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New Rules Leave Canadian Aid Groups in Limbo

Fawzia Sheikh

TORONTO, Dec 22 2011 (IPS) - Many Canadian civil society organisations working in international development are still awaiting a definitive answer about future government funding, a months-long lag critics argue has hampered overseas operations and only worsens Canada’s global reputation when viewed in light of other issues in recent years.

Canada de-prioritised eight African countries a few years after listing them as top concerns without notifying many governments beforehand. Credit: Aimable Twahirwa/IPS

Canada de-prioritised eight African countries a few years after listing them as top concerns without notifying many governments beforehand. Credit: Aimable Twahirwa/IPS

The Ottawa-based Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) carried out a survey between Nov. 18 and 24 to gauge the effect of a delay in funding announcements by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) related to two calls for proposals. The government’s slow response in making a decision regarding its Partnerships with Canadians Branch has affected 210 Canadian groups working with hundreds, if not thousands, of overseas partners, according to CCIC.

The council poll revealed that CIDA’s delays and lack of project financing is slowing down or stopping international project work; forcing Canadian civil society organisations to restructure other non-CIDA funded programmes and lay off staff; keeping foreign partners in limbo by impeding their ability to hire or retain staff; and causing people to suffer and die due to the lack of urgently needed community development and health initiatives, among other negative consequences.

“Everybody’s kind of holding their breath waiting,” Julia Sánchez, president and CEO of CCIC, told IPS. “It’s going to hurt.”

Sánchez anticipates that CIDA will not fund some organisations that it has for decades and describes the worst-case scenario as one in which non-governmental organisations have already shed staff and severed partnerships on the ground when they finally receive government money. She said she has no idea when the situation may be resolved.

The controversy revolves around two calls for proposals: one pertaining to 160 groups pitching projects valued at under two million dollars (which was slated for an award announcement on Sep. 30) and another related to 50 organisations submitting proposals with a budget of more than two million dollars (which was scheduled for an award announcement on Aug. 15), she noted.

Civil society groups were reluctant to speak on the record due to the sensitivity of the matter. One source told IPS that NGOs criticising government policy face the real threat of losing funding but conceded there has been no “smoking gun” to that effect.

In response to the CCIC’s questions, the development agency indicated that the government must carry out “due diligence” on the submissions for “as long as it takes” and refused to announce new dates, according to Sánchez. She added that CIDA reminded NGOs that taxpayers’ money must be handled judiciously and that no organisation should feel entitled to receive federal financing.

When IPS made its own inquiries, an agency spokesperson explained that the number of proposals received and factors such as the size, complexity and risks associated with each project determine the review time. With each call for proposals, “lessons are learned and steps to improve subsequent calls are taken,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Behind the scenes, CCIC has heard of “a whole bunch of administrative, let’s say bureaucratic, problems” associated with a radically new, competitive system that CIDA introduced 18 months ago related to how it funds Canadian civil society groups involved in international development, Sánchez said.

Agency officials were unprepared for the volume of proposals and the “level of rigour” involved, she said, adding that the deliberation phase is also complicated by an added layer of debates about the proposals at a political level.

Against the backdrop of the NGO financing gridlock is a question about a potential contradiction between Canada’s actions and words regarding foreign assistance to the developing world.

During the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness held last month in Busan, South Korea, CIDA announced its membership in the International Aid Transparency Initiative. Boosting aid transparency is vital to building the accountability needed for ensuring development effectiveness and results, said minister of international cooperation, Beverley Oda, at the time. The initiative aims to improve the public availability and accessibility of aid information.

Yet, the calls for proposals affecting more than 200 Canadian NGOs have spawned “serious issues about the lack of transparency” underlying the government’s way of doing business and illuminated the poor relationship between Canadian civil society and one of its major funders, Sánchez argued.

“If we can’t have transparent relationships between civil society and our development agency here… how is it that we demand that developing countries be transparent with their civil societies?” she asked.

Although Stephen Brown, an associate professor of political science at the University of Ottawa, regards the transparency aid initiative as strictly related to the publishing of information about aid activities, he understands why some development players like CCIC believe a contradiction exists between Ottawa’s support for this global effort and CIDA’s lack of openness with local NGOs.

Foreign development partner organisations have undoubtedly noticed the current funding delay but foreign governments are less likely to, added Brown, who specialises in the intersection of the policies and practices of rich countries and international actors with the politics of poor nations.

In truth, Brown said, other international actions taken by Canada have probably drawn more attention in recent years. In the foreign aid domain, the country’s tendency to keep changing priority “themes” – in 2002, 2005 and 2009 – is not constructive as “NGOs are being made to dance to that tune,” he said.

Today’s priorities are children and youth, sustainable economic development, and food security, with the cross-cutting issues of gender and governance, he said.

Further, Ottawa’s penchant for “switching countries” contributed to Canada’s failure to win election for the first time to the U.N. Security Council, Brown told IPS.

Most notably, the Canadian government de-prioritised in 2009 eight African countries a few years after listing them as top concerns without notifying many of these governments beforehand, and re- focused instead on building trade ties with middle-income Latin American nations in the name of effectively using aid money, he noted.

“If you’ve just named a partner country, you can’t tell after four years whether aid is being efficient or not,” he argued.

In the coming year, Brown predicts a greater government emphasis on private-sector partnerships. He suspects that Mongolia, where Canadian mining companies are “already important”, will join a forthcoming new list of priority countries following Minister Oda’s visit with that country’s minister of natural resources and energy in August.

The government’s explanation that it aims to improve aid effectiveness through these sorts of moves has little to do with today’s tight economic climate because Canadian financial assistance is not being spent more wisely, the university academic added.

As it stands, Brown said, Canada has frozen its aid levels despite other European counterparts continuing to strive for a foreign assistance goal that directs 0.7 percent of their Gross National Product to foreign aid, or to maintain this level.

The 2012-13 Canadian federal budget is expected to mark the second year of an announced four-year freeze, at five billion dollars, of the International Assistance Envelope, according to CCIC. The March 2010 budget had calculated that freezing the funding of this sector (which is divided into development, international financial institutions, peace and security, crisis funding and development research) would save Ottawa a cumulative 2.2 billion dollars between 2011 and 2014.

Cost-cutting aside, however, Brown argued that the lingering impression is that “Canada’s generosity is now declining”.

 
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