Category Archives: NGOs

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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Filed under Aid, NGOs

The scandal is us, not WE


Craig Kielburger with African children

Delving deeper into the WE scandal offers an unflattering image of us.

The most concerning element of the WE story is not that the prime minister and finance minister aided an organization with ties to their families but rather the broad backing for an organization that is a caricature of white savior imperialism. The real scandal is all the corporations, media, schools, politicians, unions and celebrities that have directly enabled WE as well as those that have done so indirectly by ignoring Canadian imperialism.

As I detailed in this widely circulated article, the main problem with WE is that it has directed young people towards ineffective international political actions and a narrow understanding of doing good in the world. It and other NGOs have also foisted a neoliberal “charitable” international social services delivery system on poor countries.

While WE’s imperialism is the central story line being ignored, the reports about the rot within the organization are startling. WE partnered with companies complicit in child labour; Marc Kielburger participated in a conversation that included a staff member in Kenya discussing bribes and making multiple death threats; WE has over $40 million invested in Toronto real estate and the Kielburger parents have amassed some $24 million in property; A WE contractor sought out the name of a critical journalist’s child and their school; They repeatedly denied critical journalists access to WE day; WE has a slew of interconnected legal structures including a for-profit arm; A WE contractor paid firms to game Google searches to bury critical stories about the organization; They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Republican aligned US lobbyists that criticized Canadaland’s reporting on WE, etc.

How did an organization supposed to be making the world more just go so wrong? The answer is: If you swim with the sharks either you’ll be eaten or become one. Right from the beginning WE’s way was appealing to corporations and the governments who were pushing neoliberal “solutions” for the world’s most exploited nations.

At its best WE echoed some of the messages put forward by the late 1990s anti-sweatshop/corporate globalization movement. But, it never really joined that movement and was always hyper media focused.

WE’s promotion of political change through consumerism is a distraction and it’s “voluntourism” is ridiculous. It should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a minute that sending Canadian youth halfway across the world to look after orphans or build schools is absurd for ecological, technical, cost, as well as social and political, reasons. Millions of, say, Kenyans or Ghanaians are better placed to build the schools. At a broader level, countries don’t break from impoverishment/underdevelopment/unequal terms of trade through foreign teenagers building their infrastructure. The issues are political and to avoid saying as much is highly political.

An organization engaged in “community development” in Africa that ignores Canadian corporations vacuuming up billions in profits annually from the continent is upholding imperialism. An organization seeking to expand clean drinking water that ignores the Canadian Air Force’s role in damaging Libya’s Great Manmade River aquifer system, the source of 70 per cent of the country’s water, is part of the problem. An organization that says it is battling HIV-AIDS but ignores how a Canadian-backed coup in Haiti undercut success on that front is upholding imperialism.

Corporate sponsors RBC, Telus, Potashcorp etc., media partners such as the Globe and Mail and CTV, school boards, federal, provincial and municipal governments and a slew of celebrities have contributed directly to WE’s rise. So have Canadian unions. With their charity, rather than international solidarity focused humanities funds, organized labour played an important role in getting WE’s predecessor, Free the Children, off the ground and even as WE became little more than a corporate shell unions continued promoting it.

But, it’s not only those that have directly supported WE that are responsible for the growth of this farcical organization. All those who’ve ignored confronting Canadian imperialism have laid the grounds for WE. To put it directly, if people understood the nature of Canadian foreign policy and global power dynamics WE’s ‘solutions’ to poverty would be laughed at.

Even the organization largely responsible for exposing WE mostly avoids questioning the political culture behind WE’s rise. Focused on covering the media, Canadaland has largely refused to investigate the dominant media’s subservience to Canadian/US foreign policy, far and away its most extreme bias in favor of power. (I detail one element of Canadaland’s refusal to challenge Canadian media’s foreign policy coverage in this article and the broader subject in A Propaganda System: How Canada’s government, corporations, media and academia sell war and exploitation, which Canadaland’s Jesse Brown was unwilling to discuss.)

An organization or individual in Canada that refuses to challenge imperialism (you don’t have to use the word) is upholding it. As Howard Zinn famously asserted, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

For those seeking to understand what I mean by ignoring imperialism below is a sort of “test” of whether an organization or individual is upholding the political culture that allows WE to thrive. Do they support a call to:

  • End public support to Canadian mining companies responsible for significant social and ecological abuses abroad.
  • Withdraw Canada from the Core Group of countries that largely rule Haiti.
  • End the charitable status of the explicitly racist and colonialist Jewish National Fund.
  • Include current and historic per capita greenhouse gas emissions between Canada and the global South when discussing climate change.
  • Withdraw from the racist Five Eyes intelligence network.
  • Seek legal opinion about whether Canadian sanctions policy aligns with international law.
  • Withdraw from the Lima Group seeking to overthrow the Venezuelan government.
  • Adopt the nuclear ban treaty.
  • Withdraw from Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements in which the proportion of two-way investment is more than 3 to 1 in Canada’s favor.
  • Oppose spending $19 billion on new fighter jets that are about “enhancing the air force’s ability to join operations with the U.S. and NATO.”

Individuals and organizations that won’t support these modest reforms are probably upholding Canadian imperialism and indirectly complicit in the rise of WE.


Those seeking to question Canadian imperialism should sign this open letter, backed by a growing coalition of prominent individuals and organizations, calling for a “fundamental reassessment of Canadian foreign policy”.

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Filed under Justin Trudeau, NGOs

The real WE Scandal


Once again the media focuses on salacious details rather than the big picture.

While TV and newspapers have focused on the whiff of corruption surrounding the government’s $900 million contract with the WE Charity, some broader points have been ignored. Whatever the Trudeau and Morneau families have pocketed from WE, the deleterious impact that NGO has had on social services and young Canadians’ understanding of global inequities is much more significant.

In a series of poignant tweets Simon Black highlighted how WE has directed young people towards ineffective political actions and a narrow understanding of doing good in the world. He noted, “teaching kids that ‘breaking the cycle of poverty’ (WE’s words) involves travelling to a ‘developing’ country to build a school and not marching on the IMF, World Bank, White House or Parliament Hill to demand the cancellation of global South debts. That’s the real #WEscam.” In fact, a little discussed reason the federal government funds NGOs is to co-opt internationalist minded young people into aligning with Canadian foreign policy.

In another tweet Black mocks WE’s educational program. “Thanks to the Keilburgers and WE,” he writes, “a generation of kids have learned about ‘international development’ but still don’t know what an IMF structural adjustment program is.” Imposed by the Washington-based international financial institution, structural adjustment programs (SAPs) pushed indebted African, Asian and Latin American countries to privatize state assets, weaken labour regulations and liberalize trade and investment rules. Through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s Canada channeled hundreds of millions of dollars in “aid” to support SAPs. Canadian mining companies greatly benefited from liberalized mining laws, but structural adjustment policies produced deep social and economic crises. Nutritional status, health, education and other social indicators declined in the wake of SAPs. For many African countries the structural adjustment period was worse than the Great Depression. International creditors argued that the flipside of this government downsizing would be increased aid, particularly to private sector NGOs. Ottawa asked the NGO sector to “undertake tasks previously performed by governments, such as the delivery of” health, sanitation and other services.

The NGO as replacement for government service is another side of the current WE scandal. On Facebook Matthew Behrens explained, “the real crime, which the media has utterly failed to mention, is that Trudeau was essentially privatizing a chunk of the Canada Summer Jobs program — which provides summer jobs at minimum wage — to a private corporation”, which then planned to pay them below the legal minimum. Charity as replacement for social services is what WE and Canadian-government-funded NGOs do all over the world. In a country like Haiti, for instance, social services are almost entirely privatized, run by “charities” often based in other countries who decide whether one qualifies for assistance. Foreign-funded NGOs have contributed to a process that has undermined Haitian governmental capacity.

This foisting of “charitable” international social services delivery systems on poor countries shouldn’t surprise Canadians since the same corporate interests that promote privatizations over there push similar efforts at home. In fact there have been hundreds of battles over many decades in every corner of the country against right wing efforts to dismantle public social services. Most Canadians understand what’s going on when pro-corporate forces argue for cutting social services. Yet when the federal government pushes similar policies elsewhere there has been little protest, mostly because the dominant media simply does not report what’s happening.

If the media were interested in telling the real story it would broaden the discussion about #WEscam. Ottawa, WE and other NGOs’ role in undercutting social services and confusing young people about global inequities is a far bigger scandal than however much one charity paid the Trudeau family.


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Trudeau’s Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government is a sham


Should peace groups challenge Canadian militarism by pushing clear, principled, demands or by promoting a militarist government’s bid to rebrand itself through a “peace” institute?

In a recent blog headlined “New Peace Centre needed to balance defence industry-funded think tanks”, the Rideau Institute promoted the proposed Canadian Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government. Since October four different Rideau Institute blogs have talked up the Liberals’ Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government. In their recent blog they linked to a January 29 Hill Times story headlined “A new Canadian peace centre could make a world of difference”. Authored by Rideau Institute head Peggy Mason and Senior advisor Peter Langille, the opinion piece called for the Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government to be modeled after the former Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security (CIIPS).

In 1984 the federal government passed “An Act to Establish the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security.” Under the legislation CIIPS was obliged to carry out research proposed by the “designated” minister. Associated with peace researchers, CIIPS was run by former External Affairs and military officials. Its first chair was William Barton who worked at External Affairs for three decades, including a stint as Canadian ambassador to the UN. The organization’s founding director was Brigadier-General George Gray Bell, who spent three decades in the military, and its initial executive director was Geoffrey Pearson, son of Lester Pearson. A former ambassador to the Soviet Union and Mongolia, Geoffrey Pearson wrote, “I have been identified with the government most of my life.” (See my Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: the truth may hurt for an assessment of his famed father’s international policies.)

While the institute generally reflected the liberal end of the dominant foreign policy discussion, CIIPS coordinator of research Mark Heller supported Canadian participation in the first Gulf War. The organization also aligned itself with Canadian policy in other ways. Geoffrey Pearson described the motivation for organizing a conference on Canada–Caribbean relations: “I thought that Canada ought to pay more attention to the … British Caribbean countries, where we had traditional interests and potentially important influence.” But Canada’s “traditional interests” in the British Caribbean have often been characterized as “imperialistic”. Canadian banks and insurance companies have dominated the English Caribbean’s financial sector for more than a century and prominent Canadians repeatedly sought to annex these territories.

In 1992 Brian Mulroney’s government disbanded CIIPS. While some suggested the decision was a response to policy prescriptions the government didn’t like, Ottawa claimed its decision was strictly financial. The government’s official explanation gives a good sense of how they viewed the institute. “It will cost the government $2.5 million less annually, because instead of having the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security, we will have officials within the Department of External Affairs doing the same job.”

If its anything like CIIPS its doubtful the Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government will push to withdraw from NATO, reduce military spending, end government support for arms exporters or withdraw Canadian troops from Iraq and Latvia. Instead the Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government is likely to offer a public relations boost to a Liberal government promoting arm sales, NATO expansionism and increased military spending, not to mention brutal mining companies, anti-Palestinian positions, an unpopular Haitian president, a coup in Venezuela, etc.

It is unclear if Mason and Languille’s position is motivated by political ‘realism’, employment considerations, fear of political marginalization, discomfort with the depths of Canadian militarism or a desire to claim victory (the Rideau Institute is part of a coalition that suggested a similar institution). Or maybe they believe the peace movement should take whatever crumbs the Liberals drop from the table since they will be better than what a Conservative government offers.

The other side doesn’t have this attitude. As the recent Rideau Institute blog rightly pointed out the DND/arms industry funded Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI) doesn’t hold back from articulating militarist positions. Last month CGAI held a conference on Modernizing North American Defence that painted Russia and China as apocalyptic threats, wanting to “destroy” (Moscow) and “own” (Beijing) us. Despite their lack of moral legitimacy, the militarists forcefully convey their positions.

Antimilitarists need organizations that do the same. Certainly, it’s not too much to expect a “peace” institute to call for reduced military spending, an end to public support for arms exporters and Canada’s withdrawal from NATO. Does the Rideau Institute believe the Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government will do that?


I will be speaking alongside Peggy Mason at the World Beyond War conference in Ottawa on May 27.


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Filed under Activism, Justin Trudeau, Military, NGOs

NGO coalition aligns with imperialism


The Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) exists primarily to lobby for increased aid. As a result, the NGO umbrella group broadly aligns with Canadian imperialism.

When Justin Trudeau recently set off for an African Union Summit to build support for the government’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council the CCIC reiterated its call for increased aid. In an interview with Radio Canada International, CCIC CEO Nicolas Moyer suggested that if “Canada is back”, as Trudeau has previously stated, it needed to increase aid spending.

In November 2019 CCIC co-organized a Summit on Canada’s Global Leadership. The event included Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance, minister for international development Karina Gould, Trudeau advisor 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. Describing himself as a lobbyist for greater aid, Moyer said in an interview before the Summit on Canada’s Global Leadership that it was important to bring together different sectors of Canadian foreign policy because “there is no path which leads towards increased federal commitments to ODA [overseas development assistance] which can exist without a strong ambition for Canada’s role in the world. We need champions in other sectors that also want an ambitious and impactful foreign policy.” Willing to include the military as part of his grand foreign policy coalition, Moyer added, “it’s why I am looking forward to discussions at the summit, for example between Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance and Canada’s Ambassador for Women Peace and Security Jacqueline O’Neill.”

It makes sense that an organization focused on increasing aid spending would do-si-do with the military. Since the 1950-53 Korean War military interventions have elicited substantial boosts in aid spending. Call it the ‘intervention-equals-aid’ principle or ‘wherever Canadian troops kill Ottawa provides aid’ principle. The largest concentration of aid spending in Canadian history was in Afghanistan. During the 2000s $2.2 billion worth of development assistance was pumped into Afghanistan with NGOs flooding into the country alongside Canadian troops.

(No matter the popular portrayal, the primary objective of Canadian overseas assistance has long been to advance Western interests, particularly keeping the Global South tied to the US-led geopolitical order. Aid has also been designed to help Canadian companies and to co-opt internationalist minded young people into aligning with Canadian foreign policy. While most individual aid projects offer some social benefit, they’ve also helped justify the imprisonment of Haiti’s constitutional prime minister, rewrote Colombia’s mining code to benefit corporations, assisted Filipino landlords blocking much-needed land reform with violence, etc.)

More damaging than the CCIC’s dalliance with the military is its reluctance to criticize Canadian foreign policy. In September 2018 the CCIC co-organized a conference titled “Is Canada Back: Delivering on Good Intentions?” Publicity for the event noted, “Inspired by Justin Trudeau’s 2015 proclamation ‘Canada is Back’, we are presenting panels that illustrate or challenge Canada’s role in global leadership. Are we doing all that we could be doing in the world?” Formulating the question this way ignores the government’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, backing for brutalmining companies, NATO deployments, antagonism towards Palestinian rights, efforts to topple the Venezuelan government, failure to end Canada’s ‘low level war’ on Iran, backing for an unpopular Haitian president, refusal to support nuclear weapons controls, promotion of military spending, etc.

Many progressive minded Canadians look to international NGOs as a counterweight to government abuses. Instead of challenging unjust Liberal policies, the CCIC has largely shilled for the liberal (aid) arm of Canadian foreign policy.

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Filed under Aid, imperialism, NGOs