"In actual fact, the CIDA budget has not been cut. We've just been more selective, if you will, in how we spend Canadian taxpayers' generosity," Julian Fantino told reporters on a conference call from Burkina Faso, in West Africa.
The federal budget tabled by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in April called for almost $380 million, or 7.5 per cent, to be cut from the Canadian International Development Agency, which is Fantino's department.
The cut surprised aid groups that were already disappointed by the fact that the government had pledged to freeze aid spending until 2015 as a deficit-fighting measure.
Fantino made his comment when he was announcing a renewed plea for Canadians to do more to help drought-stricken residents of Africa's Sahel belt.
The government launched the public appeal on Aug. 7, by contributing $10 million, bringing its total contribution to the crisis to $57 million. The government pledged to match all public donations to aid agencies made by Sept. 30.
But so far, only $1.8 million in donations from private citizens has been raised.
"As much as every nickel is appreciated, it really is underwhelming when one relates that to the tremendous need and the challenges faced here on the ground," Fantino said.
Burkina Faso is also coping with an influx of 250,000 refugees from neighbouring Mali, where Islamist forces have taken over the northern part of the country.
After touring a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, Fantino said he saw refugees living without basic necessities, but who still had hope.
Fantino was asked in the conference call with reporters afterwards whether what he saw might lead him to conclude the CIDA budget shouldn't be cut.
That's when he said that it had not, in fact, been cut.
Fantino did not back down from that assertion in a follow-up question when he was asked whether he might be willing to persuade Flaherty to restore some CIDA funding in next year's budget.
"I can't speak to what going to happen next year. But the one thing that Canadians can be absolutely assured of is we always said that we will continue to meet our humanitarian obligations around the world," Fantino said.
"One of the things that I think we all need to realize is that Canada is in fact doing the best job possible in these circumstances," he added later.
"I think we can quibble all we want about budget's up and budget's down, the reality is that CIDA is funded to the degree that it is. We are making the best of the situation."
Fantino said he was imploring Canadians to join with the government and development agencies to contribute more to the Sahel crisis.
Stephanie Rea, Fantino's spokeswoman, contacted The Canadian Press after the conference call to clarify her minister's remarks.
While she agreed that CIDA's overall budget had in fact been cut, she said Fantino was referring to the portion of his budget that dealt with "humanitarian assistance."
"Our budget measures protected all of our humanitarian dollars," said Rea.
She was unable to provide specific figures as of Tuesday evening.
"We're not going to turn our backs on anybody in a humanitarian situation. The Sahel is a good example. East Africa last year, the flooding in the Philippines — these are humanitarian, not development issues. So we will provide food and water and medical assistance in humanitarian situations."
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