John McKay

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John McKay

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Scarborough-Guildwood

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CIDA Must Now Tackle Poverty as Better Aid Bill Passes

Michelle Collins, Embassy News, May 14, 2008
Link: CIDA Must Now Tackle Poverty as Better Aid Bill Passes

Approval greeted with elation and relief, though attention now turns to stagnant aid levels

It may have been a quiet Friday in Parliament last week, but the elation and relief emanating from the few souls in attendance filled the halls with celebration after bill C-293, the so-called Better Aid Bill, was unanimously approved.

The excitement had been building for more than three years among parliamentarians, civil society organizations and others who wanted legislation over how Canadian aid money—now at $4.4 billion annually—can be used.

As parliamentarians emerged from the House of Commons, Canadian Council of International Co-operation executive director Gerry Barr greeted Conservative MP Ted Menzies with a hug and the national campaign co-ordinator for Make Poverty History, Dennis Howlett, happily declared his intent to email all of the campaign’s supporters with the good news.

Not 24 hours later, another scene of congratulations played out as Liberal MP John McKay, the member who introduced the bill two years ago, was greeted with a standing ovation as he arrived at a breakfast in his Scarborough East riding.

The Better Aid Bill mandates that Canadian aid money be used specifically on poverty reduction programs. It also puts international human rights standards at the forefront and aims to increase transparency and accountability of aid spending to the public.

Government departments will have to report annually on how aid money was spent, and the ministers of CIDA, finance and foreign affairs will be responsible for consulting with those using the aid money, such as Canadian aid groups, international agencies and governments of the recipient countries.

“Two years of slugging it out ends in a very happy situation,” Mr. McKay said of the long process, adding that the bill is an important first step to get CIDA’s programs focused in the right direction.

The intent at the heart of the bill has been floated around Parliament since 2005, when all opposition leaders, including Stephen Harper, called on prime minister Paul Martin’s government to introduce legislation on Canada’s aid money.

Introduced in 2006, it bounced around the Commons’ foreign affairs committee and back to the House under a new Conservative government before passing in the House of Commons, despite Conservative opposition, in March 2007. It was then held up for review in the Senate for more than a year before being approved and going back to Parliament this month, with four amendments added.

Included in the amendments were that the bill comply with the guidelines of the 2005 Paris Declaration, an international agreement on the methods of delivering aid. Also, technical changes around disclosure requirements on Canadian positions on World Bank and International Monetary Fund issues were made.

Mr. McKay said the amendments, in his view, were not substantial and he was happy to accept them for the bill to receive unanimous support.

“I hope at the end of the day, Canada will become a world-renowned specialist in poverty alleviation,” Mr. McKay said. “I think that even the Conservatives saw that the principle that was expressed in the bill was a good principle that our official development assistance through CIDA and others is in desperate need of focus.”

The unanimous support for the legislation marks a pivotal moment in Canada’s history as a donor country, said Mr. Barr, who has long held aspirations for such legislation and has been lobbying MPs for years to put one down on paper.

Because Canadian aid has been subject to trends, and CIDA ministers rotate fairly often, with each bringing in new plans and priorities, it is extremely beneficial to have a single narrative arc for the spending, he said.

“Parliament has become a sort of toxic pool of partisanship, [but] to have a moment of unanimous decision in this context is counter-intuitive and very powerful,” Mr. Barr said. “It gives durability and sustainability to this act, because any government that is elected will rightfully be able to say, ‘This is our bill.'”

President and CEO of World Vision Canada Dave Toycen said the unanimous support from parliamentarians and senators sends a powerful message.

“It’s positive when our government leaders come together and agree on legislation that’s dealing with the poorest and most neglected people on earth, and that’s making a statement,” Mr. Toycen said. “We’re a child-focused organization, so we welcome the fact that this requires Canada to deliver aid in line with international human rights and, of course, that includes the rights of children,”

Executive director of Oxfam Canada Robert Fox said the passing of this legislation is important because there are so many competing demands and interests within Canada’s aid policy.

“People often take it for granted that our aid program has as its primary priority eliminating poverty and addressing human rights,” Mr. Fox said. “This legislation puts the onus on the government to demonstrate that our aid program is doing what Canadians think their aid money is doing.”

Having worked on the bill since its inception when he was parliamentary secretary for the CIDA minister, Mr. Menzies told the House on Friday that he was encouraged parliamentarians were addressing a matter of serious concern to all Canadians.

“For Canadian taxpayers to understand and support Canada’s effective role in international development assistance, they need to be reassured that we are committed to using tools such as independent evaluations and objective assessments,” Mr. Menzies said.

He added that the amendments proposed by Conservative members reflected concerns they had over meeting certain regulations and to ensure that decisions about the aid money couldn’t be taken on by multinationals.

“I’m happy certainly for the mover of the bill,” Mr. Menzies said. “It’s good to see, it’s a nice feeling to have something passed unanimously.”

Not all MPs were as keen to celebrate, however.

Because this legislation creates only a framework for accountability and transparency, NDP CIDA critic Alex McDonough said the next step will be to have not just better aid, but more aid.

“I am very, very pleased for this long struggle and major piece of work by a lot of people,” Ms. McDonough said. “Now begins the job of pulling ourselves out of the basement of the developed nations.”

Although Canada was a leader in pushing donor countries to adopt 0.7 per cent of a country’s Gross National Income as the target they should allocate for official development assistance, Canada today contributes only 0.31 per cent, she said.

“We have to address the disgrace of the very, very low level to which Canadian official development assistance has fallen.”