’Because We Really Care’: Dissolution of CIDA, how it challenges myths about Canada, its impact on Colombia

“Charity…is the opium of the privileged” – Chinua Achebe, Rest In Peace.

I wanted to give a quick reaction to the news that the Canadian International Development Agency, or CIDA, the body of the Federal government in charge of administering Canadian overseas development aid, is going to be folded into the Department for Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT).

There have been a mix of reactions in the Canadian foreign policy Twitter and blogospheres; Director of Partnership Africa-Canada Ian Smillie says that this is a further step away from Canada’s legacy of being a leader among giving assistance to ‘poor countries’; whereas another Canadian foreign policy heavyweight, Roland Paris from the UOttawa, argues that a merger may not in and of itself be a bad thing. Surprisingly some CIDA officials are lamenting the merger, whereas Lloyd Axworthy is welcoming it.

The rationale of the merger being presented by the government is to put development on “equal footing” with trade and diplomacy, and to have a more unified, consistent Canadian voice promoting Canadian ‘values and interests’ abroad.

Overseas Development Assistance, or ODA, in Canada is the legacy of Liberal governments trying to create a very particular image of Canada internally and externally. One of the founding moments for ODA was the Ceylon Conference in which CIDA’s predecessor was established by Nobel laureate Lester B. Pearson. Under Liberal Prime Ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, Canada’s was quite firmly committed to ODA in Sub-Saharan Africa. Canada, with it’s lack of colonial baggage and bilingual capacity/ties to the Commonwealth and La Francophonie, was always in a ‘good’ position to bolster ties with Francophone and Anglophone African countries through ODA. With the War on/of Terror and Canada’s participation in the NATO mission, Afghanistan also became a development priority. We Canadians framed ourselves as honest and disinterested brokers wanting to do what Americans couldn’t – be the benign and benevolent Westerners who wanted to promote growth, peace, and equality without any  vested interests.

This construction of an innocent and humanitarian Canadian foreign policy has been part and parcel of the discussion surrounding CIDA’s end. Take for example, this interesting commentary from the CBC piece (this is not an editorial or an opinion piece, I might add):

“A confidential draft document obtained by CBC News last fall outlined the broad strokes of a foreign policy shift toward focusing Canada’s international efforts primarily on one goal: forging new trade deals and business opportunities in the rapidly expanding markets of Asia and South America.

The document made scant mention of Canada’s traditional roles as peacemakers in war zones like Afghanistan or foreign aid providers in disasters such as Haiti. It also did not mention using trade deals to pressure countries such as China on human rights and other matters of democratic principle.”

The allusion to “peacekeeping” and “democratic principles” are not an accident. Perhaps the author of this article at the supposedly objective CBC is, like Smillie and Axworthy, in my opinion, a believer in the old form of Canadian aid and it’s ties to our national identity as somehow being altruistic abroad. However, whether Liberal or Conservative, it’s quite clear that this has never been the case, and Canada’s ODA has always come with conditions, and has always been influenced or driven by the extractive sector. During Chretien’s time this was painfully obvious during the First and Second Congo Wars, and the multiple blunders of Canadian industry, DFAIT, and other actors in the DRC. 

In other words, many of those, like Smillie, lamenting this change as a further erosion of Canada’s legacy of “leadership” in Africa with respect to ODA, are romanticizing an era which never really was in reality, but was integral to our identity as a country of people ‘who really care’.

This development ideology stands in stark contrast to the one of the Harper Conservatives. They have confidently, some would say aggressively, shifted Canada’s development interests away from “the poorest of the poor”, to use that extremely problematic language, to aligning Canadian development and diplomatic interests closer to commercial ones. The CIDA merger, I believe, is a significant moment as part of a larger pattern. CIDA, for the Conservatives, was perhaps a Liberal relic that really had no place in their vision for ODA.

