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Innovation and technology development could be boosted by the controversial merger of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) with the country's foreign affairs department, according to the head of a group that represents Canadian NGOs.
But CIDA should be careful not to neglect development at the expense of foreign affairs and trade interests through the new arrangement, says Julia Sánchez, CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC).
In July, the government's stand-alone development agency became part of a new department, called Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, the latest move in the conservative government's longstanding desire to bring the country's development work more in line with its foreign policy and international trade goals, and get private enterprise more involved in delivering development projects.
Earlier this year, Julian Fantino, who was then minister of international cooperation, told the local media that the merger "further enhances co-ordination of international assistance with broader Canadian objectives. Canada's work is bolstered as development is placed on an equal footing with trade, and diplomacy".
Civil society groups have been wary of the merger, says Sánchez. "It raises a big red flag when commercial and development interests become blurred," she says. "They're already blurred too much."
And although the aim of creating greater coherence between trade, foreign policy and development goals is laudable, Sánchez has concerns that development will be the "poor cousin" of the trio and will be dominated by more powerful geopolitical and commercial interests.
Yet, she adds, the private sector's greater involvement could be a boon for innovation and technology development, especially in finding new ways to deal with the toughest problems, such as supplying clean water, providing sanitation and enabling wider use of mobile technology.
"We want to promote private sector groups who can come up with innovative ways to deal with these bottlenecks," she says. "The private sector has different tools and resources they can bring to the table."
A lot will depend on how the new department is structured, says Sánchez. Although CIDA has been folded into the foreign affairs department, the structure of the new department and the law that makes it legally part of it have not yet been finalised.
The details of the merger are still being worked out, but CCIC is watching closely and has offered suggestions on ways to improve the legislation that will underpin the new arrangements.
"The devil is in the details," she says. "The mechanisms that are put in place will be very important in determining whether we have a coherent system."