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DFAIT Accompli: Establishment celebrates CIDA's demise, NGOs complain impotently

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
The new face of development.
The new face of development.

As the reactions to the demise of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) continue to roll in, we're seeing two distinct themes emerging.

Rapturous applause from the establishment 

On the right, there is applause. Janet Gross Stein, who heads the Munk School of Global Affairs at U of T (named after Peter Munk, who made his considerable fortune despoiling the land, air and water of third world countries and pillaging their resources) wrote in the Globe and Mail:

In our embassies around the world, Canada will no longer be running two separate programs – one led by our ambassador and the other by the senior CIDA official working out of the embassy. Ambassadors will have overall responsibility for an aid program that is integrated within the broader context of our relationship with foreign governments. That cannot but improve the coherence of our policy and increase our influence and impact. Our representatives will be singing from the same songbook.

In the same issue of the Globe, elite mouthpiece and former diplomat Colin Robertson calls CIDA's subordination to Foreign Affairs "a sensible move." NGOs, he suggests, have not got in line fast enough and have developed "a sense of entitlement":

CIDA has become the sustainer and often principal source of a plethora of non-government groups, all of which claimed to have development objectives, some of which were not in alignment with government policy.

This, despite the fact that NGOs have never been more heavily disciplined for having political views different from those of the government. Harper's cuts to NGOs who were mildly critical of mining or supportive of Palestinian human rights were not enough for folks like Robertson.

The problem, as Robertson sees it, is that NGOs are still not in lockstep with "Canadian interests." 

There were awkward conversations with foreign governments when the NGOs and, occasionally, the CIDA operative in the field, failed to appreciate the distinction between development and interference in the host country’s domestic affairs. This did not advance Canadian interests.

And so, Canada's establishment is celebrating the demise of development priorities independent of those "Canadian interests," which include mining, oil, financial services, textile manufacturing, outsourcing of services and other mostly exploitative activities.

The Left Wing of the NGOs Speaks!

In Embassy Magazine, policy analyst Brian K. Murphy makes that case that "in the face of what is almost certainly an irreversible integration, Canadians need to advocate" for development aid... 

...that confidently and aggressively furthers the ethos and agenda of sustainable human development within government, one that influences and drives foreign policy, and that is integral to the accountability process, not merely subject to it.

Murphy then calls, in a remarkably casual tone, for what amounts to a major reversal of Canadian foreign policy:

Canadians should be demanding a strong and integrated 'CIDA,' guided by the unambiguous, legislated mandate as presently enshrined in the ODA Accountability Act, with a strong, proactive role as a leader in formulating and implementing a Canadian foreign policy geared to the promotion of global justice, peace, and sustainable human development.
It is hard to argue with "global justice, peace, and sustainable human development," but how?
 
Writer and development veteran Ian Smillie argues in the Ottawa Citizen that in "Britain, it is understood that the long-term development of poor countries is of direct value to British citizens." So we should be more like the British, who are apparently dedicated to "ending poverty," which  "reduces the risk of pandemics, pollution, illegal migration" and "creates other partnerships and can be good for two-way trade and investment."
 
If the bombing of Libya and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan aren't sufficient to quell notions of British foreign policy's dedication to "ending poverty," then Jude Howell's account of the waning independence of British NGOs probably won't tip the scales either. But it does what most observers in the Canadian NGO sector won't do. It points up the predicament NGOs find themselves in quite succinctly:
NGOs today have moved some distance away from the autonomous, passionate, fearless campaigners of past movements. But can they salvage the situation? Perhaps, but only if there is some serious self-reflection about core issues of autonomy and positioning... in the long term, unless they face these raw challenges, their role as agents of emancipatory social transformation can only diminish. Indeed, their very relevance may be at stake.
We can talk about basing foreign policy on "global justice, peace, and sustainable human development," but if we cannot name the ways in which Canada does the opposite of those things by pillaging resources, exploiting labour and imposing neoliberal policies in poor countries around the world, then we cannot even make the first step toward such a foreign policy. 
 
As Howell points out, and as our research in Paved with Good Intentions confirmed again and again, mobilizing people to actually change foreign policy is precisely what NGOs are incapable of doing as long as they are dependent on the government for funds. What establishment voices like Stein and Roberston are applauding is the fact that NGOs will have even less independence now.
 
Who are these "Canadians"?
 
Brian K. Murphy's appeal to "Canadians" is basically sound. And Ian Smillie is probably right that eliminating poverty instead of deepening it will be better for everyone in the long term. But who are these "Canadians" who will overturn the basic precepts of how their country comports itself internationally?
 
It's been established beyond a reasonable doubt that NGOs will not lead any kind of public mobilization to change Canada's orientation. If one needed any confirmation, Joseph Ingram and Aniket Bhushan of the progressive-leaning North-South Institute wrote a bizarrely content-free op/ed for Ottawa Citizen, which concludes:
Ultimately, if we want it to, this reorganization presents a unique opportunity to elevate the profile of development in Canadian foreign policy.
Empty appeals to "elevate" and "think big" are not what achieved the modicum of independence that development work enjoyed for a short time in the 1970s. Funding for NGOs that allowed some limited autonomy was born out of a need to co-opt powerful social movements which were threatening to destabilize governments in the 1960s and 70s.
 
By the 80s, the cooptation was largely complete. The political climate that created the need for cooptation has dissipated, and funding was used to bring the NGOs to heel. Increasingly, NGOs were a tool used to manufacture consent for neoliberalism. Those that wanted to do good serious development had to steer clear of any criticism of "Canadian interests." 
 
If not the NGOs, then who? 
 
If "Canadians" are going make the current trends in development policy reverse course, it's going to take much more than a few op/eds. To feel what it might be like to make that kind of change, we have to look to the social movements of the 1960 and 70s. That, of course, involved large numbers of people effectively opposing specific parts of Canadian foreign policy while advancing a common alternative vision. The fact that some NGOs joined in was a reflection of that work, not a driver of it. The same thing happened with the "antiglobalization movement" in the late 90s--movements did the legwork, and NGOs jumped in front of the parade. Unfortunately, they literally led it on a "march to nowhere."
 
So where are the independent popular organizations which will advance these demands? The NGO left isn't saying. Acknowledging the need for such a force would be a major step forward for folks like Murphy and Smillie.
 
In the mean time, there are hints among the dozens of solidarity groups working in Canada and the student movement. But the truth is, we're still working on the level of basic shared values. Will progressives unite to throw off the yoke of government and foundation and get something done, or will money continue to divide us and lead down fruitless backroom deals? Stay tuned.
 
Nikolas Barry-Shaw contributed research. Props!
 

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dru (Dru Oja Jay)
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Writer, organizer, Media Co-op co-founder. Co-author of Paved with Good Intentions and Offsetting Resistance.

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