John McKay on CIDA: No business? Then no charity for you
John McKay, Special to National Post | Dec 12, 2012 6:25 PM ET
It’s official: Canada’s aid dollars are meant to “promote Canadian values, Canadian businesses, the Canadian economy and benefits for Canada.”
So said Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) Minister Julian Fantino this month. Poor people are out, businesses are in.
Minister Fantino’s recent announcement, shifting CIDA’s focus to public-private partnerships (P3s) with mining and financial companies, seems more like ideology than principled policy.
The Better Aid Bill is CIDA’s legislated mandate. It requires that Canada’s aid must have three components: (1) poverty alleviation, (2) consistency with international human-rights standards, and (3) respect for the perspective of the poor. If a particular project, policy or initiative doesn’t fall within that mandate, the legislation dictates that it cannot be done.
Yet since the bill became law in 2008, CIDA has yet to establish a metric that measures compliance with the legislation. Hence their annual report, stating vaguely that CIDA “mostly complies” with the law — whatever that means.
Then there’s CIDA’s new partners — Canada’s largest companies.
They achieved their success through a relentless focus on the bottom line, and delivering results to shareholders. They do not report to governments, NGOs, indigenous peoples or anyone else. That’s not a criticism: Private companies are not charities, and we should not expect them to do the job of charities. But can we not agree that, for the purposes of CIDA policy, a private corporation does not have the same priorities as a development agency?
The new mantra for developing countries seems to be that if our companies can operate profitably in your country, we will make aid available to you. No business? No aid.
Minister Fantino’s comments so far haven’t helped clarify how the government intends CIDA to function with its new partners. For example, he recently said that “we don’t fund NGOs for life.” Of course not. No NGO expects permanent funding. What they do want are clear guidelines for government priorities, respectful feedback in reasonable time, realistic timeframes, rational administrative demands and the possibility of multi-year funding so that more significant longer-term projects can be implemented. In short, a mechanism that treats them as partners in meaningful development.
CIDA, notorious for its oft-changed priorities, has not traditionally delivered any of these things. Many NGOs have simply given up on CIDA.
Cynicism about the new proposal would be greatly mitigated if the Minister or CIDA actually could show how the phrase “perspective of the poor” — as cited by CIDA’s legislation — should be defined. But there’s no sign of that.
When questioned by the standing committee on foreign affairs, the Minister couldn’t recall how many CIDA projects he had approved, or the amount of funding that has been dispersed since he took the job. The truly discouraging part came when he said that he is unfamiliar with the Better Aid Bill and the Paris Declaration, both cornerstones of CIDA’s mandate.
All of this is especially frustrating given the excellent work done by the foreign affairs committee on this very topic. In particular, the committee has produced an extensive and worthwhile study: Driving Inclusive Economic Growth: The Role of the Private Sector in International Development. Its recommendations would have brought Canada into a regime of accountability and transparency much closer to what one finds in the United States, EU and U.K. All of these recommendations, however, were dropped in favour of the new P3 plan.
One would have hoped that such a profound shift in public policy would have been preceded by an in-depth study rather than a last-minute ministerial whim. No such luck.
Foreign aid is not a huge component of Canada’s budget, but it’s an important part. Canadian aid dollars help millions of people around the world lead safer, more secure lives. That’s the real return on investment we should be seeking.
Canadian companies should be certainly encouraged to contribute to charity, and must, of course, always seek to remain profitable in a competitive world. But wedding our companies to our charitable efforts, without even the pretense of analysis or consultations with those who will be affected, serves to reveal the government’s true motives: Canadian profits first, helping the poor second.
Hon. John McKay M.P.