Can NGOs be progressive despite dependence on Ottawa?

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”  Upton Sinclair


International Development Week (IDW) highlights how a large swath of ‘progressive” society has been co-opted into supporting Canada’s corporate, imperialist foreign policy. NGOs funded by Global Affairs call for ‘more Canada’ no matter what Ottawa metes out.

Justin Trudeau’s government has a long list of objectionable foreign policies. They’ve armed Saudi Arabia, backed brutal mining companies, deployed troops with NATO, undermined Palestinian rights, sought to topple Venezuela’s government, supported a coup in Bolivia, failed to end Canada’s ‘low level war’ on Iran, backed an unconstitutional Haitian president, increased military spending, refused to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, etc.

If the immoral character of these measures weren’t enough to make a progressive wary of aligning with Canadian foreign policy then what about the international community decisively rejecting them? Despite the government’s multi-year lobbying campaign, member states voted against Canada’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council last June.

While the Security Council defeat no doubt rattled many NGO employees’ confidence in benevolent Canada mythology, their dependence on government financing has proven too strong to shake things up significantly.

During International Development Week this year NGOs have once again jumped into bed with Global Affairs. Last Monday Québec NGO umbrella group Association québécoise des organismes de coopération internationale launched IDW with minister for international development Karina Gould speaking. Cooperation Canada (formerly Canadian Council for International Cooperation), British Columbia Council for International Cooperation, Manitoba Council for International Cooperation, Atlantic Council for International Cooperation and a host of other NGOs organized events focused on what the government officially describes as “Global Affairs Canada’s flagship public engagement initiative.”

Instigated by the aid agency 30 years ago, IDW is a celebration of Canada’s commitment to international development. Or, as the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation put it, IDW offers “an opportunity to explore how Canada and Canadians are making a difference around the world!”

Unfortunately, supposedly progressive NGOs aligning with Global Affairs is all too common. In November 2019 CCIC co-organized a Summit on Canada’s Global Leadership, which included Gould, Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance, Trudeau advisor (now UN ambassador) Bob Rae, former Trudeau foreign policy advisor Roland Paris, former head of the Canadian International Development Agency Margaret Biggs, former CSIS director Richard Fadden and others. In October 2018, Journalists for Human Rights organized a fundraiser titled “Find Out How Canada is Back!” with a keynote address from then Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau.

NGOs align with Global Affairs largely due to financial considerations. Aid officials have repeatedly slashed funding to organizations that challenge Canadian foreign policy, as detailed in Nik Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay’s Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s Development NGOs from Idealism to Imperialism. The Stephen Harper government cut funding to Kairos, Alternatives and others due to their political positions. Shortly after it publicly complained the government 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,” the CCIC’s $1.7 million CIDA grant was cut in 2012. This forced it to lay off two thirds of its staff. (CCIC was created with financing from CIDA to coordinate relations with the growing NGO network and build domestic political support for the aid program.)

In an earlier episode of CIDA’s “politics of punishment”, SUCO (CUSO’s French language equivalent) had all its funding chopped in 1984 after it campaigned on Canadian corporate ties with apartheid South Africa, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and other politically sensitive subjects. 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 in 1975.

On the other hand, the Canadian aid agency has helped establish NGOs to undercut criticism. 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.”

Aid is not divorced from the government’s broader pro-corporate, imperialistic, international policy. While sometimes critical of Canadian foreign policy, NGOs’ reliance on government funding and charitable status hampers their political independence.

International Development Week offers an opportunity to reflect on the extent to which many progressives have been co-opted into Canada’s belligerent foreign policy.


On February 18 the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute is sponsoring a talk on “The Trouble with Canadian Aid: Reflecting on Canada’s International Development Week”


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