International aid policy not about perpetuating aid agencies: Fantino

OTTAWA – Canada’s international co-operation minister took a swipe at foreign aid groups on Wednesday, saying the overseas development budget isn’t about keeping them in business for life.

Julian Fantino fired a very direct warning shot at those in the aid business who have expressed concern over a new Canadian International Development Agency policy that more closely aligns aid spending with the private sector.

Aid groups say the new focus could reduce the money available for projects aimed at food security and women and children’s health because CIDA’s funding is frozen until 2015.

Fantino said those core programs won’t be cut, but savings could be found in other projects that have fixed time periods and are due to end. He was speaking by telephone from Haiti, where he is assessing aid projects in the aftermath of the devastating January 2010 earthquake there.

Aiming at critics in the non-governmental organization community, Fantino said CIDA doesn’t exist to fund aid groups for life and his job is to ensure that taxpayers get good value for their humanitarian dollars.

“Not every program is a lifetime program,” he said. “There’s always adjustments being made. … Programs that we enter into are not for life. We don’t fund NGOs for life.”

Fantino said his critics have a “disconnect” about how Canada’s aid policy is evolving.

“I think some people believe that CIDA only exists to keep NGOs afloat, and keep them working and that we will fund them for life,” he said.

“That’s not going to be the case. We will ensure that we do the most appropriate and the most affordable thing that can be done with Canadian tax dollars.”

Fantino announced the new business-oriented aid focus last week in a speech to the Economic Club of Toronto.

He highlighted the mining industry as a key industry, a point he reiterated during his conference call from Haiti.

One leading NGO has expressed concern that with CIDA’s $5-billion annual budget frozen until 2015 as part of the government’s deficit-cutting initiative, old-fashioned aid to the poor will suffer.

Aid groups are usually reluctant to criticize CIDA publicly because they rely on it for money, while the Harper government has cut funding to some groups that have been critical of its policies.

Robert Fox, the head of Oxfam Canada, questioned how Canada could continue helping the poor in the Third World.

“The priority for Canadian aid is alleviating poverty and promoting human rights,” Fox said. “With the aid budget shrinking, it’s important that we not lose sight of that.

“We agree that CIDA has an important role to play in support of private enterprise in developing countries —locally owned and operated businesses that create jobs and opportunities — but we think the Export Development Corp., and other government agencies are more appropriate sources of funding for Canadian corporations looking for opportunities overseas.”

Fox also said that Fantino’s speech didn’t specify whether there will be less money available for food security or for women and children as a result of this focus on the private sector.

Fantino pledged during his call that those two areas of funding would not be compromised. Canada highlighted them as priorities during recent G8 summits.

The minister also moved to mute criticism over the government’s focus on mining, an industry that has faced criticism for violating human rights in some poor countries.

“The extractive opportunities for these developing, poor countries, if you will, are quite substantial. We want to be helping those countries develop the kinds of economic sustainability that can in fact come from extractives,” Fantino said.

“We’re not funding mining companies. We’re not funding the mining industry. But we’re certainly supporting the industry to ensure they have at least an equal playing field with other competing countries … in the extractive industry.”

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