From “Gender Equality” to “Equality between Women & Men”


The shift in language about women and gender equality witnessed at the former CIDA under the former Harper government provoked significant concern and discussion at the time.  The prime concern here was that eschewing talk of gender equality was likely to have a negative effect on the prioritization of these issues in Canada’s aid program.

Figure 1.

Figure 1. Percent of Active Projects by CIDA GE Marker Category, 2005-2012 (HPD Dataset)

A former student (Jessica Barry) and I decided to examine whether that shift in language was borne out in the spending patterns seen immediately prior to and following this shift in discourse.  To answer this question, we analyzed the available data on Canadian aid spending to see if more or less aid was being spent on issue of gender equality in this period. The takeaway from our analysis was that the discursive shift did not appear to translate to a noticeable decline in spending on gender at the former CIDA, suggesting that the aid agency showed some resilience to the politicization of language it faced.

This research will soon appear in Rebecca Tiessen and Stephen Baranyi’s new edited book  Canada’s commitments to gender and development in the Global South to be published later this year by McGill-Queen’s University Press.



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Project Approval Paralysis and Canada’s Declining Aid Spending

Canada’s media, opposition parties, and development community have all grappled with the questions of how much and why Canadian foreign aid funds were lapsed in the government’s 2012-2013 fiscal year.  Initial reports projected upwards of $800 million underspent.  Later figures suggest that the total amount lapsed was closer to $290 million.  With the end of FY2013-2014 just recently passed, we have yet to see whether another significant lapse of Canadian ODA has occurred. And still, we know very little about why Canada’s aid money went unspent last year.

This question of why Canada lapsed funds has continued relevance today. The OECD released its annual aid data this week showing that aid is at an all-time high and yet Canada’s aid contributions declined sharply in comparison to other leading donors (-11% from 2012 to 2013).  Reasons for this decline, linked certainly to the lapsed funds of 2012-2013, have been in short supply from the Government. The DAC report claims Canada justified its sharp drop in aid spending between 2012 and 2013 on extraordinary payments made in 2012 – simply the illusion of a cut.

In a November 2013 meeting of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, Nadir Patel, Chief Financial Officer of DFATD suggested the lapse was due to lower than expected assessments from international organizations, but then admitted that it was money that could have been spent by the Agency. In the same meeting, opposition MP Paul Dewar asked Minister Baird why so few new project approvals of more than $25,000 were being authorized by DFATD in the beginning of 2013-2014, and the Minister responded: “We’re doing smaller ones.” This question of approvals – of how many, what size, and what type of projects were being approved in 2012-2013 by the former CIDA and its Ministers, has received insufficient attention when trying to better understand the lapsed funds and last year’s sharp drop in Canadian aid levels.

To examine this in more depth, the North-South Institute (NSI) and Engineers Without Borders (EWB) began analysis using the government’s own open data files on aid spending, as well as data compiled from DFATD’s Disclosure of Grants and Contributions over $25,000 to try and reveal a clearer picture of the 2012-2013 lapse and its link to project approvals and the annual cycle of government spending.  Aniket Bhushan (NSI) and James Haga (EWB) convened a workshop in Ottawa at the end of March to preview the results (see: here and here) of their analysis, a detailed report of which is presumably soon to be available from the North-South Institute.

After attending the NSI/EWB workshop in March, I was inspired to look into a series of related questions using the most recent DFATD open data files from January 31, 2014.  This data – part of recent government efforts to participate in international aid transparency initiatives – reflects all active approved aid  projects for DFATD and, more importantly, their date of approval and total amount of funds committed to the new project. In particular, I was interested in how project approvals differed in 2012-2013. How many projects were approved in contrast to the preceding fiscal years and how did they compare in size?

First, I looked at how many new projects were approved by CIDA in each fiscal year.  Figure 1 shows that FY2012-2013 was notable for a sharply reduced number of new project approvals.  According to DFATD’s open data, only 280 new projects were approved in 2012-2013, a sharp drop from the 461 approved the prior year.  This nearly 40% decline in the number of new project approvals is a telling figure when considering the lapsed funds that year.  Without a sufficient number of new programs coming online to replace those that are ending, any donor agency is going to have difficulty moving its allotted budget of aid funds.

Figure 1. New CIDA Project Approvals by Fiscal Year, 2008-2013



Figure 2. New CIDA Project Starts by Month, Fiscal Years 2009-2013


With far fewer projects approved than had been typical at CIDA, I looked next at the question of when during the fiscal year projects were being approved.  Anyone familiar with the spending cycle of the Government of Canada knows that a significant amount of funds are frequently spent in the waning days of the fiscal year.  At CIDA this was ever the case. It is not surprising that complex and challenging programs aimed at reducing poverty and supporting international development might run into hurdles when it comes to spending their estimated budget in a given year.  For this reason, an annual ritual of ‘March Madness’ at CIDA was always the reallocating of undisbursed funds to those programs and projects which were able to spend before the end of March. It was not surprising then that the DFATD open data files revealed a similar pattern.

