Human Rights Gone Wrong

Why the Federal Government Mysteriously Cut Funding to an NGO

Colombia’s victims of war, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s rape victims, those displaced by climate change in Guatemala, and the people of Sudan’s new south are some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Colombia’s victims of war, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s rape victims, those displaced by climate change in Guatemala, and the people of Sudan’s new south are some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

But they have something else in common: only days into the Canadian federal election campaign, it’s already clear that they’ll be some of the biggest losers.

On March 25, the Conservative government fell in a vote of non-confidence over its lack of transparency on spending for F-35 fighter jets, new prisons and details on corporate tax cuts.

Many may not realize that the non-confidence vote could have just as easily been tied to Minister of International Cooperation Bev Oda and Kairos, the Christian aid organization that supports justice initiatives for vulnerable groups in the developing world.

The word “not” was at the centre of the controversy.

In late 2009, those three letters were scrawled in upper case onto a document signed by Minister Oda. The document was intended to approve $7-million in funding for Kairos over the 2009-13 period from Canada’s international aid agency, but instead denied support to Kairos and their global partners.

Oda, who made the decision to deny the funding, was within her rights as minister. The problem is that last November she told a House of Commons committee, under oath, that she didn’t know who had done it. Only after months of pressure and largely avoided questioning did Oda admit she was responsible for the “not” felt around the developing world, and only then did she name the staffer who wrote it.

Be it misleading or obstructing, in Parliament they call it contempt.

But the big questions remain: why was the funding denied and what does it mean?

Gimme one reason

John Lewis, Human Rights Coordinator at Kairos, said there has been all kinds of speculation, and that not even Kairos knows why the funding was cut.

“We never heard directly from the government,” he said.

So far each theory as to why the money was taken away has been debunked.

In 2009, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney claimed Kairos was anti-semitic and that they were leaders in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. This was shown to be false and the government retracted the statement.

Later, the Canadian International Development Agency said the Kairos funding application no longer fit the development priorities of the agency. In a written statement, CIDA said the new priorities were announced by Minister Oda in May 2009, though they were not introduced until September. They center on food security, children and youth and sustainable economic growth.

The Kairos proposal, however, was submitted seven months earlier in March and fit CIDA’s priorities at the time.

Lewis said CIDA did not tell Kairos about the new priorities.

“We were not given a chance to alter our proposal, as other groups were given,” he said. He added that normally there is a negotiation between the applicant and the funding agency, which did not take place in this case.

Among the many that have come out in support of Kairos across Canada, one individual has been particularly vocal.

“I think it was an erroneous decision, an ill-informed decision and just an unwise decision,” said Jim Cooney, a retired executive with gold mining company Placer Dome. He wrote an open letter to the Ottawa Citizen in December 2009, and again this February, when the controversy resurfaced.

Cooney’s outspoken support is notable because Kairos backs several groups that resist the activities of Canadian mining companies abroad. “I felt that they were doing very useful work in developing countries,” said Cooney.

“[Kairos was] helping to strengthen the ability of local community organizations and NGOs to articulate strongly and coherently their concerns in terms of human rights, environmental impacts and indigenous peoples impacts.”

Kairos has been critical of Canadian mining companies in developing nations like Ecuador, Guatemala and the Philippines, but has also criticized Alberta’s oil sands in an effort to open dialogue on improving corporate responsibility and accountability.

“Kairos was doing something that was very beneficial in the long run to the industry,” said Cooney.
“Some companies don’t like being criticized. Nobody likes being criticized, but criticism makes you think and causes you to engage and see if you can find some common ground.”

Hurting the helpless

Kairos, Greek for “opportune moment,” receives funding from Canadian church organizations and private donors for some of its work. But the CIDA funding represents about 40 per cent of their total revenue and over 80 per cent of this goes to its global partners program, especially in countries of concern, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where an epidemic of rape is taking place.

“We’ve been trying to develop a legal clinic with our partners there for women victims of gender-based violence to at least begin to try and break the 100 per cent impunity of perpetrators and hold them to account,” said Lewis.

Lewis said the funding loss means an immediate drop in money for organizations that are working in very conflicted parts of the world to defend the rights of citizens.

“We’re stepping up fundraising efforts across the country to support this work, but we can’t turn on a dime and there’s no easy replacement for public funding to do this crucial work,” he said.

In March 2010, Kairos submitted a new application addressing CIDA’s new priorities. A statement on the Kairos website reads: “[The application] is still before CIDA and we hope it will be reviewed on its merits.”

Hopes and merit aside, the weekend’s election announcement is another major roadblock for Kairos.

Large funding decisions are unlikely to be made before a new government is formed. Even in the best-case scenario, it’s the people Kairos supports around the world who will suffer.

This article originally appeared in The Link Volume 31, Issue 28, published March 29, 2011.

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