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Harper's aid spending under the microscope

Canada's Prime Minister Stephan Harper speaks to the press following a bilateral meeting at the Ministerial Preparatory Conference on Haiti, in Montreal, January 25, 2010. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS)


Canada's commitment to playing a lead role in a pair of major new international aid projects has some stakeholders wondering: In the midst of a clampdown on spending, where will Ottawa find the money?

On Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised that Canadians would stay in Haiti and help rebuild that devastated country for at least 10 years. Then on Tuesday he said the health of the world's mothers and their children would be a primary focus of the June meeting of the Group of Eight in Ontario's cottage country.

The new projects, coupled with the country's sizable financial commitments to Afghanistan, have spawned concerns that any aid flowing to new priorities will siphon money away from existing ones. What's more

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On the child health issue alone, UNICEF has recommended Canada commit $2-billion over the next five years. And, in Haiti, the government has launched a massive relief effort and earmarked millions in aid so far.

International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda declined to say Tuesday whether the federal aid budget will be increased again this year. It has doubled since 2005 as part of a Conservative election promise that ends this year, but further increases could be jeopardized by the government's determination to balance its books.

"That discussion will be part of the budgetary discussion," Ms. Oda said of the possibility of expanding the aid budget.

Ms. Oda confirmed the commitment to Haiti is "big," although the size and scope of Canada's contribution has yet to be determined. Some observers have pegged Haiti's needs at $10-billion, and Canada, as a leader in the effort, would be expected to contribute a sizable chunk of that.

As for maternal and child health care, Ms. Oda said the government will first consult with aid organizations, "then we will look at the fiscal resources required to do that."

Child health was key to the United Nations Millennium goals, development objectives set for 2015, but little progress has been made.

Ms. Oda said Canada will try to mobilize efforts from G8 governments and aid agencies to address the problem by 2015, noting that 500,000 women die in childbirth every year and nine million children die before age five.

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"We believe by focusing and putting all of our energies together that we will be able to look at 2015 and see results," Ms. Oda said.

Kevin Gaudet, the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said he believes it is incumbent upon governments to explain, when they make announcements, how much projects will cost and the source of the money.

"There could be answers to those questions," Mr. Gaudet said. "It is possible that the Haiti money comes out of the CIDA [Canadian International Development Agency]envelope and gets reallocated from existing projects. I don't know if that is the case, but I guess those who are all receiving CIDA funds would probably want an answer to that question."

As president of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, which represents about 100 Canadian aid groups, Gerry Barr knows a lot of those funding recipients.

He said the March budget will be telling, since a conference on Haitian development is scheduled for later that month at which countries will likely be asked to make financial pledges. That money will have to be included in the budget, as will cash for the G-8 commitment, Mr. Barr said.

Robert Fox, the executive director of Oxfam Canada, said his group has many questions and "no clarity" about the federal plans for funding international development.

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Oxfam, like the other aid organizations, is anxiously waiting to learn whether the increases of past years will continue.

In this time of fiscal constraint, there are those who will point out that spending on international assistance has grown more rapidly than spending in other areas, Mr. Fox said.

"There will be voices around the cabinet table," he said, "that will argue that now is not the time to be increasing aid when in fact we are looking at making cuts to programs that you actually see at the retail level in Moose Jaw and Chicoutimi and across the country."

And, if Haiti is going to be consuming a bigger portion of the CIDA budget, what is the implication for other parts of the aid program, Mr. Fox asked. "What does that mean for our commitment to Africa and elsewhere in the Americas?"

With a report from Campbell Clark

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