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Does the Canadian foreign affairs apparatus allow room for dissent?

Is the The Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) really an independent voice or cheerleaders pretending to be independent of the government that funds them? Given the title this year's CCIC conference organizers chose -- "Is Canada Back: Delivering on Good Intentions?" -- one would guess the latter. But, an independent researcher keeps an open mind.

Publicity for the mid-September conference organized by the CCIC and the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development (CASID) notes: "Inspired by Justin Trudeau's 2015 proclamation 'Canada is Back', we are presenting panels that illustrate or challenge Canada's role in global leadership. Are we doing all that we could be doing in the world?"

Formulating the question this way seems like a sop to the government that provides their funding. Conference organizers must be aware of the Trudeau government's arms sales to Saudi Arabia's monarchy, backing for brutal mining companies, NATO deployments, antagonism towards Palestinian rights, efforts to topple the Venezuelan government, failure to end Canada's 'low level war' on Iran, refusal to support nuclear weapons controls, and promotion of military spending. 

The reality is that while the two conference sponsors are supported by some labour unions, leftist groups, and internationalist-minded young people, they are heavily dependent on and tied to Canada's official foreign policy apparatus.

To understand government influence over the NGO and development studies swamp requires wading through acronym-filled historical waters. An umbrella group representing dozens of major development NGOs, the CCIC was created 50 years ago with financing from the Canadian International Development Agency, CIDA, which is now part of Global Affairs Canada. The aid agency expected it to coordinate relations with the growing NGO network and build domestic political support for the aid program. While it has challenged government policy on occasion, the CCIC is highly dependent on government funds. Shortly after it publicly complained the government created a "chill" in the NGO community by adopting "the politics of punishment … towards those whose public views run at cross purposes to the government," the CCIC's $1.7 million CIDA grant was cut in 2012. This move forced CCIC to lay off two thirds of its staff.

CASID and international development studies programs more generally have received significant support from CIDA and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), a Crown Corporation. In 2015, CASID's president thanked "IDRC for its support of CASID over the past decade and more." As part of one contract, IDRC gave CASID $450,000 between 2012 and 2015.

In the mid-1990s, IDRC sponsored an initiative to enhance university undergraduate international development programs. This led to the creation of the Canadian Consortium for University Programs in International Development Studies (CCUPIDS), which has as its primary objective to "strengthen the position of international development studies." CIDA also funds CCUPIDS conferences.

CCUPIDS is a branch of CASID, which publishes the Canadian Journal of Development Studies. In the introduction to the Journal's special issue on Canadian universities and development, editors Leonora Angeles and Peter Boothroyd write, "thanks mostly to grant funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the International Development Research Council (IDRC), Canadian academics have been able to engage intensively in development work for over three decades."

CIDA and IDRC also directly fund international development studies initiatives. In the late 1960s, CIDA sponsored a study with the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) to investigate what schools offered development studies courses. Early on, the IRDC "began funding Canadian area and development studies associations, their conferences, journals, and research -- gathering and communication activities." The Canadian Association of African Studies, Canadian Association of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Canadian Asian Studies Association and Canadian Association of Studies in International Development all "received substantial core funding from IDRC, intermittently in the 1970s and 1980s, and continuously since 1990."

Significant sums of aid money continue to flow to international development studies programs. The McGill Institute for the Study of International Development lists a dozen contracts worth more than $600,000 from CIDA, as well as $400,000 in contracts from IDRC and Foreign Affairs Canada. An NGO and CIDA training ground, programs like McGill's often include internships and volunteer opportunities funded by development aid. The Students for Development Internship is "offered through the AUCC and CIDA, and students are funded to work for up to four months with an NGO anywhere in the world." Queen's Global Development Studies' exchange program, for instance, received $270,000 from CIDA in 2011.

Individuals who participated in aid agency funded projects, notably the government-backed Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO), spurred or launched international development studies programs. In Canada's Global Villagers: CUSO in Development, 1961-86, Ruth Compton Brouwer writes, "CUSO staff and RV's [returned volunteers] contributed substantially to the establishment of university-level courses and programs related to global issues and the centres for international education and development studies. These are now such ordinary features of Canadian universities that it is difficult to conceive of how novel they were when they began in the 1960s."

Led by CUSO's former West Africa Coordinator Don Simpson, University of Western Ontario opened an international education department in 1969, which "operated in collaboration with CIDA." Similarly, "valued friends of CUSO" instigated development studies programming at the universities of Ottawa and Toronto.

Canadian aid also directly shapes international development studies research. Half of the respondents to a 2002 survey of 64 scholars reported that CIDA's six development priorities influenced their research focus. A professor or student who aligns their pursuits with those of the aid agency or IDRC is more likely to find funding or a fellowship. And IDRC/Global Affairs Canada's priorities don't include challenging Canadian foreign policy.

Given the sponsors ties to the foreign policy apparatus, it is likely that the September conference will offer little more than cheerleading for the Trudeau Liberals' foreign policy. Still, one can't be certain and, having been invited by a Facebook friend to attend, I emailed the conference organizers to ask if they would allow me to present a critical look at Trudeau's foreign policy. Thus far they have not accepted my offer.

If you agree that answering the question "Are we doing all that we could be doing in the world?" requires some critical voices, please email (events@ccic.ca) and ask them to allow Yves Engler to speak on Justin Trudeau's foreign policy at your upcoming conference.

I love a good debate, and maybe both sides will learn something new.

Image: SimonP/Wikimedia Commons

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