March 29, 2012

Who will be the biggest losers from this budget? A question of priorities

This week’s Federal budget is foreboding death by a thousand (budget) cuts.  And though undoubtedly a wide range of government programs and agencies will feel the brunt of the axe, this government’s priorities will be reflected in who benefits from the next budget  and who and what gets slashed.

The less privileged amongst us in Canada are sure to feel the repercussions of a restrained budget; but the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the world’s poor could also lose a lot in this budget unless the government gets its priorities right.

On the domestic front, the landscape looks dire. The Feds have already announced a cap to future health-care transfers, a bitter pill to Provincial Governments who are already struggling to juggle their own deficits. Reforms to the eligibility criteria for Old Age Security, which will eventually have a huge impact on Canada’s growing number of seniors, are expected. And in an effort to keep jobs, many of the unions have had to negotiate away severance pay packages. But support for AFN Chief Atleo’s initiative around First Nations’ education, so urgently needed to address a pressing issue in today’s Canada, may or may not get the breath of life it so desperately needs.

On the international development front, after having flat-lined Canada’s international assistance envelope (essentially our foreign aid) at $5 billion in Budget 2010 , the government is now rumoured to have asked CIDA this year to cut its budget by 7 percent – potentially impacting both its overseas programs and operational budget.  In terms of programs alone, this could mean that Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) envelope would drop from $5.24 billion in 2010-11, to as low as $4.9 billion by 2012-13. 

This approximately $340 million decline is greater than CIDA pulling all of its funding for basic education programs ($250 million) and for water and sanitation ($70 million). Or for funding for the Global Fund to fight HIV AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria ($180 million), for the World Food Programme ($70 million) and for UNICEF ($70 million). Those specific programs may not get cut, but which will?

If Ottawa were simply to buy one or two less of the 65 F-35 jets that Defence is proposing to purchase, CIDA could maintain its budget at current levels, and even increase it slightly. Isn’t it important to avoid seeing the largest burden fall on those who can least afford to shoulder it – the world’s poor?

And in terms of operational budget, CIDA, like all government agencies, has had to prepare 5 to 10 percent budget cut scenarios – this is on top of the cuts that many agencies have already undergone in recent months and years. On the surface, standard cuts across government departments seem fair. But in reality, they are likely to have a disproportionate impact on smaller government agencies, like CIDA. In the short term, staff and programmes will be lost. But dig deeper and these cuts will also substantially undermine the minimal institutional capacity and knowledge that CIDA requires to ensure that Canada continues to deliver quality programs overseas.

This is in addition to the already substantial losses to the institutional capacity and knowledge of Canadian international development organizations. Changes in the way civil society groups receive CIDA funding have resulted in many Canadian organizations – and their partner organizations in developing countries – seeing long term predictable funding suddenly run dry. Decades old organizations, with impeccable records and proven results, are contemplating shutting down their programs and laying off their staff as a result. And this on top of previous politically-motivated cuts to women’s organizations, environmental groups and faith-based organizations across Canadian civil society.

From a global perspective, this level of cuts would place Canada at the tail end of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s 22 official donors with respect to percentage of Gross National Income (GNI) going to development assistance, just as the world heads into the final stretch towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.

In contrast, Prime Minister Harper’s counterpart in the UK, David Cameron, when faced with the worst austerity measures since World War II, opted to ring fence Britain’s aid budget. When he spoke before the Canadian parliament last September, Prime Minister Cameron insisted he was proud that the UK would not "balance its books on the back of the poorest", and warned that failing to support countries at the forefront of the Arab Spring would give "oxygen" to extremists. From his perspective, not only does investing in development “save lives”, but “it is the right thing to do, in moral terms, and profoundly in our national interest. If we invest in countries before they become broken, we might not end up spending so much on the problems that result.”

Simply put, faced with a deficit, the Canadian Government may feel it cannot invest in overseas development. But actually it cannot afford not to do so. If we as a country get our priorities right, we will not balance our budget on the fate of those most in need, in Canada or abroad.

Julia Sanchez is President and CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC), a coalition of approximately 100 non-profit organizations that seek to end global poverty. This Op Ed was first published in March 28 edition of Embassy.

