A column in today’s Ottawa Citizen describes new levels of politicization, ineffectiveness and obfuscation at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). None of this is particularly surprising, since that agency’s misfortunes—largely due to its successive political masters—have been well-known for more than a decade. But some of the article’s criticism is misplaced.

In particular, the article quotes University of Ottawa political science professor Stephen Brown criticizing CIDA for giving $26.7 million of public funding to support four corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects in countries such as Peru, Burkina Faso and Ghana. Those funds will enable Canadian mining companies (including Rio Tinto Alcan, Barrick Gold and Iamgold) to work with Canadian NGOs (Plan Canada, World Vision Canada and World University Service Canada) to offer training and other benefits for people affected by Canadian mining projects in those countries.

Noting ominously that the projects “help highly profitable Canadian mining companies,” the article quotes Brown as saying it is “‘scandalous’ that some of the most profitable companies in Canada are, in effect, supported by foreign aid dollars to set up programs that compensate for the negative effects of mining.” The article’s author, Elizabeth Payne, then reaches the following conclusion:

In a time of shrinking foreign aid dollars, taxpayers should not be on the hook for corporate social responsibility projects. The programs might be welcome and worthwhile, but they should be paid for by the companies that are reaping the profits and getting much of the credit. CIDA’s involvement in the partnerships potentially tars all Canadians, by default, for any bad corporate behaviour, or environmental damage, that results from those mining operations.

In an otherwise worthy article, this line of criticism sounds a discordant note. It is certainly not news that many government programs, from education to health care to infrastructure, effectively help corporations continue their operations and reap profits within Canada. There are arguments to be made about the justice of this situation—but those arguments about capitalism and its iniquities aren’t at issue here. The mere fact of publicly-financed support for corporate profit-making, therefore, doesn’t constitute a prima facie reason to denounce CIDA funding for CSR projects associated with Canadian profitmaking abroad.

Are there reasons to be concerned about the social and environmental effects of foreign-owned mines in developing countries? Most assuredly, yes. That’s why a spectrum of global initiatives exists to offset the potential malign effects of such operations. (The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, one such project, was highlighted in a CIPS panel discussion last fall.) Through DFAIT, CIDA and other federal departments, Canada supports many of these initiatives, and makes clear to Canadian companies that it expects them to adhere to standards of responsible conduct in their