Six months after International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda announced CIDA would fund three controversial development partnerships between NGOs and Canadian mining companies, the federal government is laying the groundwork for more foreign aid to be delivered with the help of the mining industry. It’s a trend in international development that is raising new concerns.
“As I listen to this conversation ... I sometimes think I’m at a business development meeting,” NDP MP Jinny Jogindera Sims said during recent Foreign Affairs and International Development committee hearings into the role of the private sector in achieving Canada’s international development interests.
“The purpose of ... international development ... aid is to reduce poverty. Yet a lot of the focus I’ve heard today has been on putting infrastructures in place or institutions in place that will help the mining companies.” Sims said she has concerns “about our aid being so closely tied to one particular industry.”
When the pilot projects partnering NGOs with Canadian mining companies to deliver aid became public last year, critics raised concerns about the embrace of mining as a foreign policy tool and the use of aid dollars to support corporate social responsibility projects.
The new direction in foreign policy is having other negative effects, the same House of Commons committee was warned last week.
Anthony Bebbington, director of the Graduate School of Geography at Massachusetts-based Clark University, told the committee that he has heard from Latin American politicians that Canada’s foreign policy links with mining are undermining the country’s credibility. “I don’t know if Canada has been quite so discredited in its history,” a Latin American minister of the environment (whom he did not name) said to Bebbington. He also quoted a “sub-secretary in a ministry of energy and mines” as saying this: “As far as I can tell, the Canadian ambassador here is a representative for Canadian mining companies.”
The comments, he noted, did not come from “raving left-of-centre activists. They are from politically appointed technocrats trying to build public policy and address poverty and vulnerability in very practical ways.”
In a week when Joe Oliver, minister of natural resources, lavishly praised the contribution of mining to the Canadian economy during the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s international convention, the links between Canada’s mining industry and foreign policy appear tighter than ever.
Mining and resources are huge economic drivers for Canada, as Oliver pointed out, calling it the cornerstone of the Canadian economy. Mineral production accounted for $35 billion of the country’s GDP in 2010 and $18 billion of its trade surplus. “Those kinds of numbers are giving Canadians a new appreciation for the importance of our mining and other resource industries,” the minister told the convention. An Embassy magazine headline ran: “At global mining convention, Joe Oliver is a rock star.”
The government’s appreciation for the mining industry is understandable — it is a massive economic player. But is the government allowing its relationship to unduly influence foreign policy and direct aid dollars? And does that mean Canadian interests come first when international aid is distributed?
Oda has strongly defended the use of private industry, such as the mining companies that are involved in CIDA-funded projects in Africa and Peru, as partners to help deliver Canada’s foreign aid dollars. CIDA is currently looking for another NGO partner for a $6.5 million project in Peru that, among other things, would “promote corporate social responsibility through partnership arrangements between extractive sector companies and other stakeholders aimed at socioeconomic development and support to governance.”
Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars for corporate social responsibility projects over recent years. The department has paid to bring journalists from Latin America and Mongolia to Canada to attend the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada conference and to tour mines in Quebec.
CIDA’s focus on the private sector coincides with a change in the way it delivers aid dollars through aid agencies. CIDA’s new system of making aid agencies compete for specific projects has left a number of Canadian aid organizations laying off staff and reconsidering their futures after they were turned down for aid dollars. Some of those agencies, such as the Mennonite Central Committee, have been working with CIDA for decades.
CIDA’s new system, according to a survey of NGOs released by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, was badly run and lacking in transparency. Some organizations, who waited months to learn whether they would get CIDA funding, said it reduced their credibility with partners and volunteers, that they felt pressure to change their priorities in order to come up with “acceptable” proposals and were forced to cut programs.
More pointedly, most organizations who responded to the survey said the new system has put a chill on advocacy work “as a result of the widely shared perception that CIDA looks unfavourably on organizations that do policy and advocacy work, especially in areas that are controversial for the current government ....”
The message from CIDA is clear. The future is in private sector development.
Elizabeth Payne is a member of the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial board.
Sources : The Ottawa Citizen, March 7 2012