March 29, 2012

Who will be the biggest losers from this budget? A question of priorities

This week’s Federal budget is foreboding death by a thousand (budget) cuts.  And though undoubtedly a wide range of government programs and agencies will feel the brunt of the axe, this government’s priorities will be reflected in who benefits from the next budget  and who and what gets slashed.

The less privileged amongst us in Canada are sure to feel the repercussions of a restrained budget; but the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the world’s poor could also lose a lot in this budget unless the government gets its priorities right.

On the domestic front, the landscape looks dire. The Feds have already announced a cap to future health-care transfers, a bitter pill to Provincial Governments who are already struggling to juggle their own deficits. Reforms to the eligibility criteria for Old Age Security, which will eventually have a huge impact on Canada’s growing number of seniors, are expected. And in an effort to keep jobs, many of the unions have had to negotiate away severance pay packages. But support for AFN Chief Atleo’s initiative around First Nations’ education, so urgently needed to address a pressing issue in today’s Canada, may or may not get the breath of life it so desperately needs.

On the international development front, after having flat-lined Canada’s international assistance envelope (essentially our foreign aid) at $5 billion in Budget 2010 , the government is now rumoured to have asked CIDA this year to cut its budget by 7 percent – potentially impacting both its overseas programs and operational budget.  In terms of programs alone, this could mean that Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) envelope would drop from $5.24 billion in 2010-11, to as low as $4.9 billion by 2012-13. 

This approximately $340 million decline is greater than CIDA pulling all of its funding for basic education programs ($250 million) and for water and sanitation ($70 million). Or for funding for the Global Fund to fight HIV AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria ($180 million), for the World Food Programme ($70 million) and for UNICEF ($70 million). Those specific programs may not get cut, but which will?

If Ottawa were simply to buy one or two less of the 65 F-35 jets that Defence is proposing to purchase, CIDA could maintain its budget at current levels, and even increase it slightly. Isn’t it important to avoid seeing the largest burden fall on those who can least afford to shoulder it – the world’s poor?

And in terms of operational budget, CIDA, like all government agencies, has had to prepare 5 to 10 percent budget cut scenarios – this is on top of the cuts that many agencies have already undergone in recent months and years. On the surface, standard cuts across government departments seem fair. But in reality, they are likely to have a disproportionate impact on smaller government agencies, like CIDA. In the short term, staff and programmes will be lost. But dig deeper and these cuts will also substantially undermine the minimal institutional capacity and knowledge that CIDA requires to ensure that Canada continues to deliver quality programs overseas.

This is in addition to the already substantial losses to the institutional capacity and knowledge of Canadian international development organizations. Changes in the way civil society groups receive CIDA funding have resulted in many Canadian organizations – and their partner organizations in developing countries – seeing long term predictable funding suddenly run dry. Decades old organizations, with impeccable records and proven results, are contemplating shutting down their programs and laying off their staff as a result. And this on top of previous politically-motivated cuts to women’s organizations, environmental groups and faith-based organizations across Canadian civil society.

From a global perspective, this level of cuts would place Canada at the tail end of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s 22 official donors with respect to percentage of Gross National Income (GNI) going to development assistance, just as the world heads into the final stretch towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.

In contrast, Prime Minister Harper’s counterpart in the UK, David Cameron, when faced with the worst austerity measures since World War II, opted to ring fence Britain’s aid budget. When he spoke before the Canadian parliament last September, Prime Minister Cameron insisted he was proud that the UK would not "balance its books on the back of the poorest", and warned that failing to support countries at the forefront of the Arab Spring would give "oxygen" to extremists. From his perspective, not only does investing in development “save lives”, but “it is the right thing to do, in moral terms, and profoundly in our national interest. If we invest in countries before they become broken, we might not end up spending so much on the problems that result.”

Simply put, faced with a deficit, the Canadian Government may feel it cannot invest in overseas development. But actually it cannot afford not to do so. If we as a country get our priorities right, we will not balance our budget on the fate of those most in need, in Canada or abroad.

Julia Sanchez is President and CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC), a coalition of approximately 100 non-profit organizations that seek to end global poverty. This Op Ed was first published in March 28 edition of Embassy.

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