After five years of strained relationship, the Canadian government is showing signs of willingness to restore dialogue with civil society organizations, as shown by the recent announcement of a new Civil Society Partnership Policy by international development minister Christian Paradis.
“It’s a big step, because for the past five years we were having a dialogue of the deaf,” said Gervais L’Heureux, director of Association Québécoise des Organismes de Coopération Internationale, a group of 67 Quebec-based international development organizations. “We weren’t even able to meet with high-level political leaders on matters of international development, be it with [Paradis’ predecessors] Minister Fantino or with Minister Oda.”
The policy includes a commitment to predictable and merit-based funding mechanisms, and recognizes that unsolicited proposals can help organizations plan their programming. This should come as a breath of fresh air for Canadian organizations, which have had to rely on specific calls for proposals for the past few years. General calls for proposals haven’t taken place since 2011, and many small and midsize organizations have been struggling to receive government funding ever since.
The document also introduces new tools for dialogue, including an annual meeting with CSO representatives to discuss the implementation of the policy, as well as a ministerial advisory council that will comprise representatives from civil society, the private sector and the academe, and will advise the government on matters related to development assistance.
The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development “will institutionalize regular, predictable, and transparent policy dialogue with Canadian international development and humanitarian assistance CSOs, in addition to engaging with Canadian, international and local CSOs in developing countries,” the policy states.
Praise for ‘whole process,’ but policy needs clarification
CSOs have praised the consultative process that led to the new policy, including a series of roundtables in which they took part along with Paradis and senior DFATD staff. Over the summer of 2014, organizations were also invited to submit their input on the draft document through an online public consultation.
“The policy itself is important, but it’s the whole process that has led to the policy that has been very positive and very different from anything we've had in recent years,” Julia Sanchez, president of the Canadian Council of International Cooperation, told Devex. “All the groups that participated felt that they were being heard, that their input was being seriously taken on board.”
For L’Heureux, certain aspects of the policy will nonetheless require clarification.
The document for instance notes “DFATD considers that Canadian CSOs, as independent development actors, must strive to be both politically and financially independent and seek funding from various sources.”
But L’Heureux told Devex the question of political independence has been a contentious one, as several organizations that have been critical of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government were denied funding in the past. He cited Canada’s Maternal, Newborn and Child Health initiative as an example of programming that has consistently left out organizations whose mission is not in line with the government’s stance on reproductive rights.
The AQOCI director also called for the role of CSOs in instances of conflict between local communities and private companies to be clarified, especially as Canada seeks to increase the participation of its private sector in development initiatives — the government is currently exploring the possibility of creating development finance mechanisms, and has funded pilot projects featuring partnerships between Canadian NGOs and mining companies; the role of the private sector is also mentioned several times in the new policy.
L’Heureux said that in recent years, Canadian CSOs have had to alert the government and the public on actions lead by multinationals that went against development efforts. He believes this role should instead be played by an independent entity such as an ombudsman.
“We need to be able to measure the contribution of the private sector to development objectives,” he said.
For years now, Canadian NGOs have been calling for the creation of a legislated ombudsman who would investigate and sanction Canadian extractive companies operating abroad. As part of its corporate social responsibility strategy for the extractive sector, DFATD created the Office of the Extractive Sector CSR Counselor in 2009. However the office has been criticized for its limited judicial powers and its inability to prevent parties to walk out of negotiations. What’s more, the office remained practically inactive for a year as the counselor position remained vacant until early March, when a new counselor was finally appointed.
L’Heureux told Devex the upcoming campaigns for the federal election in October will provide an opportunity for CSOs to ask political parties to position themselves on contentious issues, such as corporate social responsibility, women’s rights and climate change. Most importantly, CSOs are waiting for the government to translate the promises made in the policy into concrete actions, starting with more funding for smaller organizations.
“There’s a healthy dose of skepticism in the sector,” CCIC’s Sanchez told Devex. “The policy is quite good, and it says a lot of what we think it should say. Now the challenge is to implement it.”
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