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.

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.