In each of the past four fiscal years (and presumably for time immemorial), there have been large spikes in the approval of new projects in the final month of the fiscal year.  Figure 2 reveals this trend, but also shows how strikingly different 2012-2013 (and indeed 2011-2012) was from previous years.  In contrast to the nearly 200 new project approvals in March 2011, in March 2013, the Minister of International Cooperation only approved 104 new projects.  More telling is that throughout that rest of the fiscal year, then Ministers Oda and Fantino approved more than 20 projects in a month only once (April 2012).

Fewer projects were approved in total, as well as in the key ‘March Madness’ period at the end of fiscal year in 2012-2013.  This, in and of itself, is not sufficient to explain the lapse in funds, because had new projects being approved been of larger scope and budget than in past, approving fewer of them would not automatically reduce CIDA spending.  To examine this question of project size I analyzed data on the dollar amount of new project commitments in the DFATD data. Not only are fewer projects being approved, the funds committed by these projects is in sum and on average less than in prior fiscal years.  Though the total committed in March 2013 was still significant (nearly $900 million), the total committed throughout the year was far less than in prior years.  On average, a new project commitment at CIDA in 2012-2013 was approximately $6 million, while in 2010-2011 it was closer to $8 million.  Figures 3 and 4 show these differences both in monthly total commitments from new project approvals and monthly average commitments.  The message is clear: not only were fewer projects being approved, but on average they were smaller projects making use of less of Canada’s allocated aid budget.

Figure 3. Total New CIDA Project Funds Commitments by Month, Fiscal Years 2009-2013


Figure 4. Mean New CIDA Project Funds Commitments by Month, Fiscal Years 2009-2013


To put it simply, if the Minister does not approve new projects, and the projects that are approved are much smaller than has been typical of Canada’s aid program in recent years, then CIDA/DFATD will have great difficulty in spending its allocated budget.  The 2012-2013 lapses in aid spending seem to have mostly been due to a sharp drop in new project approvals at CIDA.  Why would such a reduction occur?  Some have argued that this was simply a means of cutting through inaction or stealth and freeing up Canadian aid funds to be returned to the Government coffers in aid of nothing more than deficit reduction.  No evidence points to a deliberate government effort to spend less than planned at CIDA for this express purpose.

The bigger question is more straightforward:  Why were the Ministers of International Cooperation in this period not approving new projects at the same rate?  Were there simply fewer projects for them to approve?  Rumored piles of approval memos sitting on the desks of Ministers Oda, Fantino, and now Paradis are legend within the Canadian aid community and at DFATD and suggest that it is not a matter of no new projects being offered for approval.

The rumored addition under the Harper Government (and continuation through today) of a “No Objection” approval step for CIDA’s Minister may be partially to blame for the lower levels of project approvals. Where previously Deputy Ministers and Assistant Deputy Ministers might have been permitted to approve projects and contributions up to a certain threshold, now DFATD aid officials cannot reportedly approve anything before receiving the “No objection” nod from the Minister’s office.  Could this extra “No Objection” requirement from the Minister be responsible for the paralysis of project approvals seen in 2012-2013?  Unfortunately the DFATD data cannot provide the answer to that question.

As taxpayers, some might applaud this savings or “frugality” as Minister Baird put it to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development on April 9, 2014, but many others will be left wondering why the government squandered the opportunity to use Canadians’ tax dollars to support development and fight poverty abroad, as they had been mandated to do.  Many of us would feel cheated if we donated to a charity for a specific cause only to learn later that the charity did not spend the money, returning it instead to its parent-organization’s general coffers because its executive director had been unwilling or unable to approve new programs.  Should Canadians feel any different about the exact same behavior within our national foreign aid agency?

This post originally appeared on the Ottawa Citizen Aid & Development Blog on 2014/04/12.


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.

Canadian Aid: New and Improved?

As the Canadian International Development Agency symbolically faded into history today with the folding of its Internet presence and Twitter feed, Canada’s newly re-titled Minister for International Development continued this week in publicly defending the recent CIDA-DFAIT merger with zeal.  One of Minister Fantino’s favourite talking points for explaining the upside of what is destined to be a rather messy and complex merger is that the newly formed DFATD is “enshrining in law for the first time the mandate for development assistance.”

While this might seem an attractive selling point to many, it is not an entirely accurate statement.  Indeed, just such a mandate was already laid out in the 2008 Official Development Assistance Accountability Act, legislation proposed as a Private Member’s Bill and passed with cross-partisan support under the Conservative minority government.

