The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson


Lighting the Kindling

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.

Those Things That Outlast Us

Lyndon Johnson was a master politician, especially in comprehending the Congress and its inner workings. He was quoted later in life as saying, “It is the genius of our Constitution that under its shelter of enduring institutions and rooted principles there is ample room for the rich fertility of American political invention.” Well, there are lots of political machinations going on now in Ottawa, especially concerning the Canadian International Development Agency.

A non-governmental organization called KAIROS had its funding cut by CIDA last year and no one could make heads or tails as to why such a lengthy relationship between the government agency and a highly respected NGO should be severed. Repeated questioning most often got the same response from the government – KAIROS didn’t fit into CIDA’s funding protocols. It was a brutal decision that had basically gone to ground until a document was acquired showing that top CIDA officials had in fact approved KAIROS funding and that the minister, or someone in the political realm, overruled the decision. Following months of confusion the clouds began to lift and it became apparent that political ideology had trumped CIDA’s hard-earned development experience. The Foreign Affairs Committee voted to send the factual documents concerning the troubling decision to the Speaker, with the recommendation that the minister be found in contempt of the House. Serious charges.

As committee members ruminated on the issue of who had doctored the initial CIDA document regarding funding KAIROS, my concerns lay elsewhere. Though not nearly as politically toxic or of great interest to the media are the issues of what all this has done to CIDA itself. In his ruling concerning CIDA Minister Bev Oda’s conduct, the Speaker stated last week that senior CIDA officials must be “deeply disturbed” by what transpired. Indeed they must. Sadly, political realities in Ottawa swirl around the fate of the minister, her future, and the honesty of the Harper government itself.

As politicians, the penchant is always present to cause damage to the other parties when possible. Attacking or defending the minister most often depends on which party you are from. We live in the moment, often unwilling or too blinded by partisanship to see the broader view. And as hard as it might be to accept, every politician has to, at some point in their career, come to terms with the reality that government, Parliament, supporting institutions, and even the Parliamentary staff, will outlast us all. And that is also true of the ministries and agencies that compose government itself.

Consider what CIDA has endured in these last number of years. The constant shift of priorities, the departure from long-term development in Africa, the revolving door of ministers, and, worst of all perhaps, the severance of relationships that sometimes went back over half-a-century. And this they had to accept in silence as their recurring political masters played partisan chess. But it got worse. As each former partner, scores of them, had their funding severed in the last year, the reasons given were that these groups were turned down by CIDA officials themselves for not meeting the criteria. We now know, in the case of KAIROS at least, that senior CIDA staff had approved further funding, only to be overruled by the Conservatives, likely at various levels. All of this begs the question: on how many other occasions was CIDA blamed for cuts they had tried to get past the government? We’ll never know, but it’s now clear that the Agency has been used as a scapegoat for political designs and that its continued decline in influence and prestige has been directly related to political meddling.

The true sign of any accountable government or politician is the willingness to accept responsibility for difficult decisions. But when political masters blame their respective ministries in order to elude transparency or even responsibility, there are fewer things that you can do that could more undermine the principle of good government. CIDA has been a political tool long enough. It never wanted to leave Africa in the first place, and it grew deeply disillusioned at all the former friends it was commanded to cast off.

Lyndon Johnson was right: solid institutions do permit politicians to be politically inventive. But in the end it is those very institutions that matter more than anything else – they are what outlive us. We can make them great or we can make them pawns. In all the focused activity surrounded the CIDA minister at the moment, it is wise for all of us in the drama to remember that a dedicated agency has been maligned in this process and that our only hope for doing something that could be truly lasting, is to restore it to its former usefulness. It is to the Agency’s welfare and betterment that we must look if we seek to undertake our best work as MPs. To bring down or to maintain a minister is a compelling exercise, but to empower an institution, honing it for the coming international challenges ahead – that is building something that will still be functioning long after we’re gone.

Winds of Change – The Referendum and Women

The women of both north and south Sudan are remarkably tenacious and adaptive. This past decade witnessed leaders of women’s groups from both regions holding joint peace conferences in an effort to put an end to two decades of war and to give their children a chance at a better life.

