A Forced Marriage: DFAIT and CIDA for better or for worse

Recently Canadians have witnessed a forced marriage with the merger of CIDA and DFAIT into the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development (DFATD).  This union was forced, in a sense, because at least one of the ‘partners’ in the merger appears to have been forced into it unwillingly.  It is of course the government’s prerogative to shuffle the deck in the bureaucracy as it sees fit; but it does not mean that those departments swallowed up or forced into a union with another are any more willing.  The hasty departure of CIDA’s former President following the merger likely indicates some of the reticence of the Agency and its leadership regarding the process.

After witnessing the announcement of this marriage in spring 2013, it is clear that it is still far from being consummated.  Yes, the CIDA moniker has been obliterated from signs out front of 200 promenade du Portage.  Yes, the CIDA website has been mostly absorbed into the new DFATD site.  Yet, more than six months on, very little has changed outwardly in terms of how the two organizations function together.

As witnesses to this wedding, the Canadian development community, taxpayers, and the public at large have been asked to accept the union of the two departments for the sake of greater coherence, efficiency, and support for Canadian values and interests.  Some former diplomats and foreign affairs experts have responded optimistically to the union, cheering on the new couple because it means that Canada’s aid can finally walk in lockstep with our trade and diplomatic interests.  Others, mostly from Canada’s community of development practitioners and experts, have reacted more like Benjamin Braddock, banging loudly on the glass at the back of the church in the penultimate scene of The Graduate. Much to their dismay, it seems there is no stopping this wedding.

Those hoping for a quickie divorce of CIDA and DFAIT following elections in 2015 are also likely to find themselves disappointed.  The time, energy, and money invested in dissecting CIDA into its constituent parts and carefully stitching them onto the former-DFAIT org chart are unlikely to be easily reversed.   To be sure, this merger will turn out to be an expensive process – the projected costs of which the Government has been silent about to this point.  Though from the outside it has not looked like a lavish wedding, a reorganization of this scale will certainly incur significant upfront costs that, at least for the short term, will outweigh any cost savings or efficiencies that result from the merger.  These costs are borne by the Canadian taxpayers and might well have gone towards promoting poverty reduction and economic development abroad, but have instead been channeled into an opaque and weakly justified exercise in bureaucratic bricolage.

The good news is that the Government has brought in wedding planners to help.  Usually couples engage such help before the wedding occurs – but in this case we are seeing the planning happen after the fact.  Media reports from last week cite an internal DFATD memo that identifies the members of an External Advisory Group (EAG) consisting of a foreign affairs expert, three current or former Canadian and UN diplomats, and the head of a Canadian mining company.  With a couple of EAG members previously declared as supporters of the merger (see here and here), it is difficult to see how the post-hoc planning of the new DFATD will proceed with a critical eye that incorporates the concerns that the merger will lead to an aid program more skewed toward promoting Canada’s commercial and political interests than development and poverty reduction abroad.

CIDA and DFAIT are embroiled in the slow process of becoming one entity.  A costly endeavor with real implications for Canada’s role on the global stage, it appears that six months into the merger process we are no closer to having a transparent account of how DFATD will act to deliver Canadian aid moving forward.  To this point, only media reports on the leaks of internal memos and e-mails have shed light on how the merger is progressing.  The question of how the forced marriage of CIDA and DFAIT will affect Canada’s contributions to poverty reduction and development are still very much up in the air. Canadians can only hope that by the time of the first anniversary of the merger we will have a better sense of how this forced marriage has reshaped Canada’s aid for better or for worse.

This post originally appeared on the Ottawa Citizen Aid & Development Blog on 2013/10/23.