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The federal government is seeking new ideas from the business and charitable sectors to deal with social problems like homelessness. Photo by Michael Swan

Federal government seeks private partnerships for social services

By  Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News
  • November 16, 2012

OTTAWA - The federal government is soliciting ideas from the business and charitable sector on how to best solve intractable social problems such as homelessness, hunger and drug abuse.

“Here’s the straight talk: we can’t fund every single, solitary service that people want, without regard for the taxpayers’ ability pay for it,” Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley told a group of business and NGO leaders in Toronto Nov. 8.

“It’s time for us to unleash individual initiative so that those who are motivated can help others and those who need help are given the opportunity to take more responsibility to help themselves,” she told the fifth annual Social Finance Forum sponsored by MaRS, a pioneer organization bringing business and NGO leaders together to find innovative ways of tackling social issues.

Finley asked for ideas on how to leverage business and NGO expertise with government funding that would reward measurable results in achieving goals. The government also proposes rewarding “social finance” from the private sector in the form of Social Impact Bonds. These are contracts where the government agrees to pay a charity or NGO an amount of money if agreed upon results are achieved.

“Payment from the government is tied to program outcomes,” Finley said. “If — and only if — the agreed upon outcomes are achieved, the government pays the investors the agreed premium, as well as the original investment.”

Finley announced the launch of a web site to receive innovative ideas for tackling social needs at www.actionplan.gc.ca.

“This is an interesting model,” said Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) executive director Joe Gunn.

“Will it add anything to what we’re all doing to work against poverty?”

The projects likely to be taken on by the private sector would tend towards those which have more of a possibility of success, leaving behind more difficult projects where, over the short term, it is more difficult to see progress, he said.

Gunn challenged the view government programs do not work in addressing poverty. The CPJ’s Poverty Trends Scorecard — Canada 2012 released in October showed government intervention makes a difference, particularly in rates of seniors living in poverty. A generation ago 30 per cent of seniors lived in poverty, but after government programs targeted this issue, only five per cent of today’s seniors are poor, he noted. Single women with children are also faring better, he said.
It is good that the government recognizes the need charitable organizations and NGOs have for government support in accomplishing their missions, Gunn said, and he would like churches to push for higher levels of taxation to cover the cost.

“Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society and how we care for each other,” Gunn said, noting higher taxes could pay for better home care, pharmacare and other programs to bring about more equity. “I don’t think the private sector or charitable sector can get us there.”

Dave Quist, executive director of the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (IMFC), said Finley’s approach recognizes that charitable organizations can do a better job as they are more specialized in helping the downtrodden. But he warned rates of charity are declining as are rates of volunteerism. Families are under stress trying to pay the mortgage and buy groceries, he said, and parents often don’t have much free time.

Christians differ in how best to address social problems, he said, indicating some concern that big government programs and high levels of taxation have contributed to the decline in private charitable giving and volunteering.

There is a “social gospel” view that looks to generously financed social programs that has prevailed in Canada, he said. Other Christians, such as those who are centreright, support a more capitalist or free-enterprise approach that sees the best solution to poverty in supporting conditions that help people get a good paying job, he said. “We look at the same problem but through different lenses,” said Quist. “The best poverty program is a good job and we see that in family life. When mom and dad have a stable income that family is much more stable; their marriage is much more stable. That doesn’t mean giving them money, but allowing them the dignity of meeting their own needs.”

Many Western countries have realized their generous social programs are not sustainable, he said.

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