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CIDA: 45 years of co-optation was enough

With social movements marginalized, development can be further subordinated to Canadian corporate interests

by Dru Oja Jay

NGOs mobilized opposition to Canada's support for the 1973 coup in Chile. The Haiti coup in 2004 was supported by most NGOs.
NGOs mobilized opposition to Canada's support for the 1973 coup in Chile. The Haiti coup in 2004 was supported by most NGOs.

Canada's development agency is going out with a whimper, not a bang. Canada's Conservative government announced last Thursday that the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) will be merged into a new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, ending any formal independence development and trade previously possessed.

CIDA-dependent Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are raising a minor fuss. But what is remarkable about the announcement is the broad consensus, encompassing most of the political spectrum, that backs it.
"I think that it could be a good idea if the money flows," NDP MP and opposition leader Thomas Mulcair told reporters. Lloyd Axworthy, who was derided as "Pink Lloyd" by Conservatives for his supposedly lefty views during his stint as Foreign Affairs Minister, wrote that eliminating CIDA is a "bold and admirable move...I compliment the government on taking this step."
The Canadian government's involvement in "development" has one primary purpose. To advance Canadian interests, including all the things Canada does to deepen poverty in the world. Changes championed and imposed by the Canadian government include cuts to education and health care spending, subsidies and guarantees for international investors and multinational corporations; these amount to a transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest, locally and globally. Canada consistently pushes these agendas on behalf of its corporate executive and investor class, who benefit from the access to natural resources at low prices and a large pool of desperate people willing to work in sweatshops.
NGOs have served to prevent Canadians from fighting these primary causes of poverty directly. Instead, development NGOs have been enlisted to push Canadian interests down to the grassroots in dozens of countries. The priority countries, of course, are the places where Canada is doing the most damage -- Haiti and Afghanistan currently top the list.
A cornerstone of development rhetoric is to pretend the opposite of the truth: to say that Canadian activities benefit poor people. The words of a former aid worker writing in Maclean's are typical: "Increased trade, much of it coming from Canadian mining companies, is what is winning the war on poverty." A familiar pattern has emerged: a policy is claimed to be beneficial to the poor, but is in fact detrimental. Neoliberal economic reforms were supposed to help the poor, but they increased inequality, poverty and decreased access to health care and education. NGOs were supposed to be more efficient at delivering services, but in fact they were less efficient and less consistent. 
The core of Canada's foreign interest changes little from government to government. Mining companies dominate Canada's role in foreign affairs. Canadian investors also have banking interests in the Caribbean and South America and textile manufacturers that outsource to sweatshops overseas.
The differences between Conservative and Liberal and NDP approaches to aid are largely tactical. Conservatives believe in being a sort of attack dog for US foreign policy, making public statements more aggressive than their US counterparts with regard to Afghanistan, Palestine and Libya, to note recent examples. 
Liberals and NDP officials believe in pursuing the same policies, but they believe that these policies are best advanced by expanding the mythology of the humanitarian peacekeeper nation, by putting forward a friendly face, and by funding some projects to keep progressive NGOs dependent and quiet about Canada's abuses. One substantial difference lies in advocacy for reproductive rights and access to abortion, to which Conservatives have cut funding. Though they insist otherwise, the three parties are largely in agreement about the country's core foreign policy goals.
The parties' contrasting approaches to the left wing follow from their tactical differences. Whereas Liberal and NDP officials seek to co-opt social justice and environmental NGOs while weakening their effectiveness through the threat of funding cuts, the Conservatives wish to exclude the left altogether, as witnessed by funding cuts to groups with moderately pro-Palestinian views. The Liberal/NDP paradigm may yet prove to be a more effective weapon against those who seek to build global solidarity.
Government-funded NGOs have been wildly successful at blunting the power of the left, channeling its idealism into development projects which complement rather than oppose Canada's exploitation and immiseration of impoverished countries. It is on the basis of these past successes that Conservatives have been able to cut funding to NGOs such as Alternative and KAIROS without paying much of a political price.
The need to appear independent has now been clearly overtaken by the need for tight integration of aid with militarism, diplomacy and other implements of foreign policy.
In fact, CIDA's origins were based on the need to project an appearance of humanitarianism during the cold war while co-opting social movements. When the agency was established in 1968, decolonization was in full swing and revolution was in the air. Dozens of third-world countries were gaining independence from their former European colonial masters, and there was a struggle for influence between the Soviet bloc and capitalist countries, while powerful social movements threatened to upend the social order at home.
At this time, progressive forces were more successful in challenging Canada's foreign policy. For example, when Augusto Pinochet overthrew a the democratically-elected government led by Salvador Allende in 1973, Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government rushed to support the dictator. Some renegade NGOs brought the slain President's wife Hortensia Allende to Canada, where she spoke to crowded auditoriums across the country. 
Thanks to these efforts, opposition mounted to Canada's support for the coup. Trudeau reluctantly opened the country's doors to Chilean refugees. A confidential 1974 cabinet document lamented that “the attention...focused on the Chilean Government’s use of repression against its opponents has led to an unfavourable reaction among the Canadian public...which will not permit any significant increase in Canadian aid to this country." Canada still supported Pinochet, but it had to be more sneaky about it, channeling funds through Export Development Canada.
Because of these and other successful campaigns, NGOs were brought to heel by the government. Unburdened of democratic structures, disciplined by funding cuts and saddled with top-down bureaucracies, their ability to mount effective opposition to the government has been in free fall since the 1980s.
The 2004 coup in Haiti, which was actively supported by the Conservatives, NDP and Liberals, as well as most NGOs, illustrates the transformation. Even as a campaign of repression killed thousands of people with full Canadian backing, the only voices of opposition came from Montreal's Haitian community and a few dozen independent activists across the country.
Without social movements or other radicalizing forces to animate them, international development organizations have become docile. Coupled with the absence of the threat from the Soviet Bloc, the subjugation of Canadian aid to foreign policy priorities is nearly complete. Conservatives have introduced NGO partnerships with mining companies, and most NGOs now operate under military command in Afghanistan. These changes, formerly known as the "3-D approach" (defense, diplomacy and development) started under the Liberals and have picked up speed under the Conservatives. 
The elimination of CIDA is an indication that Canada's ruling elite no longer feels the need to pretend to support development for its own sake. The open secret can now be told: development was always a way to build support for, and co-opt resistance to, Canadian foreign policy. The Conservatives have lifted the veil from our eyes; it is up to us to open them.
For Canadians who are truly interested in supporting development abroad, the preferred course of action remains the same: work here in Canada to stop the harm our country is doing to impoverished countries. Stop letting Canada treat the world as its personal gas tank and piggy bank, and support the demands of those fighting for self-determination and sovereignty. To date, social movements which are independent from the government and NGO structures are the only thing that has managed to be effective in this regard.
Dru Oja Jay is co-author, with Nikolas Barry-Shaw, of Paved with Good Intentions: Canada's development NGOs from idealism to imperialism, which is on its second printing.

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Topics: Peace/War
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dru (Dru Oja Jay)
Member since January 2008


Writer, organizer, Media Co-op co-founder. Co-author of Paved with Good Intentions and Offsetting Resistance.

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