Does a New Minister Again Bring New Aid Priorities?

It was a time-honoured tradition at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).  Every time a new minister was appointed, officials within the Agency would wait several months for the new Minister to announce a new set of priorities for Canadian aid.  With each new Minister trying to put their own stamp on the Canadian aid program, the effect was one of layering priority over priority in an often chaotic or contradictory manner.

Since the year 2000 at CIDA, and now within the development arm of the newly minted Department of Foreign Affairs Trade and Development (DFATD), we have witnessed a revolving door of Ministers each trying to tweak or shift the directions of Canadian foreign aid.  In that time, Canada has had six different Ministers at the helm of its aid program. In each case, the Minister has attempted to imprint a new set of priorities on how Canada funds development.

Maria Minna, under the Liberals, ushered in the “Social Development Priorities” agenda, honing CIDA’s focus in on health, education, child protection, and HIV/AIDS.  Her successor, Susan Whelan, layered an additional priority on top of Minna’s social development agenda by instituting a renewed focus on agriculture and rural development. The next Liberal Minister, Aileen Carroll, added governance and private sector development alongside health and education as her four areas of focus for CIDA.  In the period from 2000-2006 that made for at least seven different priority areas for Canada’s aid program.

Things did not change much in the wake of the Liberals demise as governing party.  Under both the Conservative minority and subsequent majority governments the same trend continued.  During Josée Verner’s short tenure, CIDA commenced on a renewed effort to promote gender equality and empower women, as well as a focus on entrepreneurship.  Bev Oda, the longest-serving Minister in this era, prioritized ‘aid effectiveness’ for Canada, but not in the sense that effectiveness is understood by the international aid community.  Instead, she ‘focused’ CIDA on three thematic priorities: food security, children and youth, and sustainable economic growth.  Leaving her cabinet post and resigning her parliamentary seat nearly a year ago after several years of controversies like the infamous “not” inserted in a memo or her alleged predilection for limousines and pricey orange juice, Oda gave way to the last Minister to helm CIDA as an organization: Julian Fantino. Not to be outdone, under Fantino’s watch, we saw the Minister declare a new refocusing on private sector development and a new love affair with extractive sector at CIDA that may well carry over into the newly formed DFATD.

If your head is not spinning by now with all the various layers upon layers of priorities and focuses imposed by this parade of Ministers, we have today witnessed yet another cabinet shuffle with a new Minister for International Development: Christian Paradis.  Will we witness, yet again, a new set of priorities for Canadian aid once Minister Paradis has settled in to his new portfolio?  Given that Paradis is taking over Canada’s aid program direct from stints at Natural Resources and Industry, perhaps not.

The problem with a constant and shifting set of priorities for Canada’s aid program is that it leads to a lack of sustainability and predictability about Canadian partnerships and investments in the Global South.  If the only constant in our aid program is the inevitability of changing priorities ever couple of years, it makes it very difficult for long term investments in development to pay off with effective results. To commit to true aid effectiveness, Canada should try to develop a strategic policy framework for engagement with development that supersedes Ministerial whims to put their own fingerprints on the aid program.

With this morning’s cabinet shuffle, Canadians are yet again saddled with a Minister for International Development who appears on the surface to have little or no international development background. Regardless of his development credibility, if  Minister Paradis really wants to make his mark as Canada’s second ever Minister of International Development, he will not tinker adding another layer of aid priorities and instead attempt to steer the development arm of DFATD into a long term commitment to its newly legislated mandate.  The parade of ever-changing priorities must stop.

This post originally appeared on the Ottawa Citizen Aid & Development Blog on 2013/07/15.