Let the people decide where gov't overseas dollars go


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April 9, 2012

One reason Canadians took pride in their nation in recent decades was Canada's assistance to the poorest people in the world's poorest nations to improve their own living conditions. This commitment was expressed not only through the donations of tens of millions of dollars by individuals, but also by our governments' matching of the donations that individuals made to non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

That policy has now changed radically. The change surely did not come overnight. The Alberta government stopped contributing years ago and the federal government has long been moving to tie foreign aid more and more to the interests of Canadian business.

However, the recent massive cuts in funding to the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace and other NGOs has now virtually eliminated the principle of individual Canadians directing the flow of development assistance through their own donations. It has also destroyed the principle of federal government support for programs of local empowerment in the Global South.

The priorities of development assistance that Canadians establish by donating their hard-earned dollars has been replaced by bureaucratic decisions of how to allocate money in ways perceived to be in Canada's own interests.

First, this is not foreign aid, but is rather aid to ourselves. The element of altruism has been, if not eliminated, sharply reduced.

It is clear that development assistance will not, by itself, eliminate social inequalities. But to the extent that it does help, Canada will help others based mainly on what is perceived to be of value to us more than it is of value to the world's poor. Canada can do better than this.

Second, the new approach says bureaucrats in Ottawa, rather than individual Canadians donating money to NGOs who have on-the-ground contacts in poorer nations, are better placed to determine how taxpayers' money should be spent. At best, this is highly questionable.

This should not be a black-and-white issue. There is a need for government oversight to protect against abuses. However, it should be the generous donors who most determine the direction of Canada's development assistance. When there has been wasteful spending of foreign aid in the past, it has typically been because government has been too involved in determining how money is spent, not under-involved.

Canadians remain a generous people. That generosity is best represented in government policy when the donations of individuals to NGOs are matched by government grants. We urge the federal government to restore the funding it will take away from CCODP and other NGOs. The lost funding was Canada's best token of our desire for a better, more equitable world.