As Ottawa signals its intent to align foreign aid more closely with the private sector, some aid experts say they fear the shift could weaken Canada's commitment to poverty reduction in the developing world.
International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino announced in a speech on Friday that CIDA would put a growing emphasis on corporate partnerships and work more explicitly to promote Canada's economic interests abroad. He also suggested the aid agency could help Canadian firms succeed and contribute to making countries and people "trade and investment ready."
"The private sector is the driver of long-term economic growth globally for us. And without an increasing presence in the developing world, we will not achieve the development goals we're committed to [achieving] at CIDA."
CIDA officials say the shift is evidence that Canada is catching up to donor countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, which have already made the private sector a bigger part of their work. But while few aid experts advocate shutting companies out entirely, some worry that too much emphasis on corporate partnerships will cause CIDA to stray from its core goals.
"The private sector shouldn't be seen as a silver bullet," said Chantal Havard, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, an umbrella group for Canadian development organizations. "It can have a positive impact, but within a framework [that focuses] on what is the impact in developing countries, what are the benefits."
Over the past year, CIDA has funded a series of initiatives that match Canadian mining companies, including Barrick Gold and Rio Tinto Alcan, with non-governmental organizations – something the agency has hinted it could do more of in the future. In one project, CIDA and Barrick Gold each contribute half of the funding for World Vision's work in a mining community in northern Peru, which is geared to helping local authorities use mine revenues to diversify the area's economy.
But many non-governmental organizations question CIDA's decision to fund the work with the mining sector, particularly at a time when the agency is facing significant cuts. "If CIDA's budget were growing year over year, you could be more forgiving in saying, 'Let's try it and see,'" said Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada. "But in the context of shrinking resources, it's very important that we ensure that our aid dollars are supporting our priorities."