Global Policy Forum

Frozen Aid, Little NGO Contact Create New "Dynamic"



By Lee Berthiaume

April 28, 2010

With aid levels to remain frozen for years and the government consulting only select NGOs while leaving the rest in the dark, there are growing worries that civil society groups will be forced to compete among themselves for resources and input.

On April 16, a week before G8 international development ministers were to meet in Halifax to talk aid, particularly Canada's maternal and child health initiative, an important symposium was held in Vancouver. For two hours, more than 60 civil society representatives from development, environmental, labour, human rights and faith-based groups met for a special consultation with G8 sherpa teams.

The talk centred on poverty eradication in the developing world, addressing the effects of climate change, and international economic reform.

To many, this represented the highest level meeting they'd had during Canada's four-month-old chairmanship of the G8. As a result, while happy to have their message heard by the top civil servants overseeing the march to the G8 leaders' summit in Huntsville in June, some groups are extremely critical at the lack of consultations thus far.

The G8/G20 Civil Society Coalition has put forward numerous requests to meet with Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, CIDA Minister Bev Oda and officials in the Prime Minister's Office to discuss the inclusion of climate change on the agenda, as well as poverty alleviation and reforming the world's financial system.

"We've made requests since September," said Fraser Reilly-King, project director of the Halifax Initiative, which is one of the lead NGOs on the coalition. "We've been turned down by Minister Oda, by Minister Cannon, by the prime minister himself."

Added Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada: "There hasn't been a lot of opportunity to discuss with Minister Oda more broadly Canada's development agenda and what the G8 should be doing on that. With [Finance] Minister [Jim] Flaherty about innovative funding and Canada's position with respect to the [financial transaction tax]. With [Environment] Minister [Jim] Prentice."

The contrast between the Conservative government's approach to its G8 chairmanship and that of other countries in recent years is stark, experts say.

"In other countries leading up to their G8 hosting," said Mr. Fox, "and certainly in Canada in the past leading up to Kananaskis, for example, there were broader range of opportunities to feed into the government's thinking about what its bringing to that table."

And yet to say that the government is not meeting with any civil society groups isn't true. In fact, just last week, representatives from seven NGOs that have come together to form the Canadian Coalition for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health met with officials within the Prime Minister's Office to talk about the maternal and child health initiative.

"[Ms. Oda's] office has been holding quite a number of meetings with different groups on maternal and child health," said Amanda Sussman of Plan Canada. "I would say they've been quite consultative."

In addition to Plan, the maternal and child health coalition is comprised of Action Canada for Population Development, CARE Canada, RESULTS Canada, Save the Children Canada, UNICEF Canada and World Vision Canada. These groups are generally seen as the driving force behind the government's decision to champion maternal and child health with its G8 presidency.

Kevin McCort, president and CEO of CARE Canada, said the government met with NGOs in Montreal in October and asked them to propose ideas for its G8 presidency. It was during that meeting that the coalition laid out maternal and child health as a possible signature project.

"We're fortunate in this case that they also wanted to talk to us about child and maternal health," he said. "There's no end of subjects that we want to talk to the government about given our broad mandate and the countries where we work. And if they agree to talk to us about child and maternal health, we'll take that meeting."

The consensus among those interviewed was that the decision to champion maternal and child health at the G8 was a good one, that Canada is well-placed to make a difference. To that end, said Gerry Barr, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, "we congratulate those who have been advocating mother-child health."

But the government's lack of transparency when it comes to the dealing with civil society over the past few months-particularly since it dropped KAIROS as a partner-has unnerved many. It has also left a large number of groups in the unusual position of having little to no contact with the government. To that end, how much should those with access be advocating for the rest?

Most of those outside the maternal and child health coalition admitted that those groups that do have access to ministers and senior government officials aren't always able to advocate for the broader community. (Some of the NGOs that are members of the Canadian Coalition for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, including CARE Canada, are also members of the G8/G20 Civil Society Coalition.) However, that doesn't mean an expectation isn't there.

"We are trying to get them to also advocate for the broader campaign as well. But you know, that's difficult to do," said Mr. Howlett. "I think they have said things in their meetings on our broader coalition's behalf as well. But so far nothing has come of it."

Added Mr. Fox: "There's no doubt that the government wants to have the conversations that the government wants to have. Because we're rationing meetings, that puts extra pressure on those who are in a meeting to represent a much broader constituency and a much broader range of issues."

Mr. McCort acknowledged that some organizations that may feel shut out by the government are upset, but the community as a whole should be happy.

"I think it's actually really more of a case where the community as a whole should be looking at this and saying 'We're making progress, we're having meetings with government on a subject of great importance, let's make some progress there,'" he said, "as opposed to coming back and lamenting all the meetings we're not getting.

"I think we should celebrate that and make as much progress as we can. Not complain about the meetings we're not getting because I think that might jeopardize the meetings we are getting."

Members of the G8/G20 Civil Society Coalition are still hoping to meet with ministers like Ms. Oda and Mr. Flaherty in advance of the two summits, which will be held in June. Climate change and the financial transaction tax-also known as the "Robin Hood Tax"-remain big issues and NGOs want their say.

But in addition to selective consultations, the decision to cap Canada's aid budget at $5 billion, as well as growing indications the government is putting more money in multilateral and bilateral channels as opposed to through NGOs, puts everyone under more pressure, experts say.

"I have the concern that a dynamic is being created where the competition for resources is going to increase and the transparency of who's being consulted and who's not being consulted and what factors are being considered in making difficult choices is weak," said Mr. Fox.

"Generally speaking, the non-governmental organizations are a fairly small percentage of the pie and they have a pretty good track record delivering aid," said Mr. Howlett. "So I would hope CIDA would prioritize the partnership branch. And that they wouldn't diminish the funds for that. But I think it is a concern that the freezing of the aid budget does set in motion."



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