Outgoing minister had ag development focus

International development minister Bev Oda, controversy-prone but also effective in giving agriculture and food a higher Canadian aid profile, is resigning from cabinet and Parliament.

She will be replaced by Toronto MP Julian Fantino, presently associate minister of national defence.

Over almost five years in the job, she committed billions of dollars of Canada’s aid budget to food aid and agricultural development

The 67-year-old MP from a rural riding east of Toronto was elected in 2004 as part of the first wave of Ontario MPs that eventually gave Conservative leader Stephen Harper a minority government in 2006 and a majority in 2011.

Oda served as minister responsible for international development and the Canadian International Development Agency since 2007.

During her time, Canada’s aid spending was more concentrated on select countries of Canadian interest, and in the 2012 deficit-fighting budget, CIDA and international development were targeted for hundreds of millions of dollars in future cuts.

Critics saw it as a sign of her weakness. They criticized her for narrowing the country focus of Canadian aid.

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But Oda also won praise from some aid agencies for concentrating aid on food and agricultural development as a way to reduce the need for international handouts.

She also led the government effort to improve maternal and child health as well as politically directing the CIDA response to disasters in Haiti, Pakistan and East Africa.

During several interviews, she insisted the key to helping the poorest of the poor was through agricultural development and provision of nutritious food.

Under Oda, Canada won World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization accolades for being one of the first developed food exporting countries to “untie” food aid, separating Canada’s help from the requirement that food be supplied from Canadian surplus stocks.

Instead, money would be available to purchase food locally or wherever it was the best bargain for the aid program.

And she renewed an agreement to make the Winnipeg-based Canadian Foodgrains Bank the primary private sector funnel for CIDA food aid help outside international organizations.

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However, Oda also was gaffe-prone and opposition MPs have been calling for her dismissal from cabinet for months. Although her career was in broadcasting, she was a poor performer in the House of Commons and the cut-and-thrust of debate and question period.

She created controversy when she altered a document in order to deny $7 million in funding to church-based aid organization Kairos that the Israel-friendly Conservatives thought was too pro-Palestine. She made it worse by at first denying she was the one who directed that the money be denied, only to recant.

She was prone to high living at taxpayer expense, including limousine rides and in a recent example, a stay at the up-scale Savoy Hotel in London with $16 orange juice when cheaper accommodation had been booked.

Oda announced July 3 that she will resign from cabinet and the House of Commons July 31.

Opposition parties cheered and the fiscally conservative Canadian Taxpayers Federation took one last swipe by calculating that after eight years in Parliament, six in cabinet, she will qualify for a pension of more than $52,000 and will receive more than $700,000 by the time she turns 80.

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