Each year, thousands of people compete for jobs at the Department of Foreign Affairs. But, while many are called, few are chosen (100-ish). Yet yesterday, DFAIT’s ranks swelled by 1800 people, most of whom no doubt greeted the news with a lot less enthusiasm than DFAIT’s normal hirings. With the announcement that CIDA was being “folded” into DFAIT, many are stressed that this sounds a death knell for development, that all principles of development will go out the window, and that CIDA will essentially disappear. Fortunately, the announcements of CIDA’s death may be a bit premature.
Some broader context, timelines up until 1998
Prior to WWII, most “economic development history” consisted of experiences with colonization, not development assistance as we know it. International development in its modern form actually began with Foreign Affairs types. When WWII ended, and reconstruction began in Europe, people thought, “Hey, we just need to do the same thing in developing countries, and it will work.” They neglected to take into account that European reconstruction worked because Europe already had working systems that produced the development in the first place, experience in managing it, and a tax and resource base to sustain it. Not surprisingly, the same methods didn’t work in developing countries and the early 1960s saw those same DFAIT types who had been struggling with a lack of success starting to think there was a need for separate organizational entities to deal with this type of issue. In Canada, this resulted in the External Aid Office, which ran for three years as part of DFAIT before being hived off as a separate agency.
Most people think that this is the natural order of things in government organization — an aid agency that runs “separately” and relatively independently. So much so that many CIDA types up until about 1998 (more on this later) could conveniently even forget they worked for a government department instead of a large NGO, except when it came to higher paycheques and few concerns about fund-raising. Yet this assumption of a natural model is false, as there have always been about five different organizational models of how to structure an aid agency’s relationship with its Foreign Affairs counterparts amongst the various donors.
For the sake of simplicity, these models can usually be divided on the basis of who does priority setting, who does program design, and who does program delivery. Some countries have integrated the functions (like the Nordics) in Foreign Affairs; others have priority-setting done by Foreign Affairs or Trade but program design and delivery are done by a separate entity (various donors); and, others have a model (like Canada’s) that priority-setting, program design and program delivery are all in a separate entity.
CIDA has always had an uneasy alliance with DFAIT over who does priority-setting. Up until about 1988 or so, DFAIT had a lot of influence on CIDA, even with it being a separate entity. That was partly just a reflection of Canada (through DFAIT) being a pretty strong voice internationally, partly international approaches, etc. Relations with other countries, whether it be bilateral or multilateral, trade receiving or trade sending, developed or developing, was just assumed to be a purview of Foreign Affairs and most countries followed that model. Yet that influence was wielded subtly on “priority-setting” simply because DFAIT had no priorities. They wanted relations with any country that didn’t start with C and end in A, and even on that, they were willing to make exceptions for China, Cambodia, etc.
But between 1988 and 1992, the sheen of DFAIT started to wane a bit, and the model of the last 20 years was further entrenched by the early 90s with three developments:
- the new “Canada in the World” document which outlined strong aid roles that were their own chapter (and established four main themes plus two cross-cutting themes, but said little about program design or delivery);
- large-scale cuts to DFAIT’s overseas representation as part of Program Review; and,
- the transfer of a chunk of money and people from DFAIT to CIDA (for Central and Eastern Europe programming).
All three together tended to give CIDA a bit of “leave me alone and stick to your own problems” type vibe when it came to priority-setting and entrenched the idea that program design and delivery were clearly outside the purview of DFAIT. This got CIDA through the 1990s relatively unscathed in terms of changing what they did. While Chretien was PM, no countries were cut from the aid list … sure, budgets went down, projects became smaller, but CIDA remained active everywhere it had been before.
A changing landscape: 1998 and beyond
Many people at CIDA who have retired in recent years can attribute much of their displeasure with “aid management” to beginning in the 1998-2000 years. It was the time period where TBS, Finance and PCO/PMO decided that it was time CIDA started acting like all other government departments and less like a “separate agency” with separate operating powers. More rigorous reviews of results statements, deputies with more central agency experience behind them, promotions of EXs would not always be “from within”, DGs and ADMs would need to rotate to other departments and get other experiences. DFAIT even tried to re-assert itself, but that didn’t go over so well across the river.
In addition, Maria Minna was Minister for CIDA and whereas most Ministers before had managed at the high levels, Minna established the Social Development Priorities for CIDA. And set spending targets. With a baseline to compare it to, which almost no one ever does in government. Normally, projects get “retooled”, spun, etc., and you count it as the new priority. For example, if you have a $10M project in girls’ education, one day you count it as Gender Equality, the next you count it as Education, and voila, you have $10M more spent on Education. But Minna set a baseline — if you counted it as Gender Equality the first time, it stayed as Gender Equality, you couldn’t relabel it and count it as something new. And the rubber started to hit the road in 2001 when the Agency realized it would have trouble meeting those spending targets.
