Tag Archives: poverty

Canada’s development aid: will Trudeau make a difference?

15 Feb


So maybe they weren’t the unequivocally happiest people in Canada when the Tories lost the elections last October.

But they had to be among the most relieved.

As Liam Swiss, a sociology professor at Memorial University who studies Canada’s development assistance, put it, many international aid people “had been waiting with bated breath” for a new government. And while he preferred the New Democratic Party’s aid-policy platform, it didn’t even matter who won in the end. “The notion was that things couldn’t get worse than they had been in the recent years under Harper,” he said.

Now the development community is cautiously optimistic that, with Justin Trudeau in power, things will change. While it is still early days, “the mandate letter that the Prime Minister sent to [Marie-Claude Bibeau] the Minister of International Development is very encouraging,” said Ian Smillie of the McLeod Group, “because it starts with poverty eradication, poverty alleviation, as being the basis for her mandate. And that is as it should be.”

But for the Conservative government it wasn’t. And while this was taxpayers’ money they were spending, their blatant attempts to win back benefits for Canadian corporations with money meant for the poor didn’t get much play in the press.

Yet the new policies, practices and funding cuts created havoc within the international charity sector. Every NGO had to make do with less but small- and medium-sized organizations were adversely affected, losing out in favour of the bigger players. Support for social justice advocacy disappeared pretty much completely.

“If you look at some of the organizations that were defunded, or have ceased to exist as a result of the collateral damage of that decision,” said Swiss, “it’s a really sad story.”

Then, in what used to be called the Partnership Branch, there was “ a move,” said Chantal Havard, spokeswoman for the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, “from responsive, predictable, long-term funding mechanisms to a call for proposals, a competitive process, more in line with priorities identified by the government. There were fewer opportunities for organizations to make proposals and the bureaucracy was quite heavy as well.”

Indeed as one anonymous respondent to a survey carried out by the CCIC described it, “this new system has been a colossal failure in every way for the development sector in Canada, and has devastated partnerships with civil society overseas.”

Harper also had the Canada Revenue Agency carry out tax audits, questioning whether what organizations were doing actually even amounted to “charity.” “There was a trend where organizations that were more critical of government policies were targeted,” said Havard, (a trend I wrote about last August).

So now that sorry picture is improving. Last month the government announced that the tax audits would be stopped. And at December’s climate change conference in Paris, it pledged $2.65 billion to help developing countries with adaptation and mitigation. For Smillie, “This is certainly part of the long-term development perspective. It’s not very clear how much of that money will go through normal machinery, or how much would go some other way – I don’t think they’ve figured that out yet either,” he added. “But I think that is a promising sign.”

But aside from revitalizing the agency the Tories re-christened with the anodyne name ‘Global Affairs Canada,’ will more be done to make our collective response to the global poor more useful? Isn’t it time to think about why its help, along with that of most wealthy countries, has done so little to really fight poverty?

Ian Smillie thinks so. “In addition to supporting NGOs for the good work they do overseas, I think government should also pay attention to the kind of work they do in Canada,” he said. “And this business of showing fly-blown children sitting in the dirt and tugging at heartstrings is not really about development. It is not a good way, it’s not an adult way, of portraying the challenge to Canadians.”

It is practically the default image to appeal for donations, “almost like a drug,” he said, but does a huge disservice to the people of the developing world and simplifies a complex problem.

“It is almost counterintuitive to promote good development overseas through NGOs and ignore this retrograde message they are putting out in Canada,” he said. “Diaspora communities in Canada hate it. African Canadians hate that kind of message. I’m sure governments of African countries don’t like it either.”

So while, as Havard and others have pointed out, the aid community has high hopes that the Trudeau government will stick to a promise made by the previous minister, Christian Paradis (who, in fairness, was somewhat more sensible and approachable than his Tory predecessors) maybe those consultations should take on this aspect as well.

“I think it is definitely something the government could and should do,” said Smillie. “As far as matching grants are concerned, look at what value NGOs are adding to the development question, and the value added is not only overseas, it is here. We want Canadians to understand why development assistance and poverty eradication, why all of that is important to Canada. It isn’t just to get short-term contracts. It is to make the world safe for everybody in every way, healthier and better able to trade and all the rest of it.”

Past Liberal governments have also struggled with the purpose of Canadian aid, and used it for goals other than straightforward development.

