Pulling the Plug: Canadians Have Long Been Exemplary Donors, the Scandinavians of North America. Mark Fried Watches as the Government Changes Course and Aims to Hit Rock Bottom

By Fried, Mark | New Internationalist, November 1996 | Go to article overview

Pulling the Plug: Canadians Have Long Been Exemplary Donors, the Scandinavians of North America. Mark Fried Watches as the Government Changes Course and Aims to Hit Rock Bottom


Fried, Mark, New Internationalist


Pulling the plug

ON 19 August last year, deep in Guyana's tropical rainforest, an earth dam collapsed at the Omai gold mine operated by a Canadian company, Cambior. Several hundred - million gallons of cyanide - laced water poured from a tailings pond into the mighty Essequibo River, the source of most of the country's drinking water and site of its principal fishery. It was Guyana's worst public - health disaster and one that was entirely predictable. In fact, Guyanese activists had predicted it five months earlier.

The Canadian High Commission in Georgetown was quick off the mark with a flurry of public - relations manoeuvres that included flying in government water - quality specialists from Ottawa. In Canada the story lasted two days before being relegated to the inside of the business pages. But in the sudden rush of attention, reporters uncovered a curious fact: the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) had picked up the tab for training Omai's workers.

Here is the sort of revealing detail journalists seek: precious aid dollars used to subsidize the profits of a predatory corporation. Promotion of mining technology is a key plank in Ottawa's export - oriented economic strategy; but why would Canada, with its enviable reputation as the enlightened 'Scandinavia of North America', be a party to such a venture?

Pierre Pettigrew shed some light on this question when he addressed parliamentarians for the first time on 13 June. Pettigrew is Canada's minister for international co - operation, a cabinet - level post created in January in a move that development workers hope will raise the profile of the aid portfolio. A long - time Liberal Party advisor plucked out of a Montreal investment firm, Pettigrew made an impassioned pitch for the generous internationalist spirit that has guided Canadian policy toward the developing world since 1969. That was the year Prime Minister Lester Pearson set the UN - sanctioned goal for wealthy countries of contributing 0.7 per cent of their GNP to development assistance.

'Those of us who are turning inwards,' Pettigrew warned, 'who want Canada to stop helping others, forget that our prosperity depends on a stable international environment ... The best way to jeopardize all that we have is to abandon the rest of the world to its fate.' Then came the line reporters were waiting for: aid would not be exempt from 'contributing to the Government's deficit - reduction efforts'. Over the coming two years, he said, CIDA would lose an additional 11.5 per cent from its budget, after suffering a 15.5 per cent cut in 1995. By 1998 total aid spending would be a full 45 per cent below the level of 1991. Pearson's 0.7 - per - cent benchmark is receding so far into the distance it seems ludicrous: in 1998 Canada will contribute 0.24 per cent of GNP to development assistance, its puniest effort since 1965.

Pettigrew did not dwell on the numbers. He pointed to the improved economies of developing countries, improvements Canadian aid helped create - and the opportunities this presents for Canadian business. He echoed the Government's 1995 white paper, Canada in the World, which names 'the promotion of prosperity and employment' in Canada as the first objective for Canadian foreign policy, and justifies foreign assistance because 'it connects the Canadian economy to some of the fastest - growing markets of the world'.

Pettigrew praised the high percentage of Canadian aid spent in Canada - nearly 70 cents in the dollar - boasted that 85 per cent of this year's aid programmes will be delivered by private firms, and cited the profitable spin - offs for the private sector from development projects. In this regard, he mentioned the Montreal - based Bombardier Inc which participated in a CIDA - funded programme to train Romanian officials to privatize state enterprises, and then won a contract to sell aircraft to the privatized companies.

Business - promotion justifications for aid are a logical answer to attacks from the deficit hawks. …

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