Hundreds of millions in foreign aid go unspent, new figures show
JULY 14, 2013. By Lee Berthiaume, Postmedia News
Hundreds of millions of dollars set aside to help the world’s poor went unspent in the last fiscal year, new figures from theparliamentary budget office show, prompting fresh concerns about the future of Canadian foreign aid.
The data collected from quarterly spending reports shows that by the end of the fiscal year in March, the Canadian International Development Agency had failed to spend nearly $419 million, or more than 13 per cent, the $3.14 billion Parliament authorized it to spend in grants and contributions.
Grants and contributions are the main way CIDA and the federal government dole out foreign aid to developing countries, international organizations like the United Nations, and development groups such asCARE Canada.
A similar amount of aid money was returned to the federal coffers three years when ago when the Conservative government cut the number of countries receiving Canadian assistance and shifted focus from Africa to Latin America.
But the previous two years saw between 99 and 100 per cent of money set aside for grants and contributions spent.
International Development Minister Julian Fantino’s office warned the figures for the last fiscal year are “preliminary,” and the parliamentary budget office acknowledged they could change as more last-minute spending is reported.
However, those changes are not expected to be significant, and even before the figures were published there had been concerns that hundreds of millions in aid funding had gone unspent during the last fiscal year.
Freezes have been imposed on future projects in Haiti and a number of countries, while projects face long delays for approval in the minister’s office, and development groups say CIDA has not asked for project proposals in more than two years.
In a statement released by his office, Fantino said the government’s focus is on making sure what aid money it does spend is used effectively.
“For those living in poverty or suffering the ill effects of a humanitarian crisis in the developing world, what matters most is timely and effective assistance,” he said, “not budgets and disbursements simply made in their names.”
The Conservative government announced last year it was cutting $377 million, or about 7.5 per cent, of Canada’s $5 billion aid budget as part of its efforts to slay the deficit.
But analysts say letting hundreds of millions of aid dollars lapse is indicative of incompetence on Fantino’s part — or an intentional effort to reduce aid spending in the hopes no one would notice.
“That’s a very large number in absolute terms and even more problematic in light of other real cuts that have already been made to Canadian aid,” said Carleton University aid expert Edward Jackson.
“If we think about it in terms of what $400 million can do in terms of vaccinations or education programs, every drop of aid money can help,” said former CIDA official Liam Swiss, who now teaches international development at Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L.
University of Ottawa development expert Stephen Brown said the Conservative government’s interest in helping the world’s poor has already been in question.
The past few years have seen it shift focus from poor countries in Africa to middle-income trading partners in Latin America and cuts to CIDA’s long-standing ties with international development groups in favour of closer partnerships with Canadian mining companies.
Most recently it rolled CIDA into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, plans for which were developed in secret and only revealed when the budget was presented in March.
Revelations of the lapsed funding will do nothing to erase concerns about the Conservatives and foreign aid, Brown said.
“There’s no shortage of good things to spend aid on,” Brown said. “Nobody is saying the minister should approve bad projects. But this is not a government that’s strongly committed to foreign aid.”
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