Aiding Symptoms, Not Causes

Canada’s new focus on front-line service delivery in development assistance misses a big part of the problem.

Canada isn’t a big player on the global stage in terms of economic and financial resources. We don’t have military might, we don’t have much political clout, and at $5.2 billion – only .3 per cent of the country’s GNI – our aid budget is a drop in the bucket. In the past we have leveraged our rather meagre resources into a solid international role through creative ideas, skilled diplomacy, support for multilateral institutions, and a commitment to the principles of human rights and international justice.

So what are we bringing to the table as the G8 and G20 nations meet in Canada in a week’s time? It’s difficult to tell because our government has discouraged intelligent discussion of Canadian foreign policy, including our development assistance policy, and the ministers responsible for those policies refuse to be interviewed. Control of information has reached the point where nine press associations in an open letter in Le Devoir are now demanding more open and transparent access to information.

In the absence of public information (and parliamentary debate), our government has begun altering long-held Canadian foreign policy and development assistance positions that have given Canada much of its enviable international stature. The deteriorating relationship between the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and Canadian civil society organizations is a case in point.

No doubt world leaders meeting in Toronto and Huntsville would be interested to know that many civil society organizations in Canada are coming together in a coalition they have called Voices. They are doing this because they feel threatened and are concerned that the space for democratic discussion in Canada is shrinking. They have no confidence that this government will deal with them in an open, transparent, and accountable way.

The degree to which government should fund civil society organizations, and for what, is a legitimate and important public policy discussion touching on the concept of society and the roles of government, the private sector, and voluntary organizations. Canada through CIDA has supported these kinds of discussions internationally, most recently at the 2008 OECD high-level meeting on foreign aid in Accra, where the president of CIDA announced that, “As we build a joint effectiveness agenda beyond Accra, there is an extraordinary opportunity to recognize and support civil society organizations as full partners in development.”

However, here at home, the treatment of civil society organizations working in international development is appalling. Organizations have been threatened with funding cuts if they take policy positions that are at odds with the minority government. Long-standing partners of CIDA who do speak out have been treated with contempt and forced into near bankruptcy. All this has been done without any discussion or explanation, apart from Minister of International Cooperation Bev Oda’s statement to the House of Commons that only “NGO organizations and partners that are actually feeding children who are starving” deserve support. Or as John Baird put it when talking about funding for women’s groups: “We want less talk and more action.”

What this means is that this government will only work with NGOs in Canada and overseas that deliver front-line services and keep quiet.

In the international aid world there is an old parable. A group of villagers are having a picnic by the side of a river when they see a baby floating by. They all jump in to save the baby and then they see another baby and then another baby coming down the stream. Each time they jump in to save the baby. Eventually someone goes upstream and comes back to report that someone is throwing babies into the water. Sadly, it appears that our government doesn’t want to support any organization that is doing the upstream work.

No one doubts that service delivery is important, but long experience has taught us that unless we address the root causes of hunger, homelessness, or poor health, and the underlying issues of poverty and injustice, service delivery isn’t likely to achieve sustainable results. In the context of international financial flows and national budgets, the $119.6 billion (U.S.) spent on global aid is relatively small. (In comparison, health care spending in Canada was expected to reach $183.1 billion in 2009.) That’s why it is important to use aid dollars in creative ways that enable people to claim their rights and tackle the causes of poverty. It cannot be solely about creating global service delivery systems.

The people and organizations that work in front-line service delivery are a rich resource of ideas about what works and what doesn’t. Their voices are needed in any serious policy discussion about poverty and its causes. Service delivery needs to be combined with effective policy research and dialogue as well as public engagement. Contrary to what John Baird thinks, we need more action and more talk.

Canada’s once proud tradition of collaboration between government and civil society organizations is in tatters and our aid program is embracing views that are out of date and out of step with most Canadians who give these matters serious thought. This is not the kind of performance that leads to a respected place at the G8 and G20 tables. Woe Canada!


spotted by RS

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