Tough challenges await new CIDA chief

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper has appointed deputy health minister Paul Rochon to head the Canadian International Development Agency in times of major expected changes. Photo by: UK Prime Minister's Office / CC BY-NC-ND

On July 8, Canadian deputy health minister Paul Rochon will replace outgoing Margaret Biggs as the new president of the Canadian International Development Agency.

With Rochon’s appointment, the Harper administration has sent another mixed signal to an aid community already divided over the planned marriage of CIDA and Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Some partners believe that Rochon’s stature as a senior bureaucrat, on one hand, reiterates the government’s strong view on CIDA’s important place in the integrated agency, but on the other hand, his apparent lack of development experience could cripple efforts to avoid diluting development to political whims.

“I don’t know his reputation but I trust he’s a senior bureaucrat and a professional and understands how to run a big agency like CIDA,” said Bob Francis, president of Agriteam, one of CIDA’s biggest aid partners.

The government could have gotten rid of the president while the transition takes place, but it chose to name Rochon. Francis told Devex that reflects “the importance that this government sees in retaining CIDA’s influence and importance in our aid program by retaining and assigning a senior Canadian government bureaucrat.”

But veteran development consultant Ian Smillie, a vocal critic of CIDA’s merger who has not heard of the incoming president, sees a more worrying scenario for the agency under Rochon: “Given that Paul Rochon appears to have little in the way of development experience, it’s hard to see how he will champion this [CIDA’s development agenda] very effectively within the new dispensation.”

How the new CIDA chief will be able to navigate his way through the slow bureaucracy of CIDA — and in the coming months, the complexity of the integrated DFATD — depends on “how quickly he can learn and whether he will listen to those in the agency with the experience he lacks,” Smillie told Devex.

Rochon emerges from the finance quarter of the Canadian bureaucracy. Before he was appointed deputy health minister in August 2012, the veteran bureaucrat was an associate deputy finance minister and finance deputy at the G-7, G-20 and the Financial Stability Forum.

The incoming CIDA president is set to lead the agency at a time where his financial expertise will be put to a test.

Over the past years, Canada’s foreign aid has been shrinking until the current 0.32 percent of gross national income, far away away from the 0.7 percent committed by other major donor countries. Budget austerity has forced the Canadian government to squeeze the dwindling aid budget by aligning development to other priorities, and thus CIDA has closed shop in some African countries and limited its priority focuses and sectors.

“The challenge for him [Rochon] will be to ring-fence aid spending and to hold it within the mandate of the ODA Accountability Act, although the purpose of the merger seems in many ways designed to blur the spending distinctions that existed in the past,” explained Smillie.

Agriteam’s Francis is concerned that the transition may result in delays in programming as the decision-making process is reorganized.

“The government and Rochon need to have a strategy on how to minimize the impact and disruption that the merger will have on CIDA activities,” he noted.

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About the author

  • Alliage profile

    John Alliage Morales

    As a staff writer, John Alliage Morales covers the Americas, focusing on the world's top donor hub, Washington, and its aid community - from Capitol Hill to Dupont Circle, Foggy Bottom to the downtown headquarters of USAID, the World Bank and Millennium Challenge Corp. Prior to joining Devex, Alliage worked for a variety of news outlets including GMA, the Philippine TV network, where he conducted interviews, analyzed data and produced in-depth stories on development and other topics.