JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

Joe Gunn

May 14, 2012

Ouch! The federal cuts to the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, the official international development agency of the Catholic Church in our country, really hurt.

The Church in Canada has been rocked by a federal government announcement that over 40 years of successful development practice by Development and Peace is no longer adequate for the receipt of matching grants.

The failure of the federal government to fully fund Development and Peace's work means a devastating loss of almost $35 million over the next five years compared with the last five. Already, the agency has announced that financial support has been reduced to 32 partner groups in the Global South and 48 others terminated. Last month, 15 Canadian staff received layoff notices.

But as we all know, it's really how well one responds to an injury (and how quickly), that defines the path towards healing.

This spring, members of Development and Peace are gathering, as always, in regional assemblies. Here they discuss the organization's health.

Many Canadians with international development experience feel that being cut by this federal government means that the organization has been almost too successful in fulfilling its mandate. Other more conservative Catholics have lauded the government cuts, and want to see bishops impose even more stringent control systems and oversight on the lay-led agency.

So what will this spring's regional assemblies decide?

Without overstatement, the decisions that Development and Peace members, elected leaders, staff and the Canadian bishops make over the next several months will define the future of institutionalized support for Catholic social action in Canada for a generation.

"You can't lose by fighting back," states Dennis Howlett. How should he know?

Back in 1995, when Howlett was working for Ten Days for World Development (an ecumenical agency the Canadian churches created to do development education), he heard of the federal government's decision to cut funding to this work. Monies were slashed as part of the Liberal government's attempt to slay the deficit dragon.

What did Ten Days do?

Ten Days activated almost 200 committees in parishes across Canada. They debated the best arguments to use against the cuts, ensured they had support from Church leaders, wrote letters, visited members of Parliament and developed a tool kit of ideas to help local folks get involved.

TEN DAYS SLEW THE DRAGON

After months of relentless pressure, the Canadian International Development Agency relented, allowing the churches to again access funding for their education programs through Ten Days.

What lessons were learned?

According to Howlett, these mobilizing activities showed the government that the churches had the capacity to organize, and that they had a presence across the country.

Most importantly, by getting involved in the campaign to defend development education and animation for social justice, "the exercise was empowering for local groups, and much good work was done. Even if you don't win, you make them think twice before doing it again."

Development and Peace has often made hard decisions. The organization's bylaws state bluntly that this agency is to live the preferential option for the poor. Its mandate to fund liberating activities in the Global South and educate us about the real causes of injustice will always inspire debate, and even, at times, conflict among us.

Even last September, three former directors general of the organization urged renewal when they said, "What we see on the horizon suggests the ultimate disaffection of the organization's active membership, a loss of dynamism among its staff and members with respect to its public education work in Canada and in the organization's capacity to address the causes of underdevelopment in the world, a rejection and reversal of time-honoured and tested development program practices vital to maintaining its relevance and effectiveness, and the consequent loss of a large number of its Southern partners."

There is no use pretending that liberating the poor and defending their interests comes without effort and struggle. Nonetheless, the social thought of the Church and the example of Jesus' life practice offer constant inspiration to move forward.

PRAYER AND ACTION

A crucial opportunity for renewal now presents itself. And members are leading the way through prayer and action.

Volunteers have already written to their government, fasted and collected funds - and are keeping the politicians' feet to the fire. To get involved, visit www.devp.org/en/more-than-ever and download the Petition for Development and Peace.

If you can obtain 25 signatures, your MP will table the signatures in the House of Commons.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)