Monday, April 22, 2013

Opinion: CIDA should not be merged with Foreign Affairs

By Kristopher Schmitz

The upcoming federal budget is proposing a seismic shift of combining the Canadian International Development Agency with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. For many Canadians this may seem like a small change. Both agencies deal with Canada’s interests abroad, so why not combine them to increase efficiency and streamline objectives? 

Part of the objective of combining these agencies is to continue towards a model of Canadian development assistance that is more closely aligned to the private sector. This is part of a trend in many development circles that argue older styles of aid are broken, and that the efficiency of the private sector could help aid initiatives be better implemented.

Waste is something that plagues some larger aid organizations. Therefore, a new approach revolving around the efficient mechanisms often applied in business would be most welcome. However, a worrisome development is the equating of these mechanisms and closer private sector partnerships. They are not necessarily the same. An important question that must be asked is what happens when the shine of investment wears off? For me, working in South Sudan, the answer is a matter of life and death.

I am currently living and working in Jonglei, South Sudan, with a small NGO that operates a health facility. It is a challenging environment. The area of the country where we work is flooded from May to December, meaning the only movement is by air. Currently we are in the dry season and face small bouts of insecurity and cattle rustling as we continue to do our work. As South Sudan has the highest rate of infant mortality in the world, a major focus of our clinic is maternal health. Usually deaths of infants and mothers are due to complications during birth combined with the inaccessibility of surgical services to perform Caesarian sections.

Not far from our health facility, there used to be another hospital that assisted us immensely. It was run as part of a corporate social responsibility project of the oil company ASCOM, based in Moldovia. It had all the relevant maternal health services available, including a fully functional surgical ward. Being only 30 minutes away by vehicle, it served as our referral hospital when we had a mother who was facing complications.

However, a year and a half ago it shut down. It was abandoned during insecurity in the region and now sits as a ghost hospital. Eerily, the surgical instruments still sit on tables, boxes of ripped open drugs lay in the store rooms and equipment such as microscopes and sterilizers sit unused. The company had decided that it was not worth the investment to keep the clinic operating.

What this means for us, and all mothers living within 200 square kilometres of our clinic, is that the closest referral hospital is now a six-hour drive away over some of the most undesirable roads in the world. During the rainy season these roads are impassable, meaning that even if we can determine that a birth is going to have complications, we have to rely on expensive airlifts or hope we will be able to handle the birth with the facilities and personnel on hand.

Whenever I visit this abandoned ASCOM hospital it makes me rethink the private sector debate. While the approach that CIDA has taken over the years in alleviating poverty may have been flawed, we need to proceed with caution when embracing a strategy based around private sector investments. Although some companies may include poverty alleviation as a caveat to their overall strategy in a country, we must ask what happens when investment situations change. How long are their commitments for? What happens when there is insecurity, political unrest, clashes with the local community or the mine is no longer producing? No one would fault a company for leaving in most of these cases. If the investment environment is no longer friendly, it is not the company’s responsibility to stay. However, the problem is children still need to learn, people still get sick and mothers still have complications.

Alleviating poverty is not something that shifts with emerging markets. It is something that needs to be addressed with long-term plans, sustainable goals and strong partnerships with committed local partners. While many companies enjoy including the word "sustainable" in the social responsibility sections of their websites, if they are not forced to implement lasting solutions, in the end, the bottom line will always win.

Opinions expressed in this story are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Douglas College. Want to write a piece for doug? See our writer's guidelines.