Is International Development IR? Canada says yes.

Is international development a sub-set of everyday IR? In other words, should foreign aid be another means of furthering Canada’s “national interest”? The Canadian government seems to think so, announcing last week that it plans to merge the formerly independent Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT). But what does this mean for Canada’s development priorities, and most importantly, for recipients of Canadian aid? Are Canada’s international political and economic objectives complementary to those it claims to promote through aid assistance?

CIDA’s stated goal, since its creation in 1968, has been to support sustainable development in poor countries “in order to reduce poverty and contribute to a more secure, equitable and prosperous world”. Since its founding, CIDA has been an independent government agency although ultimately reporting to parliament. In fact, since the time of CIDA’s first president, Maurice Strong, there has been recognition that CIDA needs institutional autonomy in order for development objectives to remain separate from political considerations. Last week’s decision changes that.

However, this move is just the last in what has been a fairly rapid transformation of the agency. CIDA has come under scrutiny in the past few years for a number of decisions made by the Harper administration and the bungling ministers of International Cooperation it has appointed to oversee the organization. Most recently, our current Minister (and former Toronto police chief, because that’s an obvious career path) announced that Canada would be freezing all future aid to impoverished Haiti, long an important target of Canadian assistance. This comes on the heels of a number of controversial budget cuts to respected Canadian NGOs, which the government deemed to be no longer reflective of Canada’s priorities – the most important of which seem to be refraining from criticism of Israel or the actions of Canadian mining companies abroad.

All this is not to claim that CIDA has been consistently shielded from other areas of foreign policy. Previous governments have not resisted the temptation to use aid to various political ends, and the advent of the “whole-of-government approach” (meaning departments should work together, not at cross-purposes) has simply exacerbated these tendencies . However, the pursuit of various benefits for Canada, particularly economic ones, has intensified under this government – and in particular, it seem to have no qualms about using development aid for these purposes.

Clearly, even before last week’s announcement, CIDA’s agenda was moving increasingly in line with Canada’s economic interests abroad, the most prominent of which may be securing Canadian company access to extractive opportunities in other countries. To this end, CIDA recently began partnering with Canadian mining companies to support their corporate social responsibility projects, thus using tax dollars to pay for what is meant by definition to be a private initiative.

While supporting local industries is a laudable goal, funding the CSR projects of mining companies is not quite the same thing. Aside from being a notorious polluter and its well documented involvement in human rights abuses (as documented by a Canadian mining industry association in 2009), the mining industry is not terribly conducive to local economic growth. It is a capital intensive industry (entailing low levels of local employment and sourcing) and most raw materials are not processed in the countries where they are extracted. While the industry could contribute to local development through redistribution of royalties and taxes, for a variety of reasons this has not been the prevailing outcome in most countries where Canadian companies are in operation. What partnering with mining companies on their CSR projects does achieve, however, is an alignment of Canada’s international aid and economic objectives, something former International Cooperation minister Bev Oda claimed were the same thing.

If aid has already been increasingly mobilized as a tool for achieving Canada’s economic interests, why is this institutional change significant? Most importantly we think this change is likely to have the effect of legitimizing the government’s existing efforts to align development priorities and trade objectives. The mining projects noted above were conceived of as pilot projects, and in many respects are exceptions to the bulk of initiatives the government supports for genuinely development purposes (even if these are sometimes poorly conceived or implemented). Subsuming CIDA under the DFAIT umbrella means these projects can effectively become the norm; the move is based on problematic assumption that development and other foreign policies align.

Such alignment is, however, inherently conflictual. As an extreme example, these mining projects serve to underscore these tensions. Rather than promoting businesses and sectors that do lead to local growth, or at the very least supporting recipient governments in strengthening state controls and the ability to capture economic benefits of investment, Canada’s concern is with influencing institutions and regulation in developing countries in ways that foster Canadian investment.

Ultimately, this move raises a set of larger issues that those who do development work have been long preoccupied with. While on the surface many of these debates are about aid effectiveness – meaning that, among other characteristics, aid meets recipient demands and is targeted to the poorest – we would argue that at issue is to what extent international development is or is not treated as simply another tool to pursue Canada’s interests abroad. Aid effectiveness hinges on this choice.

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