Justin Trudeau had to apologize for good reason

The Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau, and his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, meet with his Highness the Aga Khan at the new Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa in 2015. Photo: liberal.ca

The fuss and bother about the prime minister vacationing on the Aga Khan's private island is understandable, but maybe not for the reasons most people think.

The issue here is not one of the prime minister hobnobbing with the affluent and the famous. The fact of Justin Trudeau hanging out with the über-rich might irk voters who get to vacation in their living rooms and who spend their holidays shovelling snow, not frolicking on the beach. But it is not an ethical or public policy problem.

The real issue is one of possible favouritism for an organization that has a transactional, and not merely friendly, relationship with the Government of Canada

A respected NGO that gets Canadian government dollars

The Aga Khan himself does not do business with Canada. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) does. It functions, in the Canadian context, as a non- governmental organization (NGO), receiving Government of Canada funding to provide services in the developing world.

In that sense, the AKDN is similar to NGOs such as Cuso International, Engineers Without Borders, Oxfam-Canada, Canada World Youth and many others. The Canadian International Development Agency, which is now housed in Global Affairs, has a large partnership branch that works collaboratively with these NGOs. This large family of what we often call civil society entities delivers a big piece of Canada's international cooperation program.

The AKDN is highly respected. It is non-partisan and non-sectarian and works in crucial fields such as health, industrial development, education, humanitarian assistance and financial inclusion. It has a somewhat extensive reach which includes parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia; but it is absent from large parts of the world. For instance, it has no programs in such populous and important countries as Nigeria, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia. And it is completely absent from all of Latin America and the Caribbean, which are key areas for Canadian assistance given that they are in our immediate neighbourhood.

Overall, though, the AKDN makes a valuable and, in some respects, nearly unique contribution, notably in micro-finance and such less-explored fields as music and architecture. Those who have witnessed the AKDN's activities on the ground report that it gets good results, and that is what really counts. The Aga Khan himself derives no profit from AKDN's work. All of the money invested in AKDN goes into actual development projects.

Why then is it problematic for the prime minister to accept the gift of a free vacation from the Aga Khan?

There are two reasons.

The first is the dangerous precedent such a gift sets. Let's say the Ethics Commissioner had decided to give her blessing to this bit of largesse from the Aga Khan. What would she say if an industrial tycoon who does business with the Canadian government -- say someone in construction or advertising -- offered a similar gift?

The second reason is the fact that even if the work of international cooperation NGOs is not for profit, those organizations are in competition for scarce Canadian government dollars. The AKDN might be an effective organization, with a solid track record of success; but it is not the only one.

The prime minister does not personally decide which NGOs will receive coveted Government of Canada contribution agreements; public servants make that call. But if those officials have the impression the PM favours one NGO over the others, it could influence their decisions.

It is, truth to tell, impossible to entirely evacuate politics from Government of Canada funding decisions.

When Harper ran the show, he was pretty overt about the political side of things. His minister of international development capriciously countermanded a public service decision to fund the United Church-affiliated organization KAIROS, because of something somebody associated with the church had said about Israel. 

The fact that KAIROS did excellent and effective work in an area the government had identified as a priority -- women and girls -- did not spare it from the Conservatives' vindictiveness. One of Harper's senior ministers, Jason Kenney, even bragged about the petty political motive for the KAIROS decision.

Other NGOs do not have the capacity to entertain the PM in style

The current government is more benign than its immediate predecessor. But favouritism is never an acceptable basis for funding decisions, even when it favours good guys.

Sometimes one can unfairly favour one good guy over another.  The Aga Khan's organization is large, international and well financed. In Canada, it leverages that position of privilege to get Canadian funding. There is nothing wrong with that, and, in a way, it benefits Canada.

However, there is no other person associated with any other international cooperation NGOs who could offer a free lavish vacation to a Canadian elected official, let alone the prime minister.

Many Canadian NGOs are small and have little money, but are nonetheless effective. Inter Pares and USC-Canada are two such organizations. Both have minimal overhead and highly effective, grassroots focused programs in some of the world's poorest countries.

USC-Canada's Seeds for Survival program, to cite just one example, works with farming communities in 12 countries, including Ethiopia and Mali, two of the world's poorest. Some of the key principles that guide Seeds for Survival's work are that farmers are knowledgeable, traditional local crop varieties are affordable and often nutritionally superior, and conservation through use and plant selection is vital to protecting seed security.  

Those are not principles that would warm the hearts of Monsanto or other agri-business executives. But they do guide a program of activities that has yielded strong proven results over a number of years.

The fact that USC-Canada's chief executive does not have a private island to which she could invite the prime minister and his family should not be a detriment to her organization getting the funding it has earned.

That's why the prime minister had to apologize for his 2016 family Christmas vacation.

 Photo: liberal.ca

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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