The Minister cannot be blamed for originating such an inaccuracy; he is simply repeating the verbatim wording of the 2013 Economic Action Plan document which reads:

In addition to maintaining a separate ministerial position, this Government will, for the first time, enshrine in law the important roles and responsibilities of the Minister for development and humanitarian assistance (p.239).

Taking it for granted that Canada’s Minister for International Development and others in the Canadian Government are aware of the ODAA Act, why do they insist on repeating this inaccuracy?  What is gained from trying to portray this merger not only as something pursued for reasons of effectiveness or policy coherence? Why is the first “enshrining in law” a selling point for a new and improved organization for Canadian aid?  Why the willful blind spot to the ODAA Act?

In 2008, the rather toothless ODA Accountability Act set out a clear mandate for Canadian development assistance.  The act’s purpose 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, the principles of the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness of March 2, 2005, sustainable development and democracy promotion and that promotes international human rights standards.

Further, it defines its use of Canadian values as: “amongst others, values of global citizenship, equity and environmental sustainability.”  Continuing, it specifies that Canadian ODA “may be provided only if the competent minister is of the opinion that it (a) contributes to poverty reduction; (b) takes into account the perspectives of the poor; and (c) is consistent with international human rights standards.”

There is little objectionable about this mandate.  It clearly defines Canadian aid as reducing poverty in a way that accounts for the wishes of the poor and embraces human rights, keeping in mind Canadian values, aid effectiveness norms, environmental sustainability, and democracy.

In comparison, Bill C-60, specifies how CIDA will be folded into the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development, and establishes a mandate for the newly titled Minister for International Development to:

foster sustainable international development and poverty reduction in developing countries and provide humanitarian assistance during crises by:

 (a) undertaking activities related to international development and humanitarian assistance;

 (b) ensuring the effectiveness of Canada’s international development and humanitarian assistance activities;

 (c) fostering relations with other countries and organizations engaged in international development or humanitarian assistance activities; and

 (d) ensuring Canada’s contributions to international development and humanitarian assistance are in line with Canadian values and priorities.”

Apart from specifying a role for the Minister in humanitarian assistance, opening the door to greater politicization of aid by referring not only to Canadian values but also Canadian priorities, and being less insistent that ODA can only be approved if it contributes to poverty reduction, there is little new here as far as mandate goes.  Aid effectiveness, Canadian values (not defined in Bill C-60), and poverty reduction all make an appearance. Everything else is sufficiently vague that the Minister for International Development can approve most anything and call it aid.  If anything, the newly “enshrined in law” mandate for Canadian development assistance is less narrow and less focused than the first mandate outlined in the ODAA Act.   Considering that the ODA Accountability Act was not repealed and is not even mentioned in the text of the omnibus bill, the newly crafted mandate is largely redundant and equally toothless.

Redundancy does not sell.  Legislation with little or no consequence does not sell.  Neither appeals to a Conservative base who has viewed Canadian foreign aid as a problem in need of a fix for years.  It is not desirable as a sitting government to announce “we’re undertaking a massive and expensive organizational reshuffling of the deck chairs to achieve the same sort of mandate as the one which was passed just five years ago.”  Instead, the Harper Government is banking on most of the Canadian public and its Conservative constituency being unaware of the ODA Accountability Act and portraying the new legislation as the “first” time a foreign aid mandate has been enshrined in Canadian Law.  This new mandate does little to impact the content of Canadian aid. It has little means of ensuring that Canadian aid is delivered more effectively. To be sure, it will not, for instance, mean that Canadian aid is audited more rigorously.

Overall, the only benefit of labelling these changes the “first” legislated mandate for development assistance in Canada is to try and make people think that there is something new under the sun when it comes to Canada’s aid mandate.  There is not.  With the creation of DFATD and the elimination of CIDA, something new is happening administratively, but it is more to do with the organizational packaging and politicization of aid than anything else.

Calling the CIDA-DFAIT merger the first legislated mandate for Canadian development assistance is akin to the Diamond Shreddies advertising campaign – selling the same old square Shreddies by tipping them on their side and insisting they are something new.  This government wants Canadians to think it is reigning in the reckless and problematic CIDA with a novel “first” attempt to shape Canadian aid, but in the end, we are left with a redundant and nearly identical mandate in some “new and improved” packaging.  Canada’s first legislated mandate is still in place in the form of 2008’s ODAA Act and, as others have suggested, Minister Fantino and DFATD should still report against this original legislated mandate as CIDA had since 2009.

This post originally appeared on the Ottawa Citizen Aid & Development Blog on 2013/06/27.

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.