The Conservative Government has announced it will cut $319-million from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)’s budget over the next three years, while redirecting funds from low-income countries in Africa to middle-income countries in Latin America. Meanwhile, the Minister for International Cooperation, Bev Oda, is spending $16 on a single glass of orange juice and upgrading to stay in the world’s ritziest hotels. Understandably, tough economic times call for serious measures. But must Canada’s books be balanced at the expense of the world’s most disadvantaged?
In an attempt to alleviate the deficit by 2014-15, the Canadian government announced several cuts to various federal agencies in its most recent budget, tabled on March 29. CIDA was not exempt from these austerity measures, and will see 7.5% of its budget cut over the next three years. In order to adjust to the funding reduction, CIDA has announced it will be ending bilateral aid programmes in eight countries, while reducing efforts in five others. Eight of these thirteen countries are located in Africa, the continent still in need of the most aid. For now, the government remains silent on which programmes will be cut, how many jobs will be lost, and just how much previous recipient countries will feel the pinch. Meanwhile, current aid levels to middle-income Latin American countries, including Colombia, Peru and Honduras, will not be touched.
Putting Numbers into Perspective
While many federal agencies were told to expect cuts of 5 to 10%, a 7.5% cut is felt more acutely in smaller agencies such as CIDA. Currently, CIDA spends approximately $250-million a year on education programmes, $180 million on efforts to reduce HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and $70-million to improve water and sanitation. Thus, a budget cut of $319-million is large enough to greatly effect, if not wipe out all together, any of these development initiatives. In 2005, Canada, along with the world’s wealthiest nations, signed on to the Millennium Development Goals, pledging to commit 0.7% of GNP to Official Development Assistance by 2015. However, once the newly announced cuts take full effect in 2015, Canada will only be contributing 0.24%.
In comparison, the United Kingdom is still committed to the 0.7% goal. Despite facing the harshest austerity measures since World War II, Britain has pledged to increase its foreign aid spending by almost 40% this year.
Oda Teaches a Lesson in Irony: CIDA and Accountability
Minister Oda has defended the budget cuts as an exercise in accountability. She states that while the government does want to help those less fortunate, they must spend tax dollars more wisely. This statement comes with a strong dose of irony, as just weeks after the budget was announced Oda was caught (yet again) spending Canadian tax dollars on lavish expenses during a conference in London. The Minister upgraded from her five star hotel to the Savoy (the hotel of choice for royalty, Elton John and George Clooney) and spent over $5 000 on limousine rides. This is the third time Oda has been caught using tax dollars towards limousine costs; she spent $5 500 riding to and from the Juno Awards in Halifax in 2006, and in 2009 it was revealed she had spent over $17 000 since taking office in 2004.
An Agency in Need of an Overhaul
Oda also cites “aid effectiveness” as the motivation behind recent changes to CIDA’s budget and regional focus. However, aid cannot be effective without being timely, predictable and consistent—three qualities that the agency lacks. CIDA is currently one of the slowest bilateral agencies in the world; it can take up to 43 months for aid proposals to receive approval, making it impossible for the government to respond to urgent issues. Additionally, the agency’s inconsistent goals, priority countries, and thematic focuses diminish aid effectiveness. CIDA’s list of 20 priority countries has been reworked twice in the last four years in order to align more closely with Canadian trade and economic concerns. The eight African countries cut from the 2009 list had only been priority concerns since 2005. This makes it difficult to form long-term relationships with recipient countries, and to follow through on goals and results. In a 2009 Auditor-General’s report, donors, recipients and staff were found to be “unclear” about CIDA’s focus and long-term commitments. Constant changes to regional focus and monetary commitments make Canadian aid unpredictable, inconsistent and volatile.
Another factor disabling Canada’s aid effectiveness is the prioritization of donor self-interest over recipient needs. Since 2009, development policy has simply become another branch of trade policy; Canada has current trade agreements with, or conducts large amounts of business in, the majority of countries currently prioritized by CIDA. What this means is a huge regional shift from primarily supporting low-income African countries to mid-income Latin American and Eastern European nations. During the Liberal years of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, Africa was identified as the region most in need of Canadian assistance, and the government promised to double aid to the region by 2010. In 2009 however, seven African countries were removed from CIDA’s priority list, many of which rank amongst the lowest in the world on the Human Development Index (HDI). It thus comes as little surprise that Rwanda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Niger are all on the list of countries that will see Canadian aid stop flowing once the new budget cuts come into effect. In addition, aid to Mozambique, Ethiopia and Tanzania will be drastically reduced and refocused. Meanwhile, more developed countries such as Peru, Colombia, Ukraine and Vietnam will see no change in the amount of Canadian aid they receive.
It is still uncertain where cuts will be made and how many current programmes will be shut down. But one thing is clear—as Canada turns its back on the world’s poorest, its place on the global stage will only continue to slip. This year’s budget cuts will prevent Canada from upholding its commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, and will remove us from the list of the world’s top donor nations. In many of these poor African nations, a dollar goes a long way; a $319-million budget cut will have a huge impact in a region where blindness can be prevented by a 20-cent vitamin supplement, and death from Tuberculosis averted by $20 of antibiotics. Meanwhile, the woman in charge of it all is spending $16 on a non-alcoholic beverage. Let’s hope the juice was worth the squeeze.