by Campbell Clark, The Globe and Mail
Aid groups say the federal government is casting a chill over advocacy work that takes positions on policy or political issues – and one claims a senior Conservative aide warned them against such activities.
An official with a mainstream non-governmental aid group said that Keith Fountain, policy director for International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda, gave a verbal warning that the organization’s policy positions were under scrutiny: “Be careful about your advocacy.”
The official did not want to be identified out of concern that it might jeopardize funding for the group’s aid projects from the Canadian International Development Agency, or CIDA.
That’s a concern voiced by some other NGO leaders, who said they have received hints the government dislikes their policy advocacy or criticisms of the government policies, but did not want to be identified.
Most aid organizations, from church-based organizations such as Anglican and Mennonite aid agencies to big agencies such as World Vision, Oxfam and CARE, take public positions on some policy issues, and some organize letter-writing campaigns or publish pamphlets.
The aid groups use CIDA money to finance 75 per cent of specific programs, but don’t use it for advocacy.
Some have had veiled warnings about positions that clash with Ottawa’s on issues such as climate change, free trade with Colombia, or the Middle East, said Gerry Barr, president of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, an umbrella group.
“NGOs are being positively invited to remain silent on key questions of public policy,” he said.
Cheryl Curtis, executive director of the Anglican Church’s Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, said government officials have never warned her organization about public-policy positions, but other aid organizations have reported such messages.
“We’ve certainly heard that amongst colleagues,” she said, adding: “There clearly is a conversation that’s brewing at the government level.”