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Elimination of CIDA mixed blessing so far

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The federal budget Thursday held few surprises. For weeks there had been talk about eliminating the deficit and filling gaps in needed labour skills. But for those working in international development, the announcement that the Canadian International Development Agency would become a subsidiary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade came as a shock. Even CIDA staff revealed that they learned of the change the same way I did, from a tweet sent Thursday by the CBC's Evan Solomon.

The news, unanticipated as it was, is not all bad. NGOs in Canada and concerned citizens have long advocated that international co-operation warrants a senior ministry. With this budget, we got our wish.

But at what cost? The government says its decision was a reflection of increased "linkages between our foreign policy, development and trade objectives." For years, Canadian governments, Liberal and Conservative alike, have stated the need for greater coherence in Canada's foreign policy. But does the department's absorption of CIDA signal an end to the clear focus on the eradication of poverty? Will the amalgamation result in a development agenda focused more on Canada's own trade and foreign-policy interests?

Not necessarily. Crossroads International supports public-private partnerships by leveraging the skills of Canadian citizens and through partnerships with private-sector actors. This year alone, Canadian coffee roasters will support more than 180 Bolivian families growing coffee gaining access to the Canadian market. The partnership benefits all parties, but the focus is on providing opportunities for the Bolivian producers. Engaging private-sector actors can be effective, and yes, there are benefits to Canadians. But for my development dollar, I want the focus to be on the people who need it.

With Canada's development assistance in decline (current estimates are just 0.25 per cent of our gross national income), we could learn from the U.K. They displayed great leadership last week when they announced in their budget they would dedicate 0.7 per cent of their GNI to reduce global poverty.

This makes the U.K. the first of the G8 countries to reach a globally agreed target for wealthy nations, first posited by Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson in the 1960s. This was achieved despite the threat of a triple-dip recession and in an austerity budget. The U.K. knows global development will deliver a more balanced, resilient global economy and trigger a domino effect of improved health, education, security and good governance.

Canada has been a leader in global development: Remember in 2008 when our government was lauded for its efforts to untie aid? This took leadership. It put the needs and interests of the poor first. That is the kind of leadership we need.

Our money has helped spur economic development so people can feed their families and send their children to school. It saved lives by increasing access to health care. It has empowered women, advanced human rights and contributed to good governance around the world. It has made a real difference in the lives of millions.

It is crucial that our long-term plans for development dollars not be trumped by business and diplomatic interests. Regardless of economic interests at home, this money is allocated to put an end to extreme poverty, and we cannot lose sight of its purpose. We have to stop shuffling the deck and start dealing in real change.

Karen Takacs is the executive director of Crossroads International, an NGO committed to advancing the rights of women and girls and creating sustainable livelihoods for all.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2013 A7

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