With all the hyper attention being paid to the unfolding drama of the CIDA minister this week, it’s important to remember that far greater issues are at stake. A couple of days ago I posted about the threat to the Canadian International Development Agency that comes with a scandal of this magnitude. As one CIDA program officer said to me in an email yesterday: “It seems like all of us at CIDA have been on life support for the past number of years, but now our concern is for the organization itself.” Rightfully so, for if CIDA gets tainted with the same brush as the scandal, it will be hard to maintain Agency confidence either in Parliament or in the broader public.
In reality, for an Agency and not a full department, CIDA has received a lot of ink, not all of it good. The abandonment of eight African countries. The falling short of $700 million from the earlier pledge by Paul Martin to double aid to that troubled continent. The shift to the Americas and away from Africa. The severing of lifelong partnerships the Agency once proudly maintained with NGOs. There was the PM’s choice to focus on child and maternal health initiatives at the expense of other Millennium Development Goals that had been part and parcel of how the Western world would coordinate its aid disbursement in order to take a harmonized attack against prevalent poverty. All the perplexity around the ongoing response to the Haitian crisis and the confusion surrounding those funds that were supposed to be matched by CIDA itself. CIDA’s controversial assistance to the Barrick Gold mining operation in Papua New Guinea only got worse with allegations of gang rapes and other human rights abuses by Barrick’s security guards. The ongoing controversy over exactly what CIDA was undertaking and accomplishing in Afghanistan has produced hardly any light or lessons.
So much of this preceded the Harper government’s cancellation of KAIROS funding and the imbroglio in which Bev Oda presently finds herself. There has been a pattern here that left dry tinder spread all over the CIDA file. While each of the issues mentioned above occurred at different times and places, they form the kindling for what now has become a major fire at the Agency. Expectations concerning Canada’s official aid regime have been in decline since Harper took office, with many, including the Auditor General, unable to get clarity or transparency concerning foreign aid disbursements. What was supposed to be an avenue for helping the poorest of the poor has now engulfed official Ottawa.
It’s hard to tell what this will all mean or what will be its outcome. Just today we learn that the Obama administration has opted to cut $1.7 billion of life-saving humanitarian aid to Darfur and south Sudan at one of the most critical moments in the region’s history. The House of Representatives will vote within the next few hours on whether to pass the cuts. Here’s how the totals stack up:
$431,000,000 in International Disaster Assistance
$582,000,000 in Migration and Refugee Assistance
$687,000,000 in the Food for Peace Program
Sadly, this runs counter to the US’s commitment to peace in Darfur and Sudan. In his rush to find some kind of budget compromise with the Republicans, Obama has just hindered Sudan’s ability to establish its peace.
How does the Conservative government view these developments? Unfortunately, this country already beat our neighbours to the punch, having previously frozen aid at current levels for the next five years. A full 25% of the government’s deficit reduction action come from CIDA’s budgets and falls on the backs of the poorest in the world. It was a shock to the system when the minister announced it a year ago and it won the Agency no friends, either here or overseas. Canada’s official demise of foreign aid, despite certain victories like the untying of food aid, has been a tragedy long in the making. It’s likely that no other government agency or department has gone through such a transformative and turbulent period as CIDA itself. In so doing, the Harper government lost its international credibility and a Security Council seat, CIDA’s long time partners, the good will of the opposition parties, the hope of the poor, and, perhaps ironically, the minister herself. It was a diabolical exchange from the beginning and the Conservative government is now reaping the whirlwind.