Definitions of Aid: Conservatives Vs. Alternatives

12 Aug

The Quebec City Summit of the Americas – remember that? I do, if only vaguely at this point — it was 14 years ago – but the three-day peoples’ summit organized by dozens of local grassroots movements and groups was truly one of the most awesome experiences of my life.

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Super well-organized with transport and lodging, really interesting lectures, people of all ages from all over the hemisphere with whom to get into all manner of spontaneous chats and discussions, the sense of solidarity among just regular folk so at odds with the powerful enclosed behind their chain-link fence barriers. And where did they find all those awesome bands for the Saturday night concert?

The whole thing just rocked, and one of the groups I got to know a little bit about there was called Alternatives. All about solidarity in action, it was working to support social movements in many developing world countries, helping them to leverage and reinforce their efforts to cut at the root causes of poverty. It is exactly the kind of organization that should be involved in development work, understanding that poverty is all about politics. The status quo divests the poor of their right to a better life and to protest against that is, in my opinion, both noble and essential.

Photo by Travis Lupick, Courtesy of Creative Commons

Photo by Travis Lupick,
Courtesy of Creative Commons

But now, all these years later now, Alternatives has come to the attention of the Harper government. And what its self-righteous and narrow-minded bean-counters are doing is horrible, enraging and scary – especially for the poor.

According to its general director Michel Lambert, the Montreal-based NGO supports movements “working for social justice all over the world. Including Canada. And we do that in different ways, sometimes talking about their issues, providing resources when we can, networking, for example, helping organizations meet other groups doing similar kinds of work in their region.”

Alternatives also defends human rights by supporting local rights defenders under attack in their own countries. It also does some humanitarian work — when there were humanitarian emergencies in places where they already have programs.

And Alternatives has received support from the Canadian International Development Agency for these efforts. “Since we were created in 1994, we have received a lot of support from the Canadian government,” said Mr. Lambert, between $2 million and $5 million a year for different programs, depending.”

In the past, added Mr. Lambert, organizations like Alternatives would approach CIDA’s Partnership Branch with an idea for a project. Discussions ensued and if CIDA decided the idea was a good one, some funding came through. The Branch disappeared several years ago, however, and of course, CIDA itself has been vacuumed into the Department of Trade.

But now the Harperites have gone a step further, challenging the very notion of aid as something that ought to empower the poor. Last year, said Mr. Lambert, “we

received a letter from Revenue Canada, saying, ‘when we gave you this charitable status 20 years ago, somebody was tired or drunk or something, and we made a mistake. Because now, according to the law as we understand it, what you are doing is not charity work.’”

Since then, he added, “we’ve had many discussions with them, and they have said they will be sending us a new sort of contract, but we are still waiting for it. We still don’t know what’s happening.”

And while he didn’t waste time speculating on the anachronistic philosophy that might be informing the Conservatives’ approach, he did say this: “They have been trying to restrain aid to a very, very limited definition. Everything that is outside of humanitarian work does not get resource support. The other thing is that, many organizations doing work which is not exactly in line with the foreign policy of Canada are in difficulty.

“Concretely,” he added, “Revenue Canada is telling many organizations ‘you should not work with local partners. If you work with local partners in Iraq, for example, you can no longer guarantee that the money will be spent in a charitable way.”

Indeed, according to RCA’s original letter, he organization is in the wrong because it doesn’t administer its programs itself. Rather said, Mr. Lambert, the directive to Alternatives and organizations like it is to “not involve local people when you work there. Just do the job and then go away.

“It’s contrary to all of the ethics of international cooperation,” he pointed out, which “basically starts with partnering with local people, with working, involving, and engaging local people, because at the end of the day, you are going to leave.  And those people are the ones who are going to have to deal with what is happening in their countries. If you want to strengthen something, you have to engage them, you have to give them the power to make decisions with the resources they have and to support them in this. So it is contrary to all of the basic rules of international cooperation.”

The irony I see is that even as the Harper government narrows the definition of aid to simple charity, more and more development aid organizations are recognizing that this is not working. As Oxfam’s Duncan Green has emphasized, “effective states and active citizens are the main actors in the drama of development.” What we need to do, he suggests, is become active global citizens, giving our solidarity “to the struggles of poor people and their communities within developing countries. ”

But these ideas – accountability, protest, solidarity with those who struggle for social and economic justice, — are anathema to the government we’ve been stuck with for too long. For them, rather, development aid is all about the advantages already privileged people can derive from it, whether it’s mining companies or big agri-businesses. They don’t care whether it works for the poor or not.

And it’s not only with Alternatives but with other Canadian organizations that they are making this abundantly clear. “I don’t know how anybody is going to work if this continues,” said Mr. Lambert.

A final irony: Alternatives is still getting funding for the work it does from other sources, like the European Union and even the United States. That’s right. We as Canadians are no longer giving official support to an excellent Canadian NGO whose work most of us viscerally care about, while other countries are.

And while this story is getting almost zero attention in the Canadian media — CBC being one exception — it should be. We should all be aware of the travesty our government is committing when it tells an organization like Alternatives that, as Mr. Lambert put it, human rights is not charity and empowering the poor is not their job.

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