March 28, 2012

Three Weeks before the Summit of the Americas, No News from DFAIT on New Americas Strategy

On April 14th and 15th, Colombia will host the Sixth Summit of the Americas. The Summit will bring together leaders from all over the Western Hemisphere to discuss the challenges faced in the Americas and policies to address them.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be attending the event, along with the Minister of International Trade and the Minister of State of Foreign Affairs (Americas and Consular Affairs). CCIC’s Americas Policy Group (APG) will be following the Summit closely, since Canada’s announcements will allegedly be informed by a consultation process initiated by DFAIT in the fall of 2011.

The consultation process aimed to review the Americas Strategy that Canada first announced in 2007. There were two in-person consultations, as well as an opportunity to submit written input. The APG participated in all the consultations and worked hard to assemble its written recommendations despite DFAIT’s ambitious template and challenging deadline.

The recommendations we made to DFAIT are summarized here:

Free Trade Agreements

Since one of the three pillars of Canada’s 2007 Americas Strategy was trade, the APG recommended ways to ensure that free trade creates benefits, not harms, for Latin Americans. It recommended that Canada refrain from concluding free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries that have poor democratic governance and human rights records. FTAs tend to increase the kinds of investment that are most associated with militarization, violence and forced displacement, such as gold, oil, and plantations for biofuel. This is problematic in countries such as Colombia, where paramilitary groups are widespread and often use violence to displace people from their lands for lucrative projects. Colombia is a world leader in internal displacement, with millions of people living in desperate conditions after being forced to flee their resource-rich lands. It is also the most dangerous place in the world for union leaders. FTAs between northern and southern countries generally capitalize on the southern country’s comparative advantage: cheap labour. This is problematic in contexts where the right to unionize is severely constricted and where workers are unable to organize to maintain or improve their working conditions.

The APG recommended that, in order to determine whether a FTA is appropriate or not, Canada ensure that an independent human rights impact assessment (HRIA) is conducted prior to ratification. For FTAs that are already in force, such as the Canada-Colombia one, the APG insisted that HRIAs reflect the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights Impact Assessments for Trade and Investment Agreements and that there be real consequences to any negative findings.

Corporate Accountability

Other APG recommendations focussed on corporate accountability for Canadian companies operating in Latin America. The local legal frameworks in which these companies operate are often weak and unable or unwilling to protect human and environmental rights. The APG believes that it is unrealistic to expect companies, which are fundamentally driven by profit, to regulate themselves and that corporate accountability should be pursued through regulation and law. It recommended that Canada establish a binding complaint and investigation mechanism to help remove barriers to justice for the victims of human rights abuses seeking remedy in Canada. It also recommended that the government remove Export Development Canada support from companies with poor environmental and human rights records.

Democratic Governance

The APG urged Canada to stay true to its commitment to democratic governance in the Americas – one of the three pillars of its original Americas Strategy. Since the June 2009 coup d’état in Honduras, hundreds of regime opponents have been intimidated, arbitrarily arrested, disappeared, tortured and killed. The APG is concerned that Canada has validated the regime by signing a FTA with Honduras and by supporting the widely criticized Truth Commission, which was set up without consultation and input from civil society. Instead, it urged Canada to refrain from strengthening relations with the Honduran government until there is a verifiable improvement in the human rights situation and until the report by an alternative, civil-society propelled, truth commission is released.


Finally, the APG raised concerns that militaristic approaches to drug and criminality problems in Latin America may actually be detrimental to public security. It pointed to the many innocent citizens who are caught in the crossfire and to the fact that drug wars are often used as an excuse for impunity and increasing violence against other groups, such as women. The APG urged the Canadian government to address security problems in a more sustainable way by focussing on the socio-economic issues that underlie criminality and illegal economies in Latin America.

Since the APG represents a wide range of Canadian civil society organizations with experience and expertise in Latin America, we hope that our recommendations will be heard. The team leading the consultations at DFAIT has gone quiet and it has been difficult to get any updates on the process. However, we have learned through other sources that cabinet has discussed the new strategy and that there will be no formal report-back to the organizations consulted.

The APG and its networks will be watching the Summit closely and hoping that the government will honour its commitment to include more civil society perspectives in its new Americas Strategy.

