by Greg Donaghy

This article is cross-posted with the permission of the Bill Graham Centre of Contemporary International History.

On November 14th the Graham Centre marked the launch of A Samaritan State Revisited: Historical Perspectives on Canadian Foreign Aid, a University of Calgary Press publication, edited by Centre Director Greg Donaghy and David Webster of Bishop’s University. The launch took the form of a lively and well-attended panel discussion that featured two contributors to the volume, David Black of Dalhousie University and Stephen Brown of the University of Ottawa, as well as Margaret Biggs, former President of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the 2019-2020 Graham Centre / Massey College Visiting Scholar in Foreign and Defence Policy. The discussion and an invigorating Q & A was moderated by Donaghy.

David Black’s opening remarks highlighted the historic relationships between Canadian aid policy-makers and the university community. Early aid, dominated by technical assistance programs, drew regularly on university researchers for expertise. From the 1960s to the 1980s, universities also provided a supportive if not uncritical constituency for ODA.

A theme of partnership runs through the book, Black argued, as successive governments worked relatively closely with civil society, academics, and industry, making CIDA a global leader in responsive programming (though many in civil society and the academy were uneasy with CIDA’s links to industry). Taken together, Black suggested, this network represented a “development policy eco-system” encompassing an array of organizations including CIDA, the North-South Institute, Rights and Democracy, the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

CIDA’s societal partnerships began to unravel in the 1990s however, for three reasons. First, “CIDA lost its mojo,” the result of a decade of sustained cutbacks and the agency’s inability to successfully contest them, making it increasingly defensive and risk averse. Second, CIDA’s prioritization of policy implementation left little room for policy research and leadership – a role which had been largely assigned to IDRC, which by design prioritized relationships in the Global South versus Canada. And finally, relations with Canadian academics became more remote as scholars influenced by post-colonial and materialist theories grew increasingly wary of CIDA as an arm of government.

Stephen Brown picked up on this theme, recalling both the growing tensions between CIDA/DFATD/Global Affairs Canada and academics. In the 2000s, during Stephen Harper’s era, when the tensions were greatest, he, along with Black and other researchers, had been invited to make presentations to CIDA staff, despite their often critical assessments. He recalled his enthusiasm when GAC invited him to participate in the conference on aid history that gave rise to this book, The Samaritan State, but also how he wondered if those who issued the invitation were fully aware of the nature of his previous work.

Cover of A Samaritan State? by Dr. Keith Spicer. source: “The Making of ‘A Samaritan State?’ Travels and Pictures, Carleton University, MacOdrum Library online exhibition,

Brown highlighted that there are two key dimensions to such interactions. One form is access by scholars to Canadian policymakers. There is often excellent access on the ground overseas, but this is harder to find at HQ, where people are a good deal more cagey. A second form is openness to critiques and honest criticism, where the record is even more mixed. Lower and mid-level public servants are often sympathetic to critical academic perspectives, but their superiors can be actively “hostile.” He mentioned an example in which the government tried to set up discussions with Ottawa-based academics to be solely “forward looking”, apparently as a way of preventing any mention of errors in the past – even though analyzing previous programs, he argued, is essential for learning. He also drew a contrast with the UK’s DFID, which often – rather than “circling the wagons” – proactively encourages research, debates and critiques as a means of learning from the past and improving its work.

Margaret Biggs brought a different sensibility to bear. She came of age, Biggs recalled, when Black’s development eco-system was flourishing in the 1970s and development economists like Gerry Helleiner were helping to stand up the North-South Institute. Then, after years outside the development sphere, she was appointed CIDA president and was, she joked, the “hapless” official Black accuses in A Samaritan State Revisited of being unable to defend CIDA’s 2013 merger with DFAIT.

Biggs pushed back, venting her annoyance at “CIDA-bashing.” She stressed that CIDA, and its successes and failures, had to be seen within the context of broader political dynamics and government decision-making. CIDA, she underscored, was not an independent, arms -length agency; rather it operated entirely within the ministry and reflected, over time, the priorities of the government of the day. She noted that CIDA never had its own statutory authority, unlike its UK counterpart. In her view, CIDA’s institutional weakness reflected an impoverished international development eco-system in Canada.

That said, Biggs insisted, Canada and CIDA accomplished a tremendous amount over the decades. This is especially true of work on women in development, and maternal, newborn and child health, to cite a few examples. She pointed to the Conservative government’s decision to untie Canadian foreign aid and the current government’s (and Global Affairs Canada’s) effort to put feminism at the centre of Canadian ODA.

Canadian academics, she urged in conclusion, should reflect a deeper understanding of CIDA’s operating context and the broader political reasons why international assistance has not had a robust political constituency in Canada.