Canada to slash foreign aid to 12 poor countries

From the Ottawa Citizen

By Lee Berthiaume, Postmedia News April 12, 2012

OTTAWA — Twelve of the world's poorest countries — including Afghanistan, Pakistan and seven nations in Africa — are going to be hit as the Conservative government looks to slash $377 million in foreign aid over the next three years, Postmedia News has learned.

The exact impact on each country is unclear, but the cuts are expected to prompt anger and frustration from the affected countries, which rely on international assistance to provide food and other services to millions of citizens. A number had already seen major reductions three years ago.

A source within the Canadian International Development Agency said Benin, Niger, Cambodia, China, Nepal, Rwanda, Zambia and Zimbabwe are expected to lose virtually all Canadian aid funding.

At the same time, the source said, reductions are planned for five major aid recipients: Afghanistan, Bolivia, Mozambique, Pakistan and Tanzania.

CIDA officials refused to comment on the cuts Thursday, saying Canadians, aid groups and affected countries will be told in the coming weeks how the changes will impact them.

The revelation comes a day after one-quarter of CIDA's 2,000 employees were told that their jobs were on the line, with 300 expected to be laid off.

Until recently, Afghanistan was the largest recipient of Canadian aid in the world, receiving more than $200 million per year by 2011. This money was spent on things such as building and repairing schools, training Afghan civil servants and providing polio vaccines.

The decision to cut assistance to Afghanistan as well as to Pakistan will be viewed as another sign of Canada's waning interest in the volatile Central Asian region in advance of a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014.

A Pakistani diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the high commission in Ottawa had heard rumours CIDA was looking to pare back assistance to the Asian nation, which totalled $143.6 million last year. However, the diplomat said no confirmation had been received as of Thursday.

Benin, Niger, Cambodia, Rwanda and Zambia, meanwhile, were already downgraded as aid partners when the Conservative government shook up CIDA in February 2009.

Following widespread criticism, CIDA Minister Bev Oda sought to reassure those nations that were impacted, some of which only learned of the change through the media, that they could still receive Canadian assistance.

"No countries will be dropped if they have needs and we will respond appropriately," she said at the time. "We're not abandoning countries. If there are needs, we will assess the best way to meet those needs."

A Rwandan diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said there had been reports from CIDA staff that fresh cuts were coming down the pipeline, but the embassy also has not yet received any official notice.

The diplomat said there would be impacts if Canada were to end all assistance to Rwanda, but refused to speculate on the extent to which the African nation would be affected until details were made available.

Bolivia, Mozambique and Tanzania — all of which are home to significant Canadian mining and energy interests — had been identified as so-called CIDA "countries of focus," which meant they were among a list of 20 nations receiving the brunt of Canadian assistance.

Their inclusion is a surprise, particularly Tanzania, which has been an important ally of Canada in the eastern part of Africa and is home to large investments by Barrick Gold and other companies.

Lucien Bradet, president of the Canadian Council on Africa, said relations between the Conservative government and African nations had been improving recently after years of tension over budget cuts and apparent disinterest.

But the CIDA cuts, he said, will reopen old wounds and make the government's goal of doing more business with the continent more difficult.

Meanwhile, a number of critics have been calling for CIDA to end its foreign aid to China, which has been focused on promoting human rights and environmental protection.

The critics have questioned why Canada continues to give nearly $30 million in assistance to China when it is the world's second-largest economy.

The Conservative government's decision to slash Canadian foreign aid levels over the next three years has been criticized by development group and opposition parties, who note the United Kingdom has refrained from doing the same, despite major budget cuts.

Even though Canadian foreign aid levels are at an all-time high, the country has lagged near the back of the pack when it comes to the amount of international assistance being given as a percentage of the gross national income, which is the internationally recognized measurement.

The agreed target is 0.7 per cent of GNI, but Canada has hovered around less than half that number, and is expected to tumble to 0.24 per cent once all the cuts are implemented by 2014-15, according to the Canadian Council on International Co-operation.

A CCIC analysis expects CIDA staff, who have already suffered from low morale following numerous changes to the aid agency's structure, to suffer a disproportionately heavy blow from the budget cuts as the government searches for a 7.5 per cent reduction to Canada's $5-billion aid budget.

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