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International Development Should Not Happen Behind Closed Doors

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When Parliament reconvenes on October 16, all eyes will be on Stephen Harper's "new" agenda as articulated in the Speech from the Throne. What role will international development play in this speech -- and will it matter? I believe that the most important decisions on the international development agenda continue to be made quietly and behind closed doors, with no public scrutiny.

Since last spring, we have had no updates from the Conservatives on the merger of the former Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. When the House returns in mid-October, I intend to introduce a motion in the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, asking the government for an update on the merger process.

Under Harper, Canada's approach to international development has shifted away from our legally-mandated requirement to focus on poverty reduction, take into account the perspectives of the poor, and be consistent with international human rights standards.

We all know that the government's new public focus is on private sector partnerships, especially those with the Canadian extractive sector. The private sector can contribute to international development, but we are deeply concerned by the approach the Conservative government is taking.

New International Development Minister Christian Paradis recently held extractive sector consultations in Montreal, but doesn't seem ready to do the same with other civil society partners, including NGOs. Further, consultations with extractives would be more appropriately handled by the International Trade Minister, who, unlike Minister Paradis, is tasked with promoting access to foreign markets. The government's new private sector focus has been repeatedly announced with much fanfare, but how this approach conforms to the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act is unclear.

What we do know is that while the Harper government celebrates their focus on the private sector, Canada's once-successful development programs are suffering -- and in some cases, have been cancelled altogether.

The Conservatives will likely eliminate the International Youth Internship Program as well as the International Aboriginal Youth Internship program. It is shocking that a government purporting to be focused on children and youth is shutting down its most successful programs which enable young Canadians to gain skills and international development experience.

To date, there has been no call for proposals for the Volunteer Cooperation Program, which runs in five-year cycles with the most recent set to expire in March 2014. This has led Oxfam to close three offices and other volunteer organizations are bringing their volunteers home due to no new funding.

Along the same lines CIDA's Public Engagement Funds program has not offered any new funding since 2012, leading several NGOs to express their concern to me that their ability to communicate with the Canadian public is now seriously limited. Canadians benefit from the chance to learn about the value of international development and what their contributions are achieving abroad.

Equally important, the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has asked for $15 billion in contributions this year, which would allow them to achieve 80 per cent coverage in target countries, finally enabling us to manage the spread of these diseases. We are at a turning point and, in response to the Global Fund's appeal, several of our allies, including the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and Nordic countries have all announced increases in their contributions in advance of the December pledging conference. But there has been no announcement from the Canadian government about a pledge to the Global Fund. In July I asked the government to contribute its fair share, or five per cent of the total, but we have yet to receive any acknowledgement from them.

As this is all happening, Canadians still don't know how much money was left unspent at CIDA in 2012-2013. We know that it could be upwards of $300 million -- and this seems to be a deliberate tactic used by the Conservatives to cut international development funding through the back door. We should find out just how bad the situation is when the Public Accounts are tabled by the end of October.

Canadians deserve to know about these changes that are made without any announcements, including the closing of several important programs. The lack of transparency from the Conservatives seems to be an indication of arbitrary, partisan and ideological decision-making.

This fall, while we look to see what the Conservative government publicly celebrates, it is worth considering what they are doing to dismantle Canada's traditional international development priorities behind the scenes.