Canadian Christians might wonder whether our overseas aid dollars make a positive difference.
In Catholic parishes, the collection for Development and Peace is taken up on Solidarity Sunday, the fifth Sunday in Lent. This can be a time to ponder deeper questions about the effectiveness of aid, the policies of governmental aid strategies and the guidance of Catholic social thought on such a crucial matter.
Development assistance is an easy target for cuts when governments face a recessionary economy or embark on fiscal restraint programs. After all, there are no voters among the overseas beneficiaries of our largesse.
In the Republican primary race, one candidate promised to cut overseas aid altogether. Due to the fiscal crisis in Europe, several countries have slashed aid budgets. Private foundations, which often distribute invested earnings, have also cut back.
In Canada, non-governmental aid agencies are reeling. Not only has the Harper government frozen aid spending until 2015, it has left several agencies (like Development and Peace) waiting for months to receive matching monies from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
Several NGOs have been forced to dip into their reserves, cut staff and delay projects overseas. Multi-million dollar cuts to agencies like the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, and to the Christian churches' development work through KAIROS have created a chill in the entire sector.
But CIDA has not stopped all aid disbursement. It has actively promoted the operations of Canadian mining firms overseas. Last September, three controversial projects were approved that joined NGOs with transnational mining companies - some of which have faced international criticism for their environmental and labour practices.
Under the CIDA-initiated deal, World University Services Canada has teamed up with Rio Tinto Alcan, Plan Canada with Iamgold and World Vision Canada with Barrick Gold.
The NGOs will receive $6.7 million of CIDA funding over five years. The three mining companies will contribute just shy of $2 million. Development projects will be undertaken in countries where these mining firms operate, such as Peru, Burkina Faso and Ghana.
Why has the Canadian government focused on companies whose combined net profit in 2010 was more than $4 billion?
CIDA minister Bev Oda was quoted in the Ottawa Citizen as saying, "Our government is very much looking to increase its relationships with the private sector." She would like to see additional relationships between NGOs and corporations in manufacturing, agriculture and tourism.
Apparently several similar announcements will soon be made. In a time of government restraint, will NGOs line up for project monies from government and industry under these new criteria?
I worked in Latin America for seven years with refugees and undertook development projects there, and find these changes in Canadian development policy to be worrisome.
Like many supporters of Development and Peace, I participated in the campaign to pass Bill C-300, which would have legislated minor regulatory demands on extractive industries operating overseas. Unfortunately, after a massive industry lobby against the bill, it was narrowly defeated in the last Parliament.
We might ask ourselves how to define true development, and look to Catholic social thought for guidance.
In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict demanded "a complete re-examination of development" (23). The pope challenged his readers to adopt "an attentiveness to ways of civilizing the economy" (38). This is quite different than encouraging poor countries to "catch up" to our perfect economic models and practices in the developed North.
What do we propose to be the main aim of development initiatives? Some international spending can be designed to advance Canadian interests, deepen relationships, promote exports from our industries, and even to develop mutual security. Much of this may be referred to as "development."
But I think Parliament got it right when it passed the Better Aid Bill, and defined the main goal of Canada's aid spending as the alleviation of poverty.
I still want the federal government to play a regulatory role over Canadian extractive industries overseas, because many violations of environmental, human and labour rights have yet to be adequately addressed.
NGOs may receive money from a range of private and public sources to finance their important projects. But when these grants determine – or disfigure – the values and operations of development initiatives, they need to be rejected.
As NGO leader Dr. Samantha Nutt advised, we might do well to remember a line from the 17th-century English poet John Dryden: "Better shun the bait than struggle in the snare."
(Joe Gunn is executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca.)