3 things Julian Fantino should know about CIDA

Julian Fantino, in taking over the Canadian International Development Agency, will helm an organization that observers and those inside the organization say has sinking morale and has strayed from its goal of helping the world's neediest people. Here are three things he should know about CIDA.

What the new minister needs to know about the Canadian International Development Agency

As Bev Oda leaves her role as the minister in charge of the Canadian International Development Agency and Julian Fantino steps in, CBC News has prepared a list of what he'll need to know. (CIDA)

Julian Fantino, in taking over the Canadian International Development Agency, will helm an organization that observers and those inside the organization say has sinking morale and has strayed from its goal of helping the world’s neediest people.

The former associate minister of national defence has a gruff, stiff manner. Before he was elected MP for the Ontario riding of Vaughan two years ago, Fantino was the Ontario’s commissioner of emergency preparedness. He has also headed the Toronto Police Service and the Ontario Provincial Police.

CIDA doesn’t seem a natural fit for a former cop. He’s also expected to be a hands-on minister, something former CIDA minister Bev Oda was criticized for, at least internally. An official who has worked with Fantino says he's outcome-oriented and looking for results.

"What you can expect from him at any job that he does is to really work hard. If you’re placing bets, he’s going to meet his goals," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Oda managed a few changes at CIDA over her five years in charge, leaving a different agency than the one she inherited. Here are three things Fantino should consider as he starts his new job.

1. The agency's goals have changed — a lot

In 2009, the government announced it would focus 80 per cent of Canada’s aid money on 20 countries around the world. Eight African countries were trimmed from the list in an attempt to refocus on the Western Hemisphere. Two years later, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a focus on the poorest women and children through a G8 plan to fund maternal and child health. That drew the focus back toward Africa. Currently, CIDA is pushing its plan to partner with mining and resource development to develop local economies.

Samantha Nutt, founder of War Child, says it takes years to know whether international development is hitting its goals. Changing goals and refocusing aid every few years makes it harder to see results and know what's working.

"It creates a certain amount of cynicism at the field level as well, because there's this sense that new priorities are announced, everyone rushes towards those new priorities because they obviously want to maintain their programs and their profile and their presence, and then three years later it's something else.

"And especially on the ground, local communities go, 'Well, what is it now?' And they're always contorting to meet those peculiar demands and unfortunately it stops us, I think, from being able to do meaningful development work that actually makes a difference," Nutt said on CBC Radio’s The Current.

The Conservatives aren't the first government to "have a short attention span," as Stephen Brown, an associate professor in political science at the University of Ottawa, put it. And Oda has received some credit for a more lasting change: untying aid, meaning Canadian money could buy supplies outside the country rather than spending it domestically and then shipping the supplies overseas.

But Canada was way behind other countries when it made the move, said Brown, editor of the upcoming book Struggling for Effectiveness: CIDA and Canadian Foreign Aid.

"So yes, it happened while she was minister, which is a good thing, but it makes it sound like good leadership when we're really just behind on the trend," said Brown.

2. Staff morale could use a boost

Oda ran the department with tight controls and was known to micro-manage to the extent that public servants joked she was the best-paid project officer at the agency. It started taking longer to get decisions on projects, leaving staff waiting to hear back from her office. She also turned over political staff at the rate of one a month, according to a former staffer. On the public service side, experienced people started leaving the agency.

"She became such a micro-manager … without having the necessary knowledge," Brown said. "And the people who were actually managing the projects were perfectly capable of making sound decisions."

Brown says part of that control stemmed from the Prime Minister's Office and that the political direction was about using aid to help with "Canadians' commercial, diplomatic and strategic interests around the world."

The agency is left "really searching for a heart and soul," said Faris Ahmed, director of Canadian programs at USC Canada, an international development agency with a focus on agriculture.

"In some ways they’ve been lucky to have a minister that's lasted so long because that allows an agency to plant some roots. Ideas and policies work their way throughout the agency so more co-ordination can occur," he said.

"But at the same time, I'm sure the agency is not always in control of its own decisions and is wondering whether the directions it's taking are going to remain."

3. Mandate, funding choices unclear

A number of the recent changes have meant the agency is being used to support Canada's trade goals rather than helping the world's poorest people, Nutt and Brown said. The reasons for more specific funding decisions, however, are less clear.

Narrowing the focus to certain countries "more closely linked our bilateral aid to Canada’s trade interests," Nutt told The Current

"You would hope that the focus was on the neediest countries, the neediest populations and that there was some fairly straightforward and objective criteria by which you measure that, and unfortunately that didn’t materialize."

Brown said the overall picture of the last five years is that Canadian foreign aid is "doing less of what it should do, which is fight poverty in poor countries, and more of what it shouldn't be doing, which is promote Canadian interests."

Ahmed said there are times the trade and anti-poverty goals line up.

"If aid policies are in fact enhancing the basic goal of CIDA, which is to eradicate poverty, then yes, trade policies and aid policies can work together. Economic growth and social justice can co-exist and be mutually reinforcing. But it isn't always the case."

Other factors are less clear. Brown said the civil servants working with the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often don't know why projects they recommend are denied funding.

An infamous decision not to give money to faith-based group KAIROS is a good example, he said, because documents released under federal access to information laws show civil servants right up to CIDA president Margaret Biggs recommended Oda approve the project.

"That’s emblematic of the lack of transparency, because that was entirely a political decision and any pretence that it was about aid effectiveness is a complete lie," Brown said.

Similarly, most development experts agree that safe abortions are a key part of women's health, particularly in countries where rape is a weapon of war, but the government excluded abortion from its G8 maternal and child health funding. Oda refused to explain how that would work in practice if Canada was training medical professionals or building and stocking clinics, or giving funding to multilateral organizations that use money from a number of countries to bankroll a variety of projects.

It's up to the minister whether or not to make a political decision, Brown acknowledges, but the government hasn't been honest about it.

"They’re claiming it’s about aid effectiveness when so clearly it is not. The more fundamental issue is how untransparent they have been about true motivations for decisions while pretending they are being transparent and accountable."