This blog post was written by Brittany Lambert, coordinator of CCIC's Americas Policy Group (APG).

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members.

March 8, 2012

A Shift in Focus from Education for All to Learning for All

Natalie Poulson - CGCE

It seems a long time since I romped around Bangladesh as an intern, visiting and researching non-formal primary schools.  As I sit at my desk in Ottawa, I often think of those kids. I remember their faces. I remember how eagerly they followed their teachers’ words. I remember the hope expressed by their parents for the future.

Where are those kids today?  What are they doing? Did the education they received live up to the expectations of the children who were so eager; their teachers who invested so much; their parents who made tough decisions to send their kids to school; their communities who built the infrastructure? Did we live up to the promises that we made?

I’ve come back to these questions now, hot on the heels of the successful Learning Forum that the Canadian Global Campaign for Education conducted last week.

This year’s theme examined the growing shift from Education for All (EFA)to Learning for All. The shift in the discourse among the education community is subtle. But dig deeper and it exposes some very profound questions about the effectiveness of what we have been doing, and where we should be focusing our energies moving forward.

The EFA goals emerged out of a meeting in Jomtien, Thailand, during the heady days of the United Nations international conferences of the 1990s. It achieved broad consensus that education was fundamental to human development and the long-term sustainable development of communities and nations. 

But when those goals were revisited in Dakar a decade later in 2000, the education community saw with some disappointment that despite this consensus, the goals had not mobilized the world into action.

There is no doubt that since 2000, the international community has kicked EFA into high gear. According to the 2011 EFA Global Monitoring Report, an additional 52 million children enrolled in primary school from 1999 to 2008, and gender parity has made significant gains in regions that started the decade with the greatest gaps. When compared to some of the other Millennium Development Goals, such as improving maternal health, the success in education paints a rosy picture.

Perhaps it is this relatively rosy picture - of smiling children in freshly pressed school uniforms - that has allowed us to become complacent. Perhaps it is the pressing needs of the other Millennium Development Goals that has allowed us to shift our attention away from what is happening in schools around the world.

Truth be told, despite scaled-up international investments, much of the progress in EFA has been because of country-level investments in education. Donor governments have failed to contribute their fair share of the $16 billion required annually to achieve the education goals, while many of the world’s poorest countries now dedicate upwards of 20% of their national budget to education, and 50% of this to basic education. This is a significant investment that countries – and families - continue to make, despite harrowing economic times.  

As a result, millions of more children now have access to education. The evidence of education’s positive impact on health, agriculture, democratic governance, and other sectors is also overwhelming.

But are we closing the gap?

The fact remains that in Sub-Saharan Africa, 10 million children still drop out of primary school each year.  In India, only 18% of rural students could read a text designed for Grade Two students after eight years of schooling.


Because the focus has been on quantitative targets - bums in seat – rather than the most elusive, subjective EFA goal – quality of education.

As a result, quality has become the new imperative. We need to ensure that the education we are providing, that we are promising, is an education of good quality that equips learners with the skills to take advantage of every bit of information and grasp every opportunity that comes their way.  As our forum guest Anna Christine Grellert from World Vision Latin America noted, in the end the sustainability of development resides not with donors and governments, but with people who have the skills to transform their lives.

So does access no longer matter?

There was a lot of discussion at the Learning Forum about this apparent tension between learning and equity. To shift entirely to a learning agenda would mean targeting those who are already enrolled and continuing to bypass the most disadvantaged.

Is there a trade off to be negotiated? The resounding answer of participants was no. Without learning there is no equity.

It has been a long road from Jomtien to Dakar to today, with many successes to celebrate. But the road ahead is just as long. Times have changed, requiring us to undertake a more sophisticated analysis of the shifting educational needs within each country. The education community needs an actionable agenda moving forward - an agenda that addresses the essential issues of quality and equity through learning. The challenges are many, not least of which is the fact that issues of quality are perhaps the hardest to define meaningfully, measure and demonstrate in the short-term.

It is no longer enough to say that education is a human right and to provide access. Learning must be our promise to the world’s children. It will require a long-term investment, but it’s a promise worth keeping.

Natalie Poulson is the Coordinator of the Canadian Campaign for Global Education. To see where Canadian aid to education is going, please see CGCE’s recent analysis.