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Canadian Developmental Assistance in Latin America

Canadian Developmental Assistance in Latin America

Posted by Bruce McDougall on September 03, 2014

For the last eight years, Canada’s international aid groups have regarded Stephen Harper’s government with increasing skepticism. Focusing on human rights, social justice and environmental protection, these groups distrust the federal government’s emphasis on trade and economic development in developing countries including Latin America.

Their criticism became more pronounced last year when the federal government incorporated the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and its $3.7-billion budget into the department responsible for foreign affairs and trade. Although other countries such as Norway, Holland, Ireland and the U.S. have taken similar steps as a way to reduce costs and avoid duplication of staff in foreign postings, critics wonder if the Harper government doesn’t have other motives.

Under federal legislation, “Canada's development assistance must contribute to poverty reduction, take into account the perspectives of the poor, and be consistent with international human rights standards,” observes Hélène Laverdière, a New Democratic Party Member of Parliament from Sault Ste. Marie and the Opposition Critic for International Cooperation, Americas and Consular Affairs.

But instead of addressing poverty and human rights directly, Laverdière says the government is emphasizing partnerships with the private sector, especially the mining industry. She says the government wants CIDA to participate in opening new markets for Canada. “Cultivating trade opportunities is important,” says Laverdière, “but the promotion of trade priorities is not the business of CIDA.

In response, Julian Fantino, Canada’s international co-operation minister, says his job is to ensure that aid groups spend the government’s money wisely. “We don’t fund [aid groups] for life,” he says.

More recently, some of these groups have not only lost their CIDA funding, they’ve also been targeted by the Canada Revenue Agency for audits of their financial records.  An organization in Vancouver called CoDevelopment Canada (CoDev), for example, lost 28% of its funding last year when CIDA stopped matching donations from private sources. Until then, CoDev spent almost $1 million on CIDA-sanctioned programs, working with Latin American partners such as NOMADESC in Colombia, which trains community leaders in human rights activities, and the Central American Women’s Network in Solidarity with Maquila Workers, which aims to improve labour relations at the grassroots level in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras. With $38,000 from CoDev, for example, a legal clinic in Nicaragua handled 2,000 cases last year — 1,600 involving women — pertaining to issues such as labour-rights violations and gender-based violence. None of these activities does much to further relationships with private-sector organizations, especially the ones that prosper by violating labour regulations and abusing human rights.

Without mentioning specific names, federal government ministers like Joe Oliver have complained that “environmental and other radical groups” are interfering with the mining sector’s development of the Latin American resource industry. “They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest,’’ he said.

Since CoDev has actively opposed several federal initiatives on global development, including a free-trade agreement with Colombia, and has criticized the Harper government for emphasizing its foreign policy and trade objectives at the expense of poverty reduction, the group was understandably suspicious when the Canada Revenue Agency conducted its second audit of the organization within five years. The CRA also demanded that CoDev pay thousands of dollars to translate Spanish financial documents from its Latin American partners into English or jeopardize its charitable status.

The CRA insists that it doesn’t take its marching orders from the government. Canada’s 86,000 registered charities collect $14.2 billion in annual donations a year. The CRA says it conducts audits of these groups to make sure that they comply with the law. In two and a half years, until June 30, 2014, it conducted almost 2,000 audits of charities involved in the advancement of religion, the advancement of education, the relief of poverty and other purposes beneficial to the community.

Since weak laws encourage abuse in countries where governments don’t enforce them, Canadian aid groups can take some consolation from knowing that in Canada the law prevails. At least, that’s the theory.

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