Throughout the last few years, this change in ideology in Canada’s ODA has manifested itself in a variety of scandals and controversies, as the Conservatives were perhaps considered to be ruining something that Liberals and progressives saw as a dear part of Canadian national life (helping poor people in far away places). Moments of note include how former Minister for International Co-Operation (the head of CIDA) Bev Oda wrote in a “NOT” for a grant to KAIROS, a well respected NGO who had been doing advocacy around the Israel-Palestine conflict, a strict no-no among new CIDA guidelines for Canadian NGOs.Under Oda, there was also a slight creeping of social conservatism into the development agenda, such as when Canada refused to fund abortions as part of a G8 Maternal Health initiative.

Current Minister of International Cooperation, Julian Fantino (L), and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, John Baird (R).

Current Minister Julian Fantino, for his part, drew a lot of heat for freezing assistance to Haiti, a longtime charity ‘darling’ for Canada, due to a lack of ‘results’, and for CIDA giving funds to NGOs that are associated with the anti-Queer movement in Uganda/on their webpage describe homosexuality as a kind of deviance.  

The most significant change, for me however, is the cozying up of Canadian commercial interests with Canadian ‘humanitarian’ and development initiatives, and the leaving of a Liberal policy of helping “the poorest” in Africa to assisting countries that we need to get resources from in Latin America. Obviously, the Liberals’ development agenda, as mentioned above, wasn’t much better, but the Conservatives is definitely more blatant in what it’s after.

This has really taken shape in two key developments. Firstly, the dropping of many impoverished lower-income African nations such as the DRC from CIDA’s list of priority countries, to a slim list of 20 ‘countries of focus’ for bilateral assistance which will collectively receive 80% of Canadian aid.  The list includes many extremely unequal upper/middle-income Latin American countries such as Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia. This was again, moving away from the Liberal CIDA policy of having smaller aid projects sprinkled around every corner of the earth (so everyone would know how amazing Canadians are, clearly) to consolidating development into a few key areas (of course, aligned with broader Canadian interests).

Well, what exactly are those other Canadian interests? This leads to the second shift, which is probably the most telling and controversial out of all the changes – that CIDA would be subsidizing public-private-NGO partnership pilot projects in South America and Africa. In other words, CIDA would be basically disbursing aid money through the CSR branches of Canadian mining companies along with NGOs.

Colombia, as usual, being one of the most unequal, poor, and violent countries in the region fit beautifully into this scheme. With the apertura economica or “economic opening” of Colombia under former President Alvaro Uribe and the beating back of the rebels from formerly marginal areas in the countryside rich in minerals/the “pacification” (read: counterinsurgency campaign) of the countryside, Colombia’s resources were ready for Canadian extraction. To make a very very long story short, Canada signed a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, Colombia made the list of the top 20 “priority” countries for CIDA, and the largest producer of gold in Colombia is a Canadian corporation, Gran Colombia Gold, which has been accused of having ties to paramilitaries. I leave it to you to make what you will of those four things and how related or not they are to each other.

CIDA has also been accused of tinkering with Colombia’s mining code, and industrializing and handing over to foreigners a gold and mining industry that has historically been run by low-income artisanal miners.

Here is a little gem from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA)’s report on the Canadian extractive sector in Colombia:

The report cites reliable sources that link ten Canadian companies in Colombia to the genocide of indigenous Colombians, to complicity in eight murders and one attempted murder, to other significant military/paramilitary repression, to large-scale displacement, and to environmental destruction on a massive scale, as well as to union-busting, strike-breaking, and worker exploitation.

… Never before have Canadian companies in Colombia been denounced as so destructive. They are now open to criminal charges of genocide, murder, complicity in murder, environmental damage, displacement of indigenous populations, and the violation of labour rights.