While it was supposed to affect about 40% of CIDA programming, the reality is that much of CIDA’s programming is multi-year and therefore pre-committed annually. As a result, all new programming that started in 2000, 2001, 2002 etc had to help meet the targets, and suddenly 80% of new programming was going to Social Development. This pushed the normal focus of MInisters from broad priority-setting down into program design, and many CIDA-ites who were passionate about areas that weren’t “social” suddenly saw the central agency interference and SDPs as something to be weathered, not embraced. After all, many weak Ministers had mucked around previously in areas they didn’t understand but the staff had always been able to outwait them to return to greater latitude to focus on core development principles once they were gone.
What most CIDA-types didn’t realize at the time was that they were playing catch-up with other departments that central agencies had already brought to heel and that the push wasn’t “one temporary Minister”. Repeated DMs since then have had the same focus — clear priorities, value for money, demonstrating results, commitment to broader government goals. In short, CIDA was told to operate like any other government department and stop acting like an NGO with a giant bank account, which is how central agencies saw their discretionary spending authority. And many of CIDA’s Ministers arrived with the same mandates.
Susan Whelan, at the time, was considered by many CIDA-ites as the worst Minister ever, or alternatively, the best PM-05 they ever had. She was detail-oriented, she wanted to know priorities, she wanted to know minute details on projects. In short, she wanted to be involved not only in priority-setting but comprehensive program design as well. And she launched the largest change to CIDA in 35 years — “countries of concentration“. CIDA would no longer be “all things to all people”, but instead would start pulling out of countries and redirecting resources to other countries of higher need. At least in theory. A political cartoon at the time showed Whelan announcing that CIDA would focus on countries with strong democratic principles, an established track record, and a stable safety environment — with the punchline being that our first country of concentration would be Switzerland. Many at CIDA saw this as being a bit close to the truth — after all, those countries that were democratic, strong-performers and stable probably didn’t need help as much as those that were failing, low performers and in conflict.
While it may at first appear that “politicians” were driving the bus, it should be noted that a large-scale change in government did not change the government’s approach to CIDA. Conservative or Liberal, the change of the last 15 years has been consistent. Demands for more priority-setting, less “all things to all people”, more interest in program design, stronger desire to see demonstrable results. All of it consistent with broader government messaging to all departments. And these changes are not unique to Canada — pretty much all donors have faced the same pressures.
Following the logic
Part of the demand is a complete disconnect in terms of program logic. For central-agency types (including policy wonks who advise Ministers, PMs, etc.), the logic is straightforward:
- All Canadians have a right to know they are getting value for their taxes;
- Accountability is universal, it applies to all entities of the government;
- No department should have large-scale discretionary powers that are not subject to strong oversight;
- Ministers and DMs alone cannot provide oversight, they need TBS, Finance, PCO to weigh in to ensure a strong focus on “priorities”;
- Canada should provide development assistance and humanitarian aid to those in need;
- Canada cannot help everyone, Canada cannot do it alone and Canada’s resources are finite; and,
- All departments should work together on common Government priorities.
Therefore, the conclusion is a need for common / shared priority-setting (number of countries, number of sectors) and focused, targeted program design and delivery. All of which they say should, like all Government programming should, include strong performance measurement, close management of projects, and strong reporting to Canadians. (Insert thought of flag-waving central agency types here).
For those who are passionate about development, the logic is also straight-forward:
- Canada has a duty to help those in need;
- Need is not determined by whether we like them or they have something to offer, aid is given not exchanged;
- If you help one country, but not its neighbour, you’re perpetuating sources of conflict which respect no political boundaries;
- Short-term humanitarian aid is always the simplest, purest form of assistance, but it is insufficient and unsustainable without longer-term development assistance; and,
- Sustainable development requires broad engagements, including social development, economic development, governance; environment, etc.
Therefore, the conclusion is for bilateral and multilateral engagements across a broad disparate range of areas in order to achieve development goals.
It’s a fundamental disconnect, and one-way governments try to resolve it is to consider what the taxpayers say. This is of little help in Canadian discussions. Citizens in Quebec and the Eastern provinces tend to poll quite highly on supporting both humanitarian aid and development assistance on altruistic grounds (similar to the CIDAites logic above). Out west, the four provinces poll high on support but also want to know how it benefits Canadians. And the logic is closely aligned with central agency approaches — a strong commitment to performance, focused interventions, etc. Plus, the West would argue, if there is a benefit to Canada, all the better, not to mention that nobody wants to fund terrorists or militaries that are oppressing their citizens, do they? Meanwhile, Ontario lies in the middle — ranking high on both altruistic support and self-interested support.