It is this last point that has so come to identify the plight of so many of the Sudanese internally displaced people and the returnees flooding back to south Sudan. They left the south over the years because the war left them little choice. They journeyed to Darfur (part of the north) and deep into northern Sudan itself in pursuit of amenities for their families – education, medical supplies, food, even the opportunity to just hold on to life. It became a trade-off with the devil – a struggle for resources while foregoing their own personal pursuits.

For the women of Sudan the referendum isn’t seen so much as a political or human rights movement. Rather, they view it as the best opportunity in a generation for their kids to have a chance at a better life. In our early years of involvement in Sudan, they became the primary component of slavery and abductions. Along with their children they lived brutal lives, forced against their own will. Yet as slavery itself became more obscure, they nevertheless opted to stay in difficult circumstances often because there was better opportunity for their families in such constrained conditions. They were free to move on, but love of children convinced them to stay.

The referendum is likely changing all that. Our team witnessed thousands of these women traveling for hundreds (sometimes thousands) of kilometers just to reach the southern regions and the opportunities they hoped the referendum and an independent country would provide. For the moment the majority of them are living in transitional camps as they await the chance for land, agriculture and education. Groups like the Organization For Migration (IOM) have done a remarkable job at identifying them and attempting to provide for their most basic needs. But now with thousands more like them pouring into south Sudan every week, their chances of success dwindle. Quiet conversations with them revealed that they were willing to forsake their new-found freedom and head back towards the areas they just left if they can’t provide for their families. For these women, their own human rights takes second place to the welfare of their families.

This returning to their former constrained circumstances is a story that yet remains untold in matters concerning the border regions between north and south Sudan. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) invested in women such as these over the past few years and it persuaded many of the returning women in the region where we work to not only stay put for the sake of their children, but also to pursue opportunities in education, health and micro-enterprise. In other words, there was something in it for the women themselves, perhaps for the first times in their lives. While CIDA’s dedication (seen in the video below) proved revolutionary in the region, recent priority changes run the risk of preventing the Agency for providing effective follow-up to their original investment. That might not occur, as the Agency reassesses the conditions that are changing daily, but the risk is there and we must champion the cause of these women who live in such remote regions that the world hardly knows to assist them.

CIDA has done some remarkable work, as you’ll see in the video. Yet if investment dries up and in spite of the new-found ability to make their own choices because of the referendum, their love of children will drive them back to regions from where they came. This could well be the ultimate tragedy at a time when the women of Sudan made their bolt for freedom.  Such is the incredible love these mothers have for their children.

Winds of Change – From Darfur to Independence

I had only just been elected for a month when in January 2007 we journeyed with a large team of businesswomen to oversee our programs in south Sudan. All was normal until the third day, when someone approached us saying that thousands of internally displaced families from Darfur had been found hiding in the swamps and forests of a region north and west of where we were. My wife Jane and I made the decision to investigate and the rest of the team voiced their desire to accompany us. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was about to change the very nature of our work in that region.

What we found was a devastated form of humanity. We found families who had nothing – clothing, water, food, and now cooking implements. They were everywhere and they were afraid. They were in hiding for two reasons: unaware if they had officially crossed the boundary into south Sudan, and unsure whether the local populations would accept them. In what was a remarkable display of solidarity and human compassion, the historical villages in the area moved in rapid fashion to erect transitional tukuls (the traditional mud huts) of grass, and shared whatever meagre supplies they possessed with these visitors.

Unprepared for what we encountered, the team nevertheless began the laborious process of interviewing samplings of the families. Their stories were all the same: fleeing persecution in Darfur and hoping to find permanent settlement in the more peaceful areas of south Sudan, they journeyed, often in the hundreds together, to this place where they now found safety and refuge.

Upon returning to Canada, my very first speech in the House of Commons was all about these people. To the government’s credit, they responded with some $3 million in programming that eventually provided clean water systems, women’s micro-enterprise funding, schools and a small local health clinic. The results, as you are about to see in the video below, have been transformational. Each time we journey back to see these people, they welcome us with open arms and grateful hearts to the people of Canada for not only keeping them alive, but for giving them a new life.

