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Samantha Nutt, founder of the NGO War Child and author of Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid
Samantha Nutt, founder of the NGO War Child and author of Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid

THE NEW HUMANITARIANS

Should NGOs take the corporate bait? Add to ...

This is the third of a four-part series on innovative ways to deliver aid in our conflicted world.

Every economic slump ushers in predictable, if not propagandistic, debates about Official Development Assistance, otherwise known as foreign aid. While Stephen Harper’s government has frozen aid spending through to 2015, the real anti-aid evangelicals can be found to the south, at the Republican primaries. Ron Paul, whose greatest accomplishment is that the press is still willing to hand him a microphone, has pledged to cancel American foreign aid altogether. There are, therefore, compelling reasons to consider where aid is now and where it might be headed.

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The recession has been brutal to those who are reliant on humanitarian assistance for their very survival. European governments have, not surprisingly, made drastic cuts to their aid spending. So has the U.S. Congress, and many foundations are operating on reduced budgets. The effect has been that non-governmental organizations around the world are swimming in a rapidly evaporating pool of funding, raising the competitive stakes alongside a host of ethical questions.

On this point, several of the world’s leading international charities are now keeping some rather curious company, which could either represent the future of aid – a progressive merger of economic interests and social development – or its fire sale. In September, the Canadian International Development Agency announced a controversial multimillion-dollar grant to three leading international charities who will partner with major Canadian mining firms on development initiatives in African and Latin American countries in which these companies operate.

Under the deal, World University Services Canada, Plan Canada and World Vision Canada will receive CIDA funding totalling $6.7-million for projects with Rio Tinto Alcan, Iamgold and Barrick Gold, respectively. The largest share was for the Plan Canada-Iamgold project, which will take all but $1-million of the CIDA funding over the next five years. For their part, the three mining companies will contribute additional support just shy of $2-million. The combined annual net profit for these firms is more than $4-billion.

Now, on any given day that CIDA makes a funding announcement, the sanctimony served up by those who were overlooked is best cut with the knives sticking out of the backs of those who emerged as big winners. But this one struck at the very heart of the NGO community, leading many to shudder and ask of their colleagues, “How could you?”

Two of the participating mining firms have recently been involved in labour and human-rights disputes related to their operations abroad.

The central tension is whether these NGOs are serving as bagmen, advancing Canadian mining interests with taxpayer funding by appeasing local communities with gifts of health care and education, or whether they are simply piloting a new model of co-operation that might positively influence corporate behaviour overseas while simultaneously addressing development gaps.

Certainly the latter is what the executive director of WUSC, Chris Eaton, is hoping for. He was quoted in The Dominion newspaper expressing his sincere desire that such partnerships will “nudge along good practice.” Perhaps, but they can also buy silence in the case of bad practice, which is inherently more dangerous. And why would CIDA pick up any of the tab to improve the reputation of Canada’s mining sector abroad, if not to cement Mr. Harper’s vision for an aid policy that serves Canada’s trade and economic interests first, officially clearing the belfry of all Pearsonian bats?

Welcome to the new humanitarianism, where government funding is scarce, traditional donors are aging and more organizations are turning to corporate alliances that would once have been viewed as heresy. Yet as the aid sector goes in search of new funding models, we might do well to remember a line from the 17th-century English poet John Dryden: “Better shun the bait than struggle in the snare.”

Samantha Nutt is a founder of the NGO War Child and the author of Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid. To see a video conversation with Dr. Nutt, visit the Canadian International Council’s website at www.opencanada.org/newhumanitarians.

Editor's note: CIDA announced three projects related to mining, co-financed with corporations, in September 2011, not a month ago, as stated in an earlier version of this article.

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