World’s poor shortchanged $300M

Posted on November 3, 2013 in Governance Debates – business
November 2, 2013.   By Lee Berthiaume

The Harper government is being accused of failing the world’s poor after federal financial documents confirmed that nearly $300 million earmarked for foreign aid went unspent last year.

That represents nearly 10 per cent of $3.1 billion that was supposed to have been distributed by the former Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to fight poverty in the developing world, and is on top of other cuts already being implemented.

In contrast, $25 million went unspent in 2011 and only $2 million in 2010.

International Development Minister Christian Paradis’s office did not immediately respond to questions Friday, but the government has previously said its focus is on making sure the aid money it does spend is used effectively and not simply shovelled out the door.

But that explanation hasn’t mollified foreign aid experts, who point to reports from CIDA officials about dozens of worthy projects that have been collecting dust on the minister’s desk awaiting approval.

“That $300 million could have saved tens of thousands of lives, through medicines and clean water,” said Carleton University aid expert Edward Jackson.

“It could have been used to put tens of thousands more on a path out of poverty and violence through education, business loans and human rights advocacy.”

Julia Sanchez, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, attributed the unspent dollars to the need for ministerial approval for even the smallest international development projects.

“This is not for want of sound proposals and effective programs that are having a real impact on the ground,” Sanchez said.

“The government needs to clearly identify where this bottleneck is occurring, and take measures to remedy this. More than anything, effective aid and development means timely and predictable decisions and flow of funds.”

Others note future funding on projects in Haiti and other countries has been frozen, while NGOs and development groups have not been invited to submit project proposals for two years.

They allege the government is actually cutting Canadian foreign aid by stealth to avoid criticism and political scrutiny.

“This radical underspending is actually an aggressive budget cut to the aid program that was never discussed in Parliament or with the Canadian public,” Jackson said. “This is completely unacceptable behaviour on the part of the government of a wealthy, modern country.”

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 federal deficit.

(Before being rolled into the Foreign Affairs Department, CIDA managed about $3.1 billion of the aid budget, with the remainder split between Finance, Foreign

Affairs and other federal departments.) University of Ottawa aid expert Stephen Brown said by returning $300 million in intended foreign aid back to the federal coffers, “they’ve basically doubled the cut to the foreign aid budget in a way that nobody would notice.”

“This was money that was supposed to go to the poor, that the Parliament of Canada voted to go to fight poverty abroad, and the government has decided without Parliament’s permission, to cut.”

The Harper government’s approach to foreign aid has long been a source of contention, starting with its shift from poor countries in Africa to middle-income trading partners in Latin America in 2009.

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