And now it seems they are about to live in a new country – in independence. It is a journey remarkable in the telling. These people have made something for themselves and they got to that point largely from the assistance of Canada – especially the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Sadly, CIDA changed its funding priorities in the last year, leaving the area unsupported for the deluge of new returnees that even now are moving into an area in which the traditional people, accompanied by those from Darfur who have now settled in and found a new life, are unprepared in resources and funds to deal with the influx.

For our NGO – Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan – the challenges are immense and we have made a commitment to these settlements closer to the Darfur border that we will continue resourcing the area. Nevertheless, as only a small NGO, we have neither the capacity or the resources to handle the pressures as they are now about to build.  A successful referendum has meant a huge increase in people moving into south Sudan for freedom and opportunity. If those can’t be provided in these border regions, the opportunity for the reigniting of conflict is a real possibility.  So much work to do, but at least, for the moment, we can celebrate how these communities have worked together to provide sustainability.

For Women, A Chance At Last

The narrative on women’s issues in the modern age has dominated its fair share of political attention in this past year. With the government’s attention on maternal health for the G8 meetings, concern over human trafficking, the primacy of women’s concerns over the loss of the gun registry, and the presence of female advocates pleading with the government to maintain the long-form census, since it tells a detailed story of the various plights women face in Canada. And then just today we held a minute of silence in the House for the young women who were slain in the Polytechnique massacre over two decades ago. The challenges are enormous; the will to tackle them seriously has, at times, waned.

Last week was AIDS Awareness Week, with the reminder that AIDS is the number one cause of death among women of reproductive age globally. It would be easy to despair considering all that women face globally.

Yet with efforts to tackle the HIV/AIDS we might be on the verge of a breakthrough that could have worldwide effects on women and their lives.  In the past 18 months, new HIV technologies have been developed that show some remarkable promise for helping provide women with powerful new tools to protect themselves from HIV without limiting their choices to bear children. Three recent developments tell the tale.

Results from September 2009 testing in Thailand involving 16,000 volunteers revealed that a new study vaccine was 31.2% effective at preventing HIV infections. This provided the first evidence that development of a safe and effective preventative HIV vaccine is possible.  In addition, a global collaboration led to the discovery of four new neutralizing antibodies that target multiple strains of HIV and prevent the virus from infecting cells.

Then in July 2010, results were released demonstrating proof of concept for an antiretroviral-based vaginal microbicide. A trial showed that women using a gel had a 39% lower chance of becoming HIV infected than those using a placebo gel.  It is to be used with 12 hours before sex and again as soon as possible within 12 hours after sex.

Just last month results were released from an oral pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) trial, which found that participants who received an antiretroviral pill called Truvada, in addition to a standard prevention package, had an overall 43.8% reduced risk of HIV.  This is the first evidence that oral PrEP can reduce the risk of HIV infection.

All this is technical, I know, but the possibilities are exciting. More trials and preparations have to be undertaken, but these groundbreaking gains have the potential to dramatically alter the course of the epidemic.  Sadly, just as such breakthroughs are emerging, efforts are in danger of being thwarted if the research isn’t adequately funded.

For the most part, HIV prevention research is funded by charitable foundations and government grants. The numbers are revealing: 85% is funded by the public sector, 14% by the philanthropic sector, and a mere 1% by the private sector.  In other words, government investments are key.

CIDA has a pivotal role to play here but has yet to step up.  From 2005 to 2009, it contributed $30 million to the International Partnership for Microbicides and for almost a decade gave $82 million to the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.  When both of these contributions ended in March 2010, reapplications were made but nothing has been forthcoming.  It’s important to note that Canada does assist the Global Fund and the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative, and CIDA should be applauded for those efforts. However, neither one funds the kind of microbicide research that is now leading to some remarkable breakthroughs.

This is remarkable stuff, and the ability for Canada to pioneer efforts for discovering a solution to HIV is real and pivotal.  It’s a deeply encouraging time in the field of HIV prevention research and, as with the past, those working diligently in the field are looking to Canada to show some faith in these remarkable efforts. The proposal for further funding for the two groups is $20 million over two years. This is no pipe dream, but a solid search for a cure based upon scientific evidence.  For women, at last, CIDA can give them a chance at a breakthrough.

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