A risk of criticizing the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is that people will conclude that foreign aid is a waste of money and that CIDA itself should be abolished. However, that would be a dangerous overreaction. There is still a strong need for both.
A recently published book I edited, Struggling for Effectiveness: CIDA and Canadian Foreign Aid, examines many problems with the agency. During the question-and-answer period at a panel discussion held at the University of Ottawa on October 3, some members of the public seemed to conclude that CIDA was ineffective overall and suggested that foreign aid was somehow passé.
True, several of the book chapters argue that CIDA generally compares rather poorly to many of its counterparts in other donor countries. But that does not mean that it does not do valuable work. Among other things, CIDA helps to educate children, fight malnutrition, provide treatment for people with HIV/AIDS and care for refugees around the world. It also does less visible but no less important things to strengthen developing countries’ own ability to meet long-term development challenges.
It is also true that foreign aid is not the only factor that leads to economic growth and poverty reduction – or even necessarily the most important one. Trade, investment and state-led industrialization strategies have played important roles in much of the progress we have witnessed in recent decades. China, South Korea and other East Asian countries are good illustrations of that. Still, not all countries have the human capital and the institutional structures to follow their example. For those that don’t, aid will continue to play a key role in building national capacities, as well as in supporting those who are not benefitting from the forces of globalization. So CIDA is not passé, nor is aid.
The book does not provide a simple fix-it scheme for CIDA. Its problems are complex – and any solutions must necessarily be so as well. But some important recommendations do emerge. A crucial one is dramatically reducing political interference in the work of the agency. CIDA has smart, well-qualified staff who understand the intricacies of development. CIDA’s political masters, though, box in the development experts with changing priorities and pet projects that aim to impress Canadian voters. They also like to use CIDA funds to advance Canadian commercial, diplomatic and security objectives. These practices ignore decades of learning about the best ways to promote development. The book concludes that Canadian foreign aid would be a lot more effective if CIDA were allowed to apply its expertise and focus on its legislated mandate: fighting poverty. Wouldn’t that be a good start?
More information on Struggling for Effectiveness: CIDA and Canadian Foreign Aid is available here.
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