New IDRC Appointments: DFAIT Takeover?

The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) announced yesterday that several vacant seats on its near empty Board of Governors were filled.  The appointment of four new members and the reappointment of a former Conservative cabinet minister bring the Board back to quorum for the time being and should enable the IDRC to resume any normal functioning that might have been hindered by the recent short-term vacancies.

This is good news.  I had speculated in this space last month about what could be inferred from the government’s indifference to the vacancies on the IDRC Board.  Now, with the recent appointments, a clearer picture may be emerging about IDRC’s future; a picture where the IDRC becomes more closely aligned with Canadian foreign policy.

The exceedingly brief news item about the Board appointments on the IDRC website reads:

The Governor in Council has made four new appointments to IDRC’s Board of Governors: Sandra Fountain Smith of Ottawa; Gordon Houlden of Edmonton, Alberta; Nadir Patel of Ottawa; and Cindy Termorshuizen, of Ottawa. The Hon. Monte Solberg of Calgary, Alberta has been reappointed for a second term.

Given the lack of any detailed information, and the incorrect identification of one Governor (it should read Sarah Fountain Smith), in the quote above, what can we speculate about the new governors?  A short bout of internet sleuthing and a request to the IDRC for bios on the new Governors reveals two interesting commonalities.

First, all four new appointees are current or former diplomats/officials with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT).  This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, each of the new DFAIT-affiliated governors have at least some experience representing Canadian interests in the developing world, with former postings in Chile, China, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Yet, experience representing Canada’s diplomatic and trade interests abroad – even in the developing world – does not necessarily equip you with expert knowledge about development.  In light of the recent CIDA-DFAIT merger, it is difficult not to perceive this as the Government’s attempt to bring IDRC more fully under the soon-to-be DFATD umbrella where development aims take a back seat to Canadian self-interest.  It is notably not development assistance officials being appointed to represent DFATD on the IDRC Board; instead, it is those from the trade and diplomacy side of the merger – a clear indication of who is now in the driver seat for Canadian development policy.

Second, none of the new appointees or the reappointed Hon. Monte Solberg, possess anything remotely approaching an advanced background in research, let alone in development research (though Houlden does hold a position at the University of Alberta as Director of their China Institute based on his long experience working on China while in the foreign service).  This is not to say that they are not eminent people qualified in their respective areas of expertise, but as the majority of a board to guide a crown corporation with the mandate of funding innovative research for international development?  It is a stretch to suggest that these appointees are the best suited in Canada to be making decisions on funding development research.

Looking back at my earlier commentary on the IDRC, it turns out that the government has opted to fill the board vacancies in keeping with its new approach to development. By appointing individuals whose primary experience is either bureaucratic or diplomatic, rather than those with development research expertise, the Government is sending a clear signal about where the IDRC fits in its approach to aid.  The IDRC Board has included individuals without research backgrounds in the past, but not to the same scale, and certainly not with so many direct ties to DFAIT. These appointments speak directly to the current government’s desire to align Canadian aid funding with its diplomatic and trade interests.

Am I offside in suggesting that these appointments do a disservice to the mandate of a unique Canadian development organization?  Possibly.  And yet, the importance of having Governors guiding the IDRC with specific backgrounds in development and research has clearly been anticipated before this point.  For instance, in the organizational profile for the IDRC on the Governor in Council Appointments website, it clearly stipulates that “At least eight governors must have experience in the field of international development or experience or training in the natural or social sciences or technology.”  In keeping with this criterion, in the past, the IDRC Board has been composed of former university presidents, deans, and other researchers or development experts. Indeed, until recently, the outgoing President of CIDA was an appointee to the IDRC Board.  To see a shift away from valuing this sort of development or research expertise is unsettling.

Taxpayers will not be up in arms or marching in the streets over these appointments, but they should be concerned that the management of a Crown Corporation with a nearly $300 million budget has been handed over to people arguably only peripheral to that corporation’s core business.

Think of it like this: Would the government appoint four former or current CIDA officials to the Board of Governors of the Business Development Bank of Canada to steer its mandate to fund entrepreneurship in Canada? Surely not.

Even though CIDA provides funding for similar purposes around the world, it would be unlikely that any Canadian government would feel those skills would translate to governing the BDC.  Why then is it acceptable to turn over arguably the world’s top development research funding agency to Canadian diplomats and a blatantly partisan former Conservative cabinet minister? It is not.

Perhaps the government will fill the remaining vacancies on the IDRC Board of Governors with development experts and those with research expertise in areas of relevance to the Centre’s mandate. The development researchers in Canada and abroad can only hope. If not, I suspect that we will begin to see the erosion of IDRC’s development research mandate and the redirection of its efforts to shore up Canada’s new approach to make its aid and foreign policy interests one in the same.

This post originally appeared on the Ottawa Citizen Aid & Development Blog on 2013/06/19.