It is not often that a religiously-based publication breaks news because most of them don’t have the staff or resources to do so. A recent exception occurred in The Catholic Register, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Toronto. In January 2013, the Register published an investigative story showing that when the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) drastically reduced its funding to the Catholic organization Development and Peace (D&P) in 2012, it did so despite high praise for the aid organization from within CIDA’s own bureaucracy.

Development and Peace, a long-time partner in development work with CIDA, made a new proposal for funding in July 2010. In February 2012, after being kept in suspense for almost two years, D&P was told that CIDA, which had provided $44.6 million in the years 2006-11, had chopped that amount by two-thirds, to a total of $14.5 million over the next five years. Bev Oda, who was then the CIDA minister, provided no detailed reasons for the cuts.

Access to Information 

The Catholic Register used an Access to Information request that garnered 235 pages of internal emails, briefing notes and memos from CIDA in an attempt to find out why support to D&P was reduced so drastically.

The newspaper says that in a briefing prepared for CIDA president Margaret Biggs staff describe D&P as “Canada’s most experienced development organization supported exclusively by Canadians.” The Register says the CIDA staff evaluation to Biggs for the D & P proposal describes it as follows: “This is a strong proposal from an experienced partner.”

D&P is also described by CIDA officials as: “well managed, organizationally and financially, and very capable of achieving results for CIDA. Over the past 40 years, there has never been any major incident or problem in their development work with CIDA.”

Despite these glowing recommendations, D&P lost two-thirds of its funding. Other religiously-based organizations have also had their CIDA support reduced or eradicated. The highly respected Mennonite Central Committee was cut off by CIDA in 2012. The ecumenically based human rights group KAIROS had also received good reviews from CIDA for its work over the years, but it lost all of its funding support in 2009.

Politically driven change

It is clear that change is occurring in the government’s approach to foreign assistance and that it is politically driven. Minister Oda, prior to her departure from politics, was mostly close-lipped about what was happening, other than her comment that she saw no difference between Canadian trade interests and Canadian aid. The current CIDA minister Julian Fantino has continued with that mantra in his speeches and remarks. He also says that in future CIDA will place further emphasis upon working with the Canadian private sector.

The most obvious of those efforts are so-called Corporate Responsibility Projects in which CIDA is providing money to Canadian mining companies active in the global South and to a select few NGOs in partnership with them. Other business groups see this as a new opportunity. The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association says, “The business community and CIDA may start building on successes first done by the mining sector as a way to both promote Canadian business in the Third World and help bring CIDA programs to developing countries.”

NGOs who are long time CIDA partners are trying to understand what these new directions mean to them and to poor people abroad. Central to the new approach is something called the Call for Proposals mechanism, in which NGOs compete to win CIDA-designed projects rather than delivering projects that traditionally have been proposed by the NGOs and their partners in the field.

McLeod Group analysis

The McLeod Group is an Ottawa-based organization that pulls together a number of Canadian individuals respected for their experience and knowledge of international assistance. In its blog of March 12, 2012, the group provided some historical analysis of the changing CIDA-NGO relationship.

Beginning in the 1960s, CIDA supported independent NGO development work, which often occurred in remote areas that CIDA itself could never reach. In their work, NGOs also used donations provided by individual Canadians and CIDA matched those donations. This added to CIDA’s tax-financed spending, it was popular with individual donors within Canada, and it improved this country’s reputation abroad.

In the early 1980s, CIDA began to provide multi-year program funding to proven NGOs. These organizations had to follow an agreed plan and submit to regular CIDA evaluations, such as those referred to in the Access to Information materials obtained by The Catholic Register. This approach speeded up the approval process and provided NGOs and their overseas partners with continuity and predictability. The McLeod group says these are “essential elements of effective development.”

This arrangement has now experienced a wrenching change. The McLeod Group describes it in this way: “Now CIDA puts out a Call for Proposals and asks NGOs to send in competitive bids on initiatives of CIDA’s choosing. Typically, half the money must be spent in CIDA’s own “countries of focus” — and 80% must be spent on CIDA’s own chosen themes.”

The McLeod group says the countries of focus rule “draws NGOs away from countries they have worked in for years, countries where needs are great and where they might be the only Canadian development presence of any kind. In fact CIDA’s list covers only 19 countries plus the Caribbean . . . and 88% of Africa’s 54 countries are excluded.”

CCIC survey

In March 2012, the Canadian Council for International Co-operation issued a report called Putting Partnership back at the Heart of Development. The document provided the results of a survey that was completed by 158 Canadian organizations involved in international development. They were asked about the changes in CIDA’s method of funding the programs of Canadian organizations in developing countries.

The report indicated that CIDA’s new rules of engagement have weakened the credibility and the capacities of NGOs, added to their costs, damaged or disrupted their overseas programs and put a chill on the advocacy work of those that were so inclined. Julia Sanchez, president and CEO of the CCIC said at the time: “CIDA needs to take a step back and re-assess the Call for Proposals mechanism.”

Defanging NGOs 

CIDA’s new process is bureaucratic, slow and opaque — but there is more to it than that. The McLeod Group says that the organization is also “defanging” NGOs. “If you are an NGO that engages in any kind of advocacy, you might as well forget it. The Mennonite Central Committee, one of Canada’s most respected development organizations, had a recent proposal rejected . . . maybe it was because MCC has been a strong advocate on issues of human rights around a Canadian gold mining operation in Honduras.”

The defunding and defanging of NGOs has created what some call an “advocacy chill” in which NGOs fear to speak out on issues and even on their own treatment at the hands of CIDA. This chill stifles a diversity of voices and any chance of a full debate about Canada’s international development priorities and practices.

By the way: the McLeod group points out that there were no competitive bids required for CIDA grants flowing to mining companies and the small group of NGOs allied with them.