Canada's international development minister is defending his government's record on foreign aid, saying a recent lapse in spending by the Canadian International Development Agency occurred largely because of instability in two of Canada's priority countries.
Christian Paradis told The Globe and Mail in an interview last week that the agency spent less money than budgeted because of a review looking at how Canada's aid to Haiti was being spent and the coup d'etat that occurred in Mali. Official government figures show that $290-million in money that had been allocated for foreign aid in the 2012-2013 fiscal year went unspent, leading critics to accuse the Conservative government of attempting to cut foreign aid through the back door.
The lapse likely played into the Organization for Economic Development and Co-operation's recent finding that Canadian foreign aid declined by 11 per cent overall in 2013 – the second biggest drop of any country in the world.
Development experts have suggested the lapse in spending could be linked to a recent policy change requiring every proposed development project to receive direct ministerial approval – regardless of its size or relative importance. That requirement is widely believed to have contributed to a bottleneck of unapproved projects sitting on the minister's desk.
In an interview with The Globe last week, Mr. Paradis offered a different explanation for the recent decline in spending, saying the lapse was largely the result of external events that made it more difficult to ensure aid money was being spent appropriately.
"You have serious files like Haiti and Mali in which there were some issues," Mr. Paradis said. "This is the biggest reason why [there was a lapse]. At the time, there was some review [of aid to Haiti], and the coup in Mali."
Ottawa suspended all bilateral aid to Mali in 2012, after Islamist militants orchestrated a coup in the West African country. Mr. Paradis said the halt in funding was necessary to ensure development money was "going in the right hands." (Canadian bilateral aid to Mali only resumed this spring.)
The federal government also paused new funding for aid work in Haiti, a change that came to light when former international development minister Julian Fantino announced he was unhappy with progress in the Caribbean country and had frozen development funding while programming was reviewed. The announcement appeared to catch both Canadian and Haitian officials by surprise.
Mr. Paradis added that some of the money was "reprofiled" for other initiatives while another pool of money, set aside for crises and emergencies, was not spent because it was not needed.
The spending lapse was particularly concerning for those who worried that the merger between CIDA and the Department of Foreign Affairs could result in more development funding being appropriated for diplomatic or trade purposes.
However, Mr. Paradis said the former CIDA is projecting a lapse of less than $30-million for the year that just ended, suggesting more of the money budgeted for development was actually spent, when compared with the previous year.
"Canada is focused on delivering real results for those in need around the world as well as Canadian taxpayers," Mr. Paradis said in a statement sent by e-mail after his interview with the Globe. "We pay what we pledge, we meet our commitments and we are helping save the lives of millions of mothers and children around the world."
Kim Mackrael is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.