Changing government priorities close the door on KAIROS

By  Gerry Barr, Catholic Register Special
  • December 11, 2009
{mosimage}Canada’s International Development Agency (CIDA) has cut off funding to KAIROS, Canada’s main ecumenical social justice group which, for decades, had maintained a stable and respectful relationship with CIDA. KAIROS brings together 11 national churches and faith-based organizations that collectively represent 18 million Canadians. But due to CIDA’s abrupt about face the future existence of KAIROS is now in doubt.

The decision to wholly terminate a long-standing program relationship (a four-year cost sharing arrangement worth about $9 million, of which CIDA contributes  about $7 million) means KAIROS must make sharp funding cuts to more than 20 ecumenical and citizens’ organizations around the world. CIDA says that KAIROS was just not a “fit” with the agency’s emerging priorities. But those who watched this story unfold think KAIROS was a victim of CIDA’s moving goal posts.

The church-based agency submitted its final proposal for a fund-sharing agreement in August after months of consultations with CIDA officials. The KAIROS program outlined continuing work in the areas of peace, human rights, support for the voices of the poor and ecological justice. At first the signs were good. It seemed the  program received a thumbs-up from CIDA officials.

But in August CIDA underwent a re-evaluation of its priorities and it became apparent that the new points on its compass were food security, children and youth and sustainable economic growth. These themes are so new the Minister for International Cooperation has yet to publicly roll out CIDA’s sustainable economic growth package. Weeks after the launch of these new themes, KAIROS received notification that its program — carefully developed under the previous standards — didn’t meet the new guidelines and therefore KAIROS would have to find funding elsewhere.

 Seldom has there been a more clear case of the goal posts being moved after the play has started. It is sharp evidence of the type of bad planning that has made CIDA the legitimate target of criticism by the Auditor General of Canada who, in her November report to Parliament, underscored the agency’s chronic inconsistency and priority shifting as main issues in its ability to effectively deliver aid. The problem is that every new minister develops new strategies. The current minister, Beverly Oda, identified the three new CIDA priorities in August. Since 2000 there have been five Canadian aid ministers and more than 20 “emerging” priorities to guide aid spending.

 That constant flux is why, until now, CIDA’s partnership branch had been using a more balanced approach to assess funding applicants. It focussed on basic competency, the ability to deliver programs in an effective way, supporting programs that fit the long-term framework of CIDA’s over-arching priorities. Those priorities have been well known. In its report to Parliament this fall, CIDA identified its strategic objectives “…to reduce poverty, promote human rights and support sustainable development in a manner consistent with Canadian foreign policy.” Those objectives resonate strongly with Canada’s new law on foreign aid, the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act, which states that development assistance must reduce poverty, take into account the perspectives (the voice) of the poor and be consistent with international human rights standards.

KAIROS has built a reputation as a human rights champion. Its commitment to advancing the voice of the poor and working to eradicate poverty leaves little doubt that KAIROS fits CIDA’s overall priorities. The truth is, KAIROS embodies CIDA’s standards. So why was its funding cut off?

Almost all who have watched these events unfold have noticed that many of KAIROS’s public positions are at variance with those of the government of the day. Pick an issue: The continued expansion of operations at the Alberta tar sands; performance standards for mining, gas and oil companies in the developing world; or a trade deal with Colombia. In every case there is a policy divergence between KAIROS and the government.

At one time, differences between civil society groups and governments of the day were allowed and even embraced as a way of ensuring better public policy debate and a higher level of public participation. That may be changing. If partisanship has become the coin that matters in judgments related to CIDA funding then it will certainly be dark days at Canada’s once-distinguished international development agency. And KAIROS will not be alone.

Many other rights advocates will get the phone call about their lack of fit. The quality of Canada’s aid will suffer and its reputation as an innovative and committed donor will be irretrievably damaged.  

(Gerry Barr, Member of the Order of Canada, is president-CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation. )

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