So what does this CIDA merger mean for Colombia? Probably what it will mean for other countries who also have, for better or for worse, a growing Canadian presence – aid will be more explicitly in the service of the Canadian extractive sector, and all of its alleged associated abuses, and not the ‘people’, to put it bluntly. However, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that aid was ever about ‘the people’. Until 2008, most of Canadian food aid was tied. Afghanistan was an aid priority because we invaded and occupied it. The extractive sector has had huge influence historically over Canadian interests in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. Aid has always been a political tool for furthering Canada’s political and economic interests and making us look good with respect to sensational issues such as extreme poverty and war. To romanticize the era of Liberal peacekeeping and a ‘poorest of the poor’-centred CIDA is to deny that, to a certain extent.

CIDA under the Liberals was arguably just as bad as under the Tories, the question is one of representation and symbols. Under Harper, CIDA is no more because what CIDA stood for made no sense to him; aid to him should be about explicitly furthering Canadian economic/political interests. Under the Liberals, this was mostly the same except it was couched in a sinister and self-congratulating discourse of humanitarianism, benevolence, and how kind and wonderful Canadians are. However, many countries which CIDA focuses on, don’t need aid. Colombia is rich in resource and has one of the strongest economies in Latin America; however it’s rural communities exist in an almost feudal state of exploitation by mining companies, local and national oligarchs, guerrillas, neo-paramilitary groups, the army, and drug cartels. Whether it’s CIDA or the FARC, many communities in Colombia are just told about how they should be run, and never given true self-determination. What these communities and nations need, in my view, is a fundamental structural change in power relationships; that would be a discussion that really gets at the heart of poverty in somewhere like Colombia. But this has been absent from the debate about CIDA’s merger, which you would think would have something to do with poverty. The discussion is about what CIDA means to Canada. The discussion is about how some of us are not comfortable with what the Tories are doing which is being explicit about something that, actually has always been quite Canadian – making our charity all about what benefits us, and not those who we give it to.

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3 responses to “’Because We Really Care’: Dissolution of CIDA, how it challenges myths about Canada, its impact on Colombia

  1. Do you think that ‘development aid’, if it is directed from the government level and thus always somewhat tied to national imperatives, can ever be or would ever be responsive to the inherent power differences between Canada and the countries where it is active? I also doubt if Canadians would support any initiative that would decrease Canada’s perceived or real standing in the world. This, I guess, means that the only way that countries like Colombia would ever be able to benefit on an equal basis from partnerships with Canada, would be for Colombia to reduce the power differential itself and leverage its own resources more effectively. Not sure how this could be done and what role Canadians could play, but definitely worth some thought. I suspect that it will have very little to do with Canadians and everything to do with Colombians

  2. I believe that humanitarian relief is a bit more disinterested, but it still serves a purpose. As per your thought, my thinking is actually in the opposite. Whether it’s the Free Trade Agreement, or how Colombia has recently become a ‘focus-country’ for aid, Canada is the powerful one in the relationship. I think it’s less about Colombians/Haitians/Afghanis etc trying to leverage the power itself, as they are the ones on with the short end of the stick. Communities have been protesting Canadian investment for over a decade now, but both the Colombian elite and Ottawa dig their head in the sand. I think it should be about Canada, and what was CIDA, to critically examine why they are their in the first place, and what power/privilege/baggage they enter a country like Colombia with. So, I think the onus is on Canada. I don’t know how a country like Colombia, or Peru, or Mali would be able to harness it’s own resources and try to level the playing field if the rules of the game and the resources are all owned and run by foreigners Maybe I’m just a cynic

    • I don’t think we differ in our view. I agree that introspection by CIDA and Canadians about their role and impact in the wider community is important but I doubt that this will happen, given the political and economic realities. Yes, the onus is on Canada, but when has a power ever willingly ceded its position of power? Thus, I believe that it will be the Global South that must and will change the power relationship with the west and wrest control over the ‘how’ of trade/aid, etc from countries such as Canada. I do not believe that Canadians will play a big role… introspection and understanding is good, but will, from historical experience, be overridden by a majority desire for convenience and the inertia of the status quo.

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