Non-Governmental Organizations are sometimes considered critics of Canadian foreign policy. But NGOs are not well placed to challenge Ottawa. Reliance on government aid and charitable status hampers their political independence. So does the back and forth between individuals working for the Canadian aid agency and NGOs. It’s hard to criticize former or future colleagues and if a position with the aid agency is a possibility it is professionally dangerous to publicly challenge Canadian foreign policy.
Sometimes Canadian aid directly co-opts NGOs. After leaving her position as head of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in Afghanistan, Nipa Banerjee explained that Canadian aid was used to gain NGO support for the war there. “Our government thinks they are getting public support and [NGO support] for their mission if they fund NGO programs,” she told the Globe and Mail.
In 2007 CIDA gave Peace Build $575,000, which was on top of money from Foreign Affairs and the government-run International Development Research Centre. Largely focused on Afghanistan, Peace Build was a newly created network of NGOs viewed as a moderate counterweight to the more activist-oriented (and financially independent) Canadian Peace Alliance, which opposed Canada’s occupation of Afghanistan. Peace Build founder Peggy Mason was a former Canadian diplomat.
Two decades earlier CIDA encouraged the creation of a new NGO to undercut criticism of Canadian complicity with apartheid South Africa. In a history of the aid agency Cranford Pratt explains, “CIDA secured creation of the South African Education Trust Fund because it did not think the strong NGOs already active vis-à-vis South Africa sufficiently sensitive to Canadian foreign policy concerns.”
At the same time as it pushed to undercut South African focused NGOs, CIDA sought to set up an alternative development education organization. While Futures Secretariat ultimately failed to take off, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation and other NGOs saw it as “an effort to undercut their own ‘dev ed’ [development education] work,” which was critical of Canadian policy.
Aid officials have also slashed funding to organizations that criticize Canadian foreign policy. In the late 1970s SUCO, CUSO’s French language equivalent began to critique Canadian corporate ties with apartheid South Africa, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and other politically sensitive subjects. CIDA responded to the political turn by pushing institutional reforms and eventually chopped all financial support to the group in 1984. SUCO’s annual budget dropped from $6 million to $400,000 and staff levels fell from 45 employees to 4, leading to the collapse of the organization.
CIDA delivered another blow to NGOs critical of Canadian foreign policy when it cut funding for the Development Education Animateur Program (DEAP) in 1995. Dating to the early 1970s, DEAP’s development education centres featured a wide array of hard-to-find educational material about development and the Third World. As CIDA conceived it, development education would educate the public about the social and economic problems faced by the Third World while simultaneously explaining how Canadian aid helped overcome these problems. To CIDA’s chagrin, development education departments at CUSO, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation and other NGOs became a source of sustained criticism of Canada’s conduct on the world stage. As a result, CIDA worked to undermine the program by placing detailed controls on what NGO development education centres could do with their funds. In CUSO and Liberation Movements in Southern Africa, Christopher Neal writes, “CIDA specified, for example, that CUSO could not use CIDA funds to criticize Canadian foreign policy or to draw parallels between struggles against oppression in developing countries and struggles by powerless groups in Canada.” With these moves failing to stop criticism from development education centres, CIDA pulled the plug on the entire Development Education Animateur Program in 1995.
During Stephen Harper’s reign the government severed aid to a number of NGOs that refused to toe its line on Palestine and (to a lesser extent) international mining. In 2009 CIDA chopped $7 million from Kairos, a Christian aid organization that had received government money for 35 years. During a December 2009 visit to Israel immigration minister Jason Kenney said Canada “defunded organizations, most recently like Kairos, who are taking a leadership role” in campaigns to boycott Israel (while sympathetic to Palestinians Kairos Canada, unlike the unaffiliated Kairos Palestine, did not endorse the boycott divestment and sanctions campaign). Palestinian advocacy was also the reason Ottawa failed to renew its funding to Montréal-based Alternatives, which received most of its budget from the federal government. Shortly after the Canadian Council for International Cooperation publicly complained that the government had created a “chill” in the NGO community by adopting “the politics of punishment … towards those whose public views run at cross purposes to the government,” its $1.7 million CIDA grant was cut, which forced it to lay off two thirds of its staff.