When she shut down the 35-year relationship between the ecumenical group KAIROS and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in 2009, it seemed that Conservative minister Bev Oda had lost her tongue. It was left to a faceless bureaucrat to call KAIROS and tell them their human rights projects in some of the world’s most troubled countries no longer fit CIDA’s criteria. When Oda was questioned about this in the House of Commons, she had nothing to say and sat there mutely while other (male) cabinet ministers tried to parry the blows. But Oda has plenty to say these days, including a recent lengthy interview with the Ottawa Citizen, in which she speaks with great enthusiasm about CIDA’s new support for pilot projects abroad with Canadian mining companies and select NGOs.
What was not clear in 2009 is becoming much more obvious today. The Conservatives have pulled CIDA out of a number of the world’s poorest countries, particularly in Africa, and have refocused on other countries where Canada has more robust trading relationships. It would seem that aid is all about trade, although Oda sees no distinction. Asked by The Citizen how she separates Canada’s trade and foreign policy interests from development goals, she said, “I really don’t separate them.”
CIDA changes partners
CIDA will soon abandon a number of its long-standing development partners among Canadian NGOs, including a number of church-based organizations. Reliable sources say that a number of those groups will see their funding ended or curtailed this year. CIDA is replacing them in its affections with Canadian based multinationals, including Barrick Gold, IAMGOLD, and Rio Tinto Alcan. Oda has been speaking enthusiastically about overseas projects with these three companies and others in the agri-business sector.
CIDA wants to ensure that foreign aid also supports trade and economic growth in Canada. Oda announced $26 million in projects last fall. and more projects are in the pipeline. In Burkina Faso, for example, the project with IAMGOLD is said to offer skills training to young people to work in the mining industry. The budget is $7.6 million over five years. CIDA will provide $5.7 million of that amount; the company will provide $1.0 million; and an NGO called Plan Canada will provide the remaining $900,000.
The Canadian mining industry thinks it is a great idea. “There is a policy shift under way, and it is one we are encouraged by,” says Pierre Gratton, president of the Canadian Mining Association. “These projects help improve the image of the industry … because they are meaningful and have value,” he adds. “This is not just PR.”
Some would say that it is more than image that needs improving for the mining industry. The Canadian group MiningWatch has been blowing the whistle for years on the questionable environmental, human rights and labour relations practices of Canadian mining companies in a number of poor countries. MiningWatch is not on the Prime Minister’s Christmas card list. Jamie Keen of MiningWatch says joint ventures abroad involving CIDA and the industry will help to put a positive spin on the operations, whether deserved or not. He also says, “These companies are sitting on piles of cash, so why are taxpayers paying for their development projects?”
Research conducted for the Canadian Labour Congress indicates that Barrick Gold saw its short and long term assets increase dramatically between the years 2000 and 2010 – from $642 million to $4.5 billion. Presumably much of this cash hoarding had to do with the federal government’s dramatic reduction in corporate income taxes during that period. Barrick’s CEO took home $9.9 million in pay in 2010. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I have a day job with the CLC).
Negatives outweigh positives
Very Rev. Bill Phipps, a former Moderator of the United Church of Canada, is concerned by what he hears about CIDA’s three new pilot projects in Burkina Faso, Peru and Ghana. “I think the negatives outweigh the positives, he says.” Phipps returned recently from a fact-finding visit to areas in the Philippines that are being targeted for exploration by mining companies, some of them Canadian. “The Aboriginal people in the area I visited have a good subsistence life, where they grow healthy food and have clean rivers. There are seven or eight exploration applications on the books and the people oppose them for environmental, cultural and spiritual reasons. As the mining applications increase, the military follows and it is right in the face of these people. The army is operating hand-in-glove with development.”
CIDA’s pilot projects are also causing a rift within the Canadian NGO community. Each of the three projects has an NGO partner. Others in the sector worry that these agencies will “whitewash” the practices of the mining industry – a claim that is denied aggressively. In the case of the Barrick Gold project in Peru, the partner is World Vision. The Globe and Mail quotes World Vision Canada’s president Dave Toycen on January 30, 2012 as saying: “We have to be realistic here, there is self interest on the part of every party here. Anything we can do to encourage and advocate for better mining practices, and support the communities that they are displacing or affecting, we’re contributing to a better lifestyle and environment for them.”
Rev. Phipps, who has not visited the proposed pilot projects, says: “No matter how responsible a corporation tries to be, there are inevitable differences of opinion and conflicts on ecological, human rights, labour, cultural, and other issues. So sometimes an NGO needs to become an advocate for the communities on these conflicts. The company and NGO have different roles, and NGOs should not provide a cover or fig leaf for corporate actions. Too close a relationship is fraught with conflicts of interest.”
One can also look for the partisan considerations at play. KAIROS not only lost its funding in 2009, but was accused by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney of being anti-Semitic. The group had also challenged the government on its commitment to rapid development of the oil sands in Western Canada. The KAIROS member agencies are drawn mainly from the mainline Protestant and Catholic churches. World Vision, on the other hand, is mainly identified with evangelical Christians, a group that is generally friendly to the Conservatives and tends to vote for them.
When news comes out, as it soon will, about whom CIDA will fund and whom it discards, this religious lens is one to watch.