The end result is the belief by many of those who are “driving the bus” that you can serve both interests simultaneously. It’s a bit reminiscent of an old ad campaign of Quaker Oats in the mid- to late-1980s. As people were beginning to recognize the benefits of strong breakfasts to start the day, and of fibre in your diet, Quaker Oats launched a massive ad campaign, complete with Wilford Brimley, extolling the benefits of Quaker Oatmeal as the “right thing to do”. The campaign tanked. So, they tweaked it — they added a phrase…”Quaker Oatmeal, it’s the right thing to do, and a tasty way to do it“. Government policy on international assistance worldwide has followed the same approach for years in many jurisdictions. “It’s the right thing to do, and it’s good for us too“. And this will come as a shock to DFAIT and central agencies, but CIDA knows it’s good for Canada too. They just don’t think it should be a factor in priority-setting.
The myth of policy coherence
The OECD Development Assistance Committee Secretariat tried to do a lot of work in the early 2000s on “policy coherence”. The Netherlands even created a policy coherence unit to look at development assistance impacts of other policies. But here’s the catch — policy coherence doesn’t really exist. It’s a “myth”, of sorts at least.
For Canada, one of the examples often touted as policy incoherence is “trade”. We used to give millions of dollars to Bangladesh, for example, in aid, and then charged huge tariffs on imports coming from that same country. Give with one hand, take with another. Must be incoherent, right? Except there’s something missing from that equation.
Let’s look at if from the trade perspective. Canada strongly supports a multilateral trading system with rules, transparency and a goal of negotiations between equal partners who engage in reputable trade practices. When others don’t play by the same rules (either through low wages or unsafe labour practices, thus driving down the prices of their goods), we would impose tariffs to level the playing field. Then, recognizing that it wasn’t REALLY a level playing field, we would then give aid to Bangladesh to help their development. Not only was Canada being consistent with the WTO and even giving back, but we were also redistributing wealth in Bangladesh by taxing companies that were exporting but giving the resources back to social programs, etc. Yay us, right?
Well, the development types don’t see it that way. For them, our trade pillaging is wiping out the benefits of the development assistance. Which makes it look incredibly incoherent when viewed from the lens of development.
Which was the OECD’s conclusion, quickly buried. Policy coherence exists in two forms. One where the lens is “policy coordination” where you eliminate inconsistencies such as something simple like not accepting immigration refugees in a country but still having an immigration office there. Simple, obvious things. Or trying to increase trade with a country through an export development project while simultaneously participating in embargos on the same country. This isn’t really about policy coherence, it is just about eliminating externalities and inconsistencies.
On a higher level, policy coherence is about resolving two conflicting policies and requires you to make a policy decision (i.e. to choose a lens) — which is the higher priority? In the humanitarian aid realm, would we provide aid to a country whose political regime we refuse to recognize? Which is more important — our commitment to humanitarianism or our concern about reinforcing political regimes?
Often the case isn’t so stark, and central agency types mistake the first type of policy coherence (policy consistency) for the second type (hierarchy of principles). But this is just the Quaker Oatmeal approach to policy coherence — it’s BOTH good for you and a tasty way to do it. It doesn’t address what happens when you have two competing ideas — one that is not good but is still tasty or one that is good but not tasty. Which do you choose and how?
The central agency approach to these matters has been relatively clear and consistent for the last 20 years. Put the organizations that deal with the issues together in the same entity and let them hash it out. An “administrative” solution, a structural solution, not necessarily a strong endorsement of any one approach, and one that generally doesn’t require any tough decision-making by the machinery of government folks. The tough work is left to the new department.
But it doesn’t exist, so don’t worry if a bunch of DFAITers go looking for it.
So you’re saying CIDA is screwed, right? Trade will now trump development?
Probably not. Heck, the trade types don’t even trump the political relations types except when directly negotiating a new trade deal. While most CIDA types are no doubt depressed today, there are a few things the Birkenstock-wearing Portage dwellers should know about the dark suits of Fort Pearson. My top ten list, so to speak, delivered irreverently.
First of all, there’s no room for you on Sussex Drive. No empty offices to accommodate 1800 people or whatever number are in HQ these days. So don’t expect to be physically assimilated anytime soon. Distance protects you.
Second, DFAIT doesn’t know how to manage projects. They never have, and hence why central agencies moved CEE to CIDA. Projects need project managers, not Foreign Service Officers, to manage them. Sure, they ran a bunch of landmine projects and human security projects, but where did they poach managers from? CIDA.
Third, show a DFAIT minister 800 memos a year on aid projects and their eyes will glaze over. Expect that it will be bumpy for a while, and project approvals will slow even more than usual, but they still need to get money out the door.
Fourth, DFAIT has traditionally been one of the worst departments in terms of their ability to set priorities. Oh, sure, it says they have priorities (like “the world”), and sure, they get forced to close embassies. But the key there is “forced”. DFAIT has never met a country it didn’t like, a sector it didn’t support, or a constituency whose butt it couldn’t kiss. And since we are one of the few countries in the world with active immigration, we have domestic constituencies galore. It is a Department renowned for its inability to say “no” to anyone. DFAIT directors drool at the chance to have more countries to talk to, and while they won’t be drastically raiding the piggy bank, you should expect them to come up with shockingly renewed support for active Canada Funds for everyone! Before, they wanted CIDA to concentrate in places they either cared about (Americas) or places they didn’t (Africa) rather than mess around with anything in flux (Asia, CEE, etc.). Know what else? The development community in Canada is loud, organized, and relatively consistent in their message. And all governments hate bad press. Start playing REALLY bad games with development, rather than just mucking around at the edges, and it shows up fast. And DFAIT hates public criticism even more than running out of liquor.
Fifth, all that pesky performance reporting focused on LT results? Forget about it…DFAIT thinks they hit a home run if their Minister even speaks to someone from another country. And if the PM gives a speech that mentions both Canada and the word international, they’re cracking the bubbly. Give them a project out the door and a few photo ops, and the Ambassador will start planning their next promotion.
Sixth, development substance baffles diplomatic BS every time. At the UN, for example, most of the delegates are DFAIT types. Baby dips in training, often, but sometimes full diplomats. Yet, regardless of experience, every time we talked with them, if we brought development substance to the discussion, they folded like a proverbial house of cards. They bluff a good game, but when push comes to shove, the majority understand political relations, trade deals, negotiations, compromise and interpersonal relationships. You want to talk about PSD, GE, education reform, capacity building? Umm, time for lunch, they’ll get back to you on that. Country strategies based on economic and political analysis down to the grassroots level? Puhlease, isn’t there a cocktail party to go to soon?
Seventh, more seriously, and perhaps most important, DFAIT understands humanitarian assistance and human rights. They may not understand how to achieve it, promote, develop it, deliver it, etc., but they get that it’s important. For them, it is ingrained in the principles of Canadian foreign policy. They don’t view it quite the way CIDA does, but it’s important, and they know it.
Eighth, DFAIT is not your father’s External Affairs department. DFAIT has changed a lot in terms of its internal culture, less Borg-like in its approach. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still DFAIT, but a little softer in the middle, a little mellower than it used to be. Millennials don’t get assimilated as fast as their older counterparts.
Ninth, and in the same vein, some of the DFAIT people are almost human. No, I’m serious, they’re not just for sleeping with when you’re on posting and feeling homesick. Yes, we all know what goes on with the fraternization while you’re on posting. I even know that some of you, gasp, have actually married DFAIT types and even reproduced with them. Or worked with them closely enough that you moved back and forth in your career! Shocking, I know. It may be Stockholm Syndrome, but remember they have the same concerns about you coming — just as you fear having to wear a dark suit, they fear having to see Birkenstocks in their staff meetings.
Tenth, somewhat odd I confess, you have Peter Boehm as their deputy. And now yours. I don’t know him personally, and all reputations of DFAITers are usually mixed, yet a few people whose opinions I trust do like him both personally and professionally. But more importantly, and he probably doesn’t advertise this widely, he’s also an NPSIA grad. HIs NPSoid leanings might have become buried under his time in Germany and Washington or dealing with G8 stuff, but his time in the OAS role would have certainly brought a lot of issues to the fore for him. Considering many of CIDA’s deputies of the last 15 years have had little formal international experience before taking over CIDA, it may be a refreshing change for some to have a seasoned international veteran in the big non-political chair.
It’s a lot of change, but stay strong, remember that your best advice doesn’t change, and don’t pick out your dark suits quite yet. After all, the first rule of government is that things both change and stay the same; the second rule of government is that governments change their mind or their stripe; and the third rule of government is that machinery of government folks who propose things such as mergers and separations like to keep busy.
And, all other attributes aside, you can’t claim you only have a “weak” minister anymore! 🙂 Now get back to work. Don’t forget too — most of the Nordics use the same model, so it isn’t all bad.