager $288 million in funding in 2011-2012, Canada reaps reputational benefits on the global stage which far outstrip these costs while at the same time funding cutting edge scientific solutions for development.

One shining example of the IDRC’s work has been the incubation of theMicronutrient Initiative (MI), an organisation that began as an IDRC project and has grown to be the largest supplier globally of key micronutrients to malnourished infants and children. Indeed, the MI 2011-2012 report highlights their vast reach in supplying key nutrients like Vitamin A, iron, zinc, iodine, and folic acid throughout the world, claiming they had reached “almost 500 million people in more than 70 countries.” With impact of this magnitude, it is difficult to think of a Canadian development program currently that can boast of such a valuable contribution to people’s lives globally. The MI is a true feather in the Canada’s cap and deserves the acclaim that it has received internationally and which was recently highlighted in this blog.

Not everything the IDRC funds will become another Micronutrient Initiative, but it is clear their work funding development research had a real and direct impact on people’s lives. Now, with five places on the IDRC board already empty and another five members with terms that ended earlier this week, only four governors currently sit on the board. Filling these spots is the responsibility of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and its Minister, John Baird. Leaving these spots empty for an extended period may paralyze the critical work of the organization.

Not only is the board of governors more than two-thirds empty, but the appointment of a new President to IDRC has also been significantly delayed. Yesterday’s article also reveals that the current head of CARE Canada, Kevin McCort (featured in an interview this week on this blog), had been recommended for the job before the former President’s term ended, but the appointment has yet to be finalized by Minister Baird.

Why leave a uniquely Canadian international development actor handcuffed because of an absence of direction and leadership at the highest levels? Trying to guess at the government’s motives given the recent surprises in Canada’s development sector (the CIDA-DFAIT merger, for example) is not an easy task.

It is possible that the current government has plans for the IDRC that have yet to be revealed. Could the IDRC follow CIDA and be eliminated as a standalone entity? As of yet, the present CIDA-DFAIT merger details have been silent on the IDRC.

It is not outside the realm of possibilities that the government would consider integrating some of the work of the IDRC into the still-to-be-founded Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD). After all, it is this same government that eliminated a similar institution, the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (Rights & Democracy), and folded its work into DFAIT. If this were to happen, it would mark the second time recently that the government has eliminated a Canadian development institution with significant reputation and brand recognition globally under the guise of efficiency or policy coherence (see CIDA’s merger with DFAIT).

A second possibility worth considering is that the government is simply waiting to appoint an new set of governors and a President at the IDRC that are more in keeping with its current approach to development. If this happens, we might expect to see less civil society research funded by the IDRC and more research that integrates the current government’s fascination with the extractive sector or other forms of private sector development. This shift in priorities would likely happen if the IDRC was folded into DFATD, but by stacking the board of governors with allies sympathetic to the government’s current development priorities, at least the organizational brand and history might be preserved.

Lastly, it might be possible that the delays in appointing new governors and the President at the IDRC are simply more of this government’s tactic of cutting through inaction witnessed most recently at CIDA. By not immediately filling these positions, the IDRC may find itself unable to fully expend its budget, thus lapsing funds that can be used to further the deficit-cutting fervour of the Conservative government. Given that this appears to have been the order of the day at CIDA in the last fiscal year, this might not be that far from the truth.

Hopefully, it is the last these possibilities that turns out to be the case. Eliminating the IDRC or stacking its board of governors with a certain ideological perspective would do a grave disservice to the unique impact the organization has on the developing world. It is a Canadian success story that we have created the world’s leading funder of research for development. Indeed, if you Google ‘development research’ the top result is Canada’s IDRC. Canadians should hope this government can listen to this evidence when it comes to the IDRC, lest they squander further global good will by eliminating an organization that has helped so many and managed to establish global recognition while doing it.

Liam Swiss is an assistant professor in the department of sociology at Memorial University and president of the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development.