The following is my Huffington Post piece for today on the appointment of a new minister for the Canadian International Development Agency. It’s the wrong choice at the precisely the wrong time and spell difficulties ahead for all the dedicated folks at CIDA.

Note: My apologies for the title on the Huffington Post piece. It was no my choice.

Official international development assistance for the world’s poorest countries has become a precarious business in recent years. If the first five years of the last decade were seen as a time of foreign aid and development renaissance – debt relief, Millennial Development Goals, movement towards more aid accountability – the last five years became the decline of most of these important activities. Then with the arrival of the world economic turndown, advanced governments began the inevitable process of concentrating on the home front at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable and all those promised commitments.

Yet within the international development arm of most of these governments were keen and dedicated professionals who understood the complexities of foreign aid and sustainable development. Certainly they had to learn to do more with less, but in most cases they remained committed to a better and more fair world in a time of deep dislocation. Such individuals hold certain qualities that best reflect the more humanitarian nature of each of their respective countries.

  • A natural compassion
  • A willingness to cooperate with others in the field
  • A deep understanding of the link between development and the environment
  • A refusal to adopt ideological and simplistic arguments or points of view
  • A growing comprehension of the primary importance of the role of women as the key change agents in their respect communities in the developing world.

There are many more, naturally, but these are key traits, building blocks upon which to create and support integrated programs.

Sadly, Canada has just sent a signal to the international aid community that decades of lessons learned now mean little in terms of government policy. The announcement this week that former police chief and Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Julian Fantino will assume ministerial responsibilities for the Canadian International Development Agency hasn’t so much sent a shiver through the entire CIDA network as a deep and abiding freeze.

Fantino earned his reputation as a hard-nose – a take-no-prisoners hardliner who frequently preferred the stick to the carrot. It would be like putting Donald Trump in charge of a micro-enterprise initiative among the poor of Haiti – the consequences will be devastating because the need to be in charge will surely eclipse the need to be smart.

For CIDA, the move will likely be the final straw for a group of dedicated professionals who hung in there with the organization because of their ultimate commitment to the world’s destitute – a number now growing exponentially each year. Say what you want about former CIDA minister Bev Oda, she made sincere attempts to connect with those she met on many of her on-site visits.

In so many ways this is the key failure regarding Stephen Harper’s appointment of Fantino. The Harper government made great fanfare of their commitment to the world’s poorest women and girls. Putting an aggressive former cop over that noble pursuit will now set Canada’s reputation as a compassionate nation back even further.

Difficult days lie ahead for CIDA. It is about to be hollowed out from the inside – not just by executive blindness, but by the loss of the very people who understand about development in the first place. They will now begin making their way to other organizations, realizing that you can’t oversee an accountable and compassionate government agency when a Prime Minister selects someone more interested in domestic partisanship than international cooperation.

CIDA had already opted to freeze its assistance rates for five years before making even more cutbacks. A Harper government that should be credited for raising assistance rates in its first few years, has now cut it all away – including the persevering commitment of CIDA staff. It’s hard to imagine a move that could have sent so many negative effects as Fantino’s appointment. It won’t be too much of a stretch to change the organization’s name to the Canadian International Detective Agency. Our official compassionate days are now clearly in our past.