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Minister of International Co-operation Bev Oda, shown during a media availability on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, March, 2010 (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Minister of International Co-operation Bev Oda, shown during a media availability on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, March, 2010 (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Analysis

In wake of Oda controversy, Ottawa must explain why aid decisions are made Add to ...

The bizarre scratched-in "not" on Bev Oda's decision is, one way or another, the byproduct of Canada's secret aid society.

The workings of the Canadian International Development Agency, which distributes about $4-billion in development aid, are unnecessarily obscure. And for years, aid organizations have complained that Ms. Oda's office is a black box where decisions go to sit for months in silence, and eventually emerge without explanation.

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The controversy now surrounding Ms. Oda isn't about the Harper government's politicization of an aid decision. At least not any more. It's about their efforts to avoid saying what the decision was, political or not.

A general murkiness around CIDA, from its focus, to its strategy in each country, to how a funding decision gets made, has been its Achilles heel for years. Add to that the obscurity about whether a decision is political, and what's political about it, and it breeds not just suspicion but dysfunctional aid. Ms. Oda says her goal is transparent and effective aid, but that requires priorities and predictability.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's defence of Ms. Oda is that elected officials make the decisions in a democracy. But in the Kairos case, no one has heard a detailed decision.

Over time, Kairos, the church-backed aid organization, heard three explanations for why its funding wasn't renewed - for its views on Israel, for criticism of mining practices and climate-change policy, or that its aid program wasn't cost-effective - and none at all.

Kairos received CIDA funding for 35 years, but that doesn't mean it had a right to keep getting it. On the day the old grant ran out, Nov. 30, 2009, the organization was told it would not be renewed. A CIDA vice-president told Kairos's executive director, Mary Corkery, that it was decided that Kairos's program didn't meet CIDA priorities, but then said no other information was available.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney later told a Jerusalem audience that Kairos was cut off because of its views on Israel. Ms. Oda and the government then insisted it was a routine decision made after "due diligence" that the Kairos program didn't meet CIDA priorities. Later, it emerged that the civil servants' recommendation was rejected, and the "not" was inserted, raising questions about whether Parliament was misled.

It also underlines questions about how Canadian aid works. CIDA's priorities are broad and often vague, so lots of applications meet them. Kairos still hasn't been told which ones it didn't match and why. If, as Mr. Harper suggests, it wasn't the best value for money, no one has explained why.

It could be explained. In the Netherlands, the government aid agency sets long-term priorities and criteria for grants. It gives agencies a score, and explains them. Ms. Oda is rolling out what she calls a more transparent system in Canada, but aid groups say the criteria are vague.

Governments do make political decisions about aid. Mr. Harper did when he announced Canada's money for a G8 initiative on maternal health would not fund abortions. He took some heat but set a policy.

The Conservatives entered office with suspicions that CIDA supported a left-leaning community of aid NGOs dependent on public money. In Ms. Oda's time, politicians and aides scrutinized the civil servants' recommendations on grants. Most aid groups complain they heard little about how to match government priorities.

There was secrecy and suspicion. Several aid charities complained a year ago that they felt pressure to avoid criticizing the government on issues like climate change in the 'advocacy' work many do, and one aid executive said he was warned about it by Ms. Oda's former aide.

Aid groups don't like it, but the government does have a right to cut off government funding for advocacy and public relations, and can argue it's not what matters most. It eventually did - groups that receive grants under the "Partnerships with Canadians Branch" now no longer get 10 per cent set aside for "public engagement."

The government also can cut off Kairos if it feels its views on Israel or mining or climate change aren't appropriate. But it requires explanation, for accountability and aid effectiveness.

Aid is more effective with plans people understand. Groups like Kairos have projects in developing countries that can suddenly lose funding, so they all need to know the criteria.

The Auditor-General, in a fall 2009 report, found CIDA's work was deeply hampered because it lacked focus, as priorities kept shifting. Ms. Oda agreed, and established three broad themes for aid - but when she scrambled out a list of 20 countries where aid would be focused, several African countries that were cut off said they'd never discussed it with her.

The Auditor-General found aid was chaotic in some countries because CIDA lacked up-to-date country strategies; when The Globe and Mail asked for them in January, CIDA said it would take a year to provide them.

The government should make the decisions on aid, but telling people what they are, political or not, is key to effective aid.

Follow on Twitter: @camrclark

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