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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Why do we fund NGOs anyway? Add to ...

How vindictive is the Harper government? So vindictive, critics say, that it cuts funding for aid agencies whose politics it doesn't like. The best known of these is Kairos, an umbrella group of leading churches that has been doing good works for years. Another is Alternatives, a Montreal-based human-rights group. Needless to say, other aid groups are mightily upset, and fear they could be next.

Until now, both of these outfits have been funded through the Canadian International Development Agency. Kairos stands to lose nearly half its funding - $7.1-million over the next few years - and Alternatives around $3-million. The minister in charge of CIDA says foreign-aid priorities have changed. But critics say the real reason is that both groups have been highly critical of Israel. Kairos supporters are especially outraged at Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who singled out the agency's position in a recent speech. They say he unjustly smeared the group as anti-Semitic. Church groups have passed resolutions "deploring" the government, and the Anglicans have been asked to lobby Parliament to get the funding back. The Toronto Star has written editorials charging that groups that don't toe the right-wing line will get their funding cut.

But the real issue isn't the Tories' vindictiveness, or whether Mr. Kenney was out of line. (In my view, he wasn't.) The real issue is why groups such as these should get any public money at all.

A couple of decades ago, it made sense to funnel some of our foreign-aid money through non-governmental organizations. Small, specialized, on-the-ground NGOs could often deliver aid more effectively than big bureaucratic governments, or so the thinking went. Most of these groups had simple objectives: emergency relief, or food, shelter and education for the poor. Church-sponsored groups were among the most efficient providers.

Since then, NGOs have multiplied like rabbits. Many have become intensely politicized. Some spend more time on advocacy work than on concrete services to those in need.

Kairos is the "social justice" arm of the more progressive, i.e., left-leaning, churches. Its aim is to promote "social change through advocacy, education and research programs in Ecological Justice, Economic Justice, Energy and Extraction, Human Rights, Just and Sustainable Livelihoods, and Indigenous Peoples." It is aligned with union and pro-Palestinian groups. In other words, it reflects a constituency known as the NDP at prayer. Last year, as part of its eco-justice program, it sent a delegation of church leaders to Fort McMurray to "explore the theological, social and ethical implications of fossil fuel extraction."

"Many of the issues we deal with are sensitive, from the point of view of the current government," executive director Mary Corkery told the Star. She insists that CIDA money has not been used for advocacy, only for purposes authorized by CIDA. She recently wrote an online account of her trip to Israel that, no surprise, was highly unflattering to Israel.

The other group, Alternatives, calls itself a political "solidarity" group. It runs "peace promotion" and "social justice" programs, one of which was an education camp in Quebec for 500 "motivated" activists from places such as Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. It is heavily engaged in anti-Israel activities, and publishes a sophomoric left-wing newspaper that would make Naomi Klein blush. For the past few years, the Canadian government has provided nearly all its funding, some $2.5-million a year. The National Post's John Ivison reported that it too has been cut off. Most Canadians would say it's about time.

I'm certainly not opposed to the existence of groups that denounce the neo-liberal agenda, run radical boot camps, declare carbon holidays in the name of God or think Israel is the worst country on Earth. I just don't think they should do it with our money. If they've got causes they believe in, good for them. Just let them pay for it themselves, like the rest of us.

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