JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

Joe Gunn

April 9, 2012

I admit I was wrong. I couldn't imagine it would happen. Why would the federal government decimate the budget of the official overseas aid agency of the country's largest religious constituency, at the same time as Conservative Party leaders were availing themselves of every opportunity to ingratiate themselves to Catholic voters?

After all, Stephen Harper had become the first Conservative prime minister in history to win a majority of the votes cast by Catholic churchgoers. Would the Conservatives really want to take a chance of squandering that political advantage?

In July 2010, Development and Peace submitted its funding proposal ($49.2 million over five years) to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Nineteen months later, Development and Peace received word that it would only be granted $14.5 million.

In 2010-11, Development and Peace supported 186 partners in 30 countries. CIDA's new agreement designates funds for a mere seven countries, only one of which is in Africa.

Because of the long CIDA delay in responding, by last September, Development and Peace had already reduced its financial support to 32 partners and could not renew support to another 48 partner organizations in the Global South.

The agency's national council has now moved to cut its annual budget by $5 million this year alone. Such cuts are devastating to development projects overseas and the many thousands who depend on them, and will surely mean dismantling education programs in Canada.

BOTTOM OF THE LIST

Since the federal budget of 2010 froze Canadian aid spending for the next three years, overseas development assistance in Canada as a percentage of the size of our economy has fallen to near the bottom of all donor countries.

NGOs have been particularly affected. In July 2010, CIDA announced its new Partnerships with Canadians Branch, featuring a competitive funding mechanism. CIDA would no longer provide "institutional funding" to NGOs, in an amount "responsive" to amounts collected from their Canadian donors and based on the needs expressed by Southern partners.

Rather, funding has become more responsive to CIDA's own institutional priorities. As well, the 10 per cent of funds previously available to NGOs for public engagement activities disappeared.

Development and Peace has not been the only NGO to face CIDA's rejection. Other groups that carry out excellent development initiatives like the Mennonite Central Committee and the Quakers have also come under the knife. Groups like KAIROS and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation have been slashed for what can only be described as political reasons.

Development and Peace communicated the news of the massive CIDA cuts late on Friday, March 16. With what must pass as the most understated comment in the history of the organization, a communiqué reported, "It is not exactly what we were hoping for."

News of the cuts had been kept under wraps for over a month, with many of the organization's members growing increasingly worried that bad news was afoot. Staff were sworn to silence until March 31.

(Waiting that long would have meant the bad news would have circulated after the Solidarity Sunday sermons and collections on the fifth weekend of Lent, as well as after the federal budget of March 29.)

To the chagrin of the organization's most active members, Development and Peace has yet to circulate a strategy for responding to these devastating cuts. Staff did receive updated "assisted departure packages" to assist those contemplating resignation from their jobs.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops responded on March 22 with much stronger language, calling the cuts "tragic" and expressing "great regret" and "extreme disappointment" with the government's decision.

The CCCB promised to "continue discussing this matter with government," which suggests that undisclosed lobbying may have already taken place.

The bishops of Saskatchewan made an impressive joint statement of support, and the archbishop of Quebec has publicly criticized the minister responsible for CIDA. As well, several bishops joined hundreds of Development and Peace members who fasted on Good Friday, donated the money they would have spent on food and took the occasion to communicate their displeasure to parliamentarians.

70 PER CENT DENIED

Apparently the politicians must believe that Catholics won't care enough about international development to protest the fact that almost 70 per cent of the funding request of Development and Peace has been denied. They must believe that anyone who has ever donated to that agency will not mind seeing their investment devalued, without the government's match.

They must believe that the stated commitment to the Christian mission of international solidarity, as expressed in sermons, papal encyclicals and letters of Canadian bishops, will remain unheeded. They must believe that the members of Development and Peace, after 45 years of education and animation efforts across Canada, will not rise to this challenge.

They should be proven wrong.

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