Are the Global Poor Balancing Canada’s Books?

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2015 will be an important marker for the international community. This is the deadline year by when nations agreed to meet the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Signed by world leaders in 2000 and designed to meet eight ambitious goals, the MDGs commit to substantially lower global poverty and hunger, ensure primary schooling for all children (especially girls), lower child mortality, etc.

Some of the MDGs have already been statistically met, such as the promise to halve the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water. (Note, of course, that this nonetheless means that tens of millions of poor people around the world are still lacking this basic right, and millions more cannot afford clean water.) Several others of the goals, however, will not come close to being realized. Prominent among these is the final commitment, the only one really calling for action by developed economies such as Canada. Safely referred to as the “global partnership for development,” MDG #8 calls upon the wealthy nations to open trade barriers to weaker economies, cancel burdensome debts, repair financial systems, and substantially increase overseas development assistance. As for this latter point, aid continues to short change Africa (as many nations prioritize aid elsewhere to gratify their trading partners) and only five donor countries have reached the UN target for official aid.

In this regard, perhaps it will be a surprise to Canadians to learn that our country’s performance is among the worst.

Canada’s Sorry Record – The Quantity

Although Parliament passed a resolution in 2005 urging the government to commit to increase development assistance to the UN target of 0.7% of GDP, Canada currently provides half of that, approximately 0.34%. This is among the lowest percentages of donor countries, and is soon predicted to fall to under 0.3%.

The international assistance envelope was to be frozen from 2011 to 2014, as announced in the federal budget of 2010. But in the March 29th 2012 budget the government announced steeper cuts to the envelope by 7.5 % over the next 3 years. As CPJ reported earlier, aid funding cuts became one of the federal government’s main targets for deficit reduction.

Canada’s Sorry Record – The Quality

Worse yet, several worthy Non‐Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have suffered unfortunate cuts to their work due to federal government decisions and a change in the mechanisms for allocating funding to NGOs. As reported by the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC), government priorities have moved from a responsive and partnership‐based approach to a directive and competitive one. That is, instead of developing long-term relationships with partner groups who share values, goals and practices across cultures, the federal government now decides on priorities and will then grant monies they deem appropriate to NGOs or other groups whenever they decide to do so. To get matching grants to serve the poor, groups must compete to meet the government’s whims.

This new emphasis helps partially explain why, despite an enviable track record of aid effectiveness, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has announced massive funding cuts to programs of such reputable groups as the Mennonite Central Committee, and the Quakers’ Canadian Friends Service Committee. More recently, CIDA announced almost $35 million less in matching government monies for the official aid agency of the Catholic Church in Canada, Development and Peace. For example, in 2010‐11, Development and Peace supported 186 partners in 30 countries. CIDA's new agreement designates funds for a mere seven countries, only one of which is in Africa. Already, financial support to 32 partner groups in the Global South has been reduced and totally cut to 48 others, and 15 staff positions have been lost in Canada.

In the case of other NGO groups, like CCIC or the Canadian churches’ group, KAIROS, CIDA’s cuts have been more obviously political in nature.

Missing the Gold Standard

But CIDA has not stopped all aid disbursements. It has actively promoted the operations of Canadian mining firms overseas. Last September, three controversial projects were approved that joined NGOs with transnational mining companies – some of which have received considerable international criticism for their environmental and labour practices.

Under the CIDA-initiated deal, World University Services Canada has teamed up with Rio Tinto Alcan, Plan Canada with Iamgold, and World Vision Canada with Barrick Gold. The NGOs will receive CIDA funding totalling $6.7-million over the next five years. For their part, the three mining companies will contribute additional support just shy of $2-million. Development projects will be undertaken in countries where these mining firms operate, such as Peru and Burkina Faso, and train workers in Ghana.

Why has the Canadian government placed such focus on companies whose combined annual net profit in 2010 was more than $4-billion? CIDA minister Bev Oda was quoted in the Ottawa Citizen as stating, "Our government is very much looking to increase its relationships with the private sector," adding that she would like to see additional relationships between NGOs and corporations in manufacturing, agriculture and tourism.

According to Canada’s “Better Aid Bill”, the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act (C‐293), development assistance must (a) contribute to poverty reduction; (b) take into account the perspectives of the poor; and (c) be consistent with international human rights standards. In order to respect Parliament’s wishes, Canada’s overseas development program must reflect both the quantity and quality of promises made. Unless we take action now, we will fail in our commitment to achieve the MDGs. Two good starts would be to re‐commit Canada to contribute 0.7% of GDP to Official Development Assistance, and to prioritize responsive funding to those NGOs, faith-based and otherwise, that Canadian donors recognize for their efforts in serving the neediest.

Joe Gunn serves as Executive Director at CPJ.

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