Maybe this time they will be different. Maybe they will be open to better, more effective, approaches to aid.

“It shouldn’t be a question of going back to where we were before the Harper government came in,” said Smillie. “I think we can move forward in a more intelligent way.”

The Dinosaurs Are Back

3 Jul

It’s not easy to put a brave face on it. The return of the Party of the Institutional Revolution to power in Mexico, the thought of the vapid Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife Angelica Rivera (star of one of the most ridiculous soap operas ever) smugly walking into the presidential home of Los Pinos, the galling prospect of the most corrupt old guard of Mexico’s political class — from Emilio Azcarraga to Elba Esther Gordillo –congratulating themselves for having pulled the wool over the eyes of the voters yet again.

There’s no way to look at it coolly, to not feel emotional about it, or to think of some justification for why so many people in Mexico voted for appearance over substance.

And so I can not only imagine but share the deep and dispiriting frustration that has now taken hold of all those people, especially young people who will see six more years of the status quo, and who tried valiantly in the days prior to Sunday’s election, as they realize that, yet again, liberal democracy has let them down.

As in the past, moreover, Mexico City, home to about one-fifth of the entire population, voted overwhelmingly for Peña Nieto’s main opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the PRD, meaning the aspirations of the more progressive-minded capitalinos, rich and poor, educated or not, are being held back by the rest. The dinosaurs are back and the Jurassic Park they will run in Mexico leaves a lot of people yearning for a different country.

So I am not going to try to search for any silver linings to this particular cloud — except to say that, with the mess Peña Nieto and his administration are bound to make over the next six years, things should be looking great for a Marcelo Ebrard candidacy in 2018!

Viore Cafe’s post election poster

Peru Attacks its own People — and its Forest

4 Jul


Originally uploaded by thekjkev

Even as the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico rivets the attention of people all over the world, people in many other places continue to suffer the catastrophe of petroleum production completely unheeded. I’ve already posted something about the vicious toll oil companies have imposed on the poor of Nigeria. Now in Peru, oil companies have set their sights on that country’s Amazon basin. According to the website of the Red Ambiental Loretana (the Loreto Environmental Network) “there are hundreds of kilometers of rivers and streams that have never received any treatment after the oil spills.”

It’s really no wonder. The Peruvian government is firmly on the side of the oil companies. Avid for petro-dollars, it has refused to listen to the complaints and proposals of the indigenous people who actually live along those river, in places like Loreto, Bartra, and the Rio Tigre. Just a few weeks ago, it resorted to the kind of unhinged violence to smash through a road blockade that left at least one hundred dead. It has used the police to beat and torture protesters and the navy to break through flotillas of canoes arranged across the affected rivers — essentially funding the repression of Peruvians in favour of multi-nationals from the public purse. 

Lately the Interior Ministry has gone so far as to expel a Catholic missionary, Brother Paul McAuley, and forbid him to ever return. Government bureaucrats are calling him a terrorist. McAuley’s crime? Encouraging the inhabitants of the rainforest region to stand up for their rights.  Yet many student, civil and grassroots movements support the work of Brother McAuley, and the right of the people of the Peruvian Amazon to decide what is in their best interest.

No doubt the Peruvian government is saying it will use all the money it can earn from petroleum and gas production to better the lives of the poor. The governments of countries with these kinds of resources always do. But it never seems to happen. (Check out Paul Collier’s ‘The Bottom Billion’ for statistics on the economic performance of African nations ‘blessed’ with natural resources.)

Could oil and gas be extracted and produced without harming a rainforest environment and benefiting local people? Well, it’s a good question, but one on which no oil company I can think of wants to waste profits on trying to answer.

What’s the Point of Protest?

28 Jun

That’s a question I’m asking myself after the G20 weekend in Toronto. I went on the not-very-big protest march on June 26th, but only heard about the burning police cars, smashed shop windows and Black Bloc (although I saw a small contingent of them) after going home. Now that’s all over I wonder what any of it means.

The march itself first of all. People met and walked and chatted and shouted slogans, and went to some destination I’m not even aware of north up Spadina Avenue. I know that the G20 leaders couldn’t have cared less that or why we were there. So why were we there? Is it because we feel we have to do something even if it is ultimately meaningless in terms of positive change. Mayor David Miller says it is to make our voices heard, but our voices are often heard — and largely ignored. Our government and the governments of the 19 visiting countries know our issues and have decided to keep on doing what they think is best.

The violence, overstated by a breathless press, also raises the question of its ultimate purpose: is it to indicate the level of anger or frustration many people, especially the poor and disenfranchised, must feel? Only they weren’t the ones breaking windows. Is it a kind of revenge against the system? Or letting off steam?

Somehow, there doesn’t seem to be any political thought behind any of it. With no one talking about the reasons 15,000 or how-ever-many we were people marched, only the “Black Bloc,” the whole experience has been as disappointing as the bad referee calls in Sunday’s World Cup games.

So why go on marches? Why protest? I know from both research and personal experience that mass mobilizations (not that this was one last Saturday) do bring results. The slum dwellers of Mumbai’s Janata Colony got new land when the Colony was cleared, and kick-started an organization of some 2 million people.

Landless rural people in Brazil have won themselves thousands of hectares of land to farm by occupying and demonstrating and insisting on far more than simply being heard.

And while I still really can’t say what’s the point of protest here, I do plan to keep on marching – if only so that the people who run the world are aware, however vaguely, that we don’t buy their hollow promises, even if we do have to pay for their sumptuous lifestyles.

More from Dakar

22 Mar

This morning I met with Ali Cisse, a bespectacled former professor of economics who works at the ILO office here, and talked a little bit about the community-run health insurance schemes I’ve come to learn more about. Only about 10 per cent of the EAP (ecnomically active population) here works in the formal economy and have government-mandated health insurance. The rest must fend for themselves (although apparently there is a big problem with the fraudulent use of the state system, as employees or their spouses claim to be ill when in fact it is actually a member of their extended family who gets the health care.) But there are in Senegal about 150 community-based mutuelles now, with, roughly calculated, some half a million members (far more than I had supposed.) And so I’m looking forward to learning a lot more about them and how they work over the upcoming weeks.

Meanwhile I am slowly establishing for myself a sort of personal map of the city. Since I am staying near Place de l’Independance, that’s a logical place out of which to start walking, a large square with a border of broken sidewalk, an enormous, blue-tiled but — alas, waterless — fountain, and dusty patches around extensions of short-clipped grass and neatly trimmed shrubs, but tall shady baobab trees in some places as well. It is mostly surrounded by tall, modern buildings displaying quite unremarkable architecture — housing insurance and airline companies, banks and government offices, and the markedly down-at-heel Hotel de l’Independance. Then there are a few neo-classical buildings such as the Chambre de Commerce and the Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres for some visual variety. The Place and the various streets around it are busy with wandering vendors, who sell everything from phone cards to ladies’ shoes – spread out from their hands in fans of black and gold-coloured leather, and from peanuts to bunches of cheap watches like fat clusters of flat, disc-shaped flowers. Across from the hotel, someone has a long row of mens’ suits for sale, on hangers along the wall.

About half of the people I see are in Western dress, the other half in traditional; long white or light-colored robes, brightly printed kaftans and pants, long skirts and form-fitted blouses with matching turbans, and often in this sort of shiny, almost plasticized cotton that seems quite popular. (I eventually find out that this fabric is indeed ‘waxed.’) This morning at a North- of-France-style cafe, complete with mirrored and panelled walls, hanging copper pots, called the Palmeraie, a man came in while I was having breakfast. Dressed in voluminous, pale-blue robes embroidered in white around the neck and shoulders, a white turban winding around his head and neck, I couldn’t help but think (in a definite cliche) that he almost looked as if he’d just descended from the back of a camel after crossing some desert — except for the cellphone and pair of Raybans he put onto the table, and how he proceeded to work on a Sudoku puzzle in his newspaper as soon as he sat down.

However I can see that one problem I’m going to be encountering here a lot, walking around by myself as I do, is men – importuning men, who just start talking to you in the street, falling in step as you walk along minding your own business, asking lengthy series of mundane questions before suggesting you come to some shop they own, or to the market, or – twice I’ve heard this now — telling you their wife has just had a new baby. A couple of them have pretended that we have already met — the total so far in two days is five of these guys. This morning I managed to shake one off by stepping into what I hoped was a bank but turned out to an insurance company, both the man in charge and the security guard highly sympathetic to my situation. “We’re not flies, you know,” said one of these guys to me today, but in fact, that is beginning to seem like a pretty good metaphor.

On a School Wall