In the News: Ottawa signals radical shift in foreign-aid policy

by Kim Mackrael, Globe and Mail, Nov 23, 2012

Julian Fantino (photo by Giovanni Aprea)

The federal government is signalling a profound shift in its approach to foreign aid that could see Canada’s international development agency align itself more closely with the private sector and work more explicitly to promote Canada’s interests abroad. International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino will outline his vision for the agency’s future in an address to the Economic Club of Canada Friday morning (Nov 23), his first major speech since taking the job several months ago. The Canadian International Development Agency funds humanitarian aid and long-term development projects intended to help people living in poverty.

Mr. Fantino’s remarks will focus on the role private companies – particularly in the mining sector – can play in helping CIDA achieve its development objectives, part of a controversial change in emphasis for an agency that has historically been careful to differentiate between its work with corporations and non-governmental organizations.

The minister is expected to say he views the private sector as the most important driver of long-term economic growth, and that the agency will pursue more partnerships with Canadian companies. He will also emphasize CIDA’s role in preparing developing countries for foreign investment, and suggest the agency’s work can help build market opportunities and dissuade governments from nationalizing extractive industries.

Mr. Fantino’s speech comes shortly after the release of a House of Commons committee report on the private sector and international development, which calls for CIDA to update its policy on the role Canadian corporations should have in achieving international development goals. The minister will table a formal response to the report in Parliament, but his speech on Friday is expected to offer a first look at the direction CIDA will take.

Stephen Brown, who teaches international development at the University of Ottawa, said CIDA has not dramatically shifted its spending toward private-sector partnerships. “But in terms of signals and signs of things to come, [the shift] is quite profound,” he said.

Last year, the aid agency matched three mining companies with NGOs* to work on jobs training, education and clean water projects in specific African and Latin American mining communities. CIDA says the strategy will help leverage corporate investments to bolster development goals, while critics suggest it leads the agency away from its core strategy.

Pierre Gratton, president of the Mining Association of Canada, said mining companies have been accused of making mistakes on corporate social responsibility projects in the past, and working with CIDA-funded NGOs could help them become more effective.

“We’re miners, we’re not in the business of social and community development that the NGOs are experts at,” he said. “Why not bring the experts in, and mining can be a partner, along with those experts, to help deliver more sustainable outcomes when these major capital investments do take place.”

Dr. Brown said some partnerships with the private sector can be useful, but questioned Canada’s eagerness to work with the extractive industry when mining rarely offers much benefit to the communities in which it occurs. “If our real goal is poverty reduction, that’s not the strategy we would choose,” he said.

MiningWatch Canada says the projects CIDA has pursued so far amount to subsidization of Canadian mining companies – a suggestion both CIDA and mining industry representatives dispute. “This is not about development, it’s about helping our mining companies deal with the conflicts they’re facing on the ground,” said Catherine Coumans, a research co-ordinator for
the organization.