CIDA’s Unspent Money

In January, Canada’s Minister for International Cooperation, Julian Fantino, made waves in the press by suggesting that there was a de facto freeze on new aid to Haiti. He then proceeded to justify this freeze by suggesting that Canadians had a ‘right’ to demand better development results out of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. As Haiti’s second largest aid donor after the United States, this indeed came as a shock to not only the Canadian aid community, but also to the Haitian government and diplomats who deal with CIDA as the main channel of Canadian support for the country.

While much was made of Minister Fantino’s cavalier assessment of Haiti and its ongoing problems despite the presence of copious amounts of aid, less attention was paid to the possible implications of this sort of freeze for Canadian aid more broadly.   In particular, no one seemed to question what a freeze on one of Canada’s largest aid programs means for Canada’s overall aid spending – a question made even more pressing this year given the cuts to Canada’s aid programs announced in the May 2012 budget.

As a former CIDA official, I can speak from experience that in the March run-up to the end of fiscal year at the Agency is a frantic period of trying to spend funds which have yet to be disbursed lest they go unspent and are lost to the aid budget altogether.  It is with particular interest, then, that I noted a report by Lee Berthiaume that cited a number of Canadian aid experts expressing surprise at CIDA lapsing “as much as $800 million” in unspent funds in the past year.  These funds, instead of funding Canadian efforts to support development globally, were returned to the government’s general coffers.

To contextualize what lapsing that amount of money means to an organization like CIDA, we only need to consider that in its 2011-2012 Report to Parliament, CIDAclaimed it spent just over $3.9 billion.  If reports of it lapsing $800 are confirmed, then this implies a more than 20 percent reduction in aid spending by CIDA in 2012-2013.

Cuts to Canadian aid were expected.  The 2012 federal budget called for a 7.5 percent reduction in aid spending.  Some of this has already been planned for through the restructuring of CIDA’s workforce and the announced closure of bilateral aid programs to partner countries, including China, Cambodia, Malawi, Nepal, Niger, Rwanda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.  Regardless of the wisdom of these cuts, there appears at least to be a plan for how they will be conducted.

In contrast, the news that CIDA is again lapsing hundreds of millions – if not more – in Canadian aid money is more shocking.  What this arguably suggests is the adoption of a willful cutting through inaction.  The freeze on aid to Haiti is only one example.  An anonymous former CIDA colleague of mine put it bluntly and suggested that several programs were indeed frozen in the same manner as Haiti, calling the Haiti freeze only the “tip of the iceberg.”  Indeed, the official stated that as of early January 2013 Pakistan had been without a country strategy for going on two years, and therefore had seen no new bilateral project approvals in that time. Between January and the end of March, a single new project to support elections in Pakistan was approved – the first in two years.  Other countries had been treated similarly.  Still, requests for much-needed support – even those in line with CIDA priorities like maternal, newborn, and child health – pile up awaiting ministerial approval. Arguing that this suits the government of the day perfectly as their top priority is deficit reduction rather than aid, my former colleague paints a bleak picture of the priorities of the leadership within Canada’s aid agency.  Through even the informal freezing of these programs, CIDA is wilfully under-spending its precious aid budget in some of the most complex and deserving of its recipient partner countries.

Ian Smillie, quoted in the Berthiaume article calls this “cutting by other means,” but what it truly reflects is cutting through inaction.  If Minister Fantino chooses not to approve strategies for these and other countries it creates the conditions in which he can easily justify not allocating new funds.  His insistence that new spending be “focused on results” and “not shovelling money out the door” is common sense. Yet, if CIDA – or whatever it will resemble in its new incarnation after the merger with DFAIT – is not able to work within the context of country strategies for key partners then we will find ourselves back at this point again next year with even more unspent aid money – money which can be put to best use creating jobs, immunizing children, or promoting women’s rights.

Recent analysis on this blog by Fraser Reilly-King points to some of the long-term trends in Canadian aid.  With this repeated lapsing of aid funds and the likely chaos associated with the pending CIDA-DFAIT marriage, the ability of a government which appears to hold less and less esteem for keeping up Canada’s commitments to the developing world to continue to cut through inaction will increase.

Without increased scrutiny by the Canadian public, aid community, and partner countries, Minister Fantino’s desk will continue to pile up with memos and country strategies while the Treasury Board harvests unspent CIDA funds to help shore up Tory efforts to shrink the deficit.  If the government wishes to further reduce Canadian aid funding, then they should do it through and open, accountable, publicly and politically debated approach rather than this secretive cutting through inaction.

This post originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen Aid & Development Blog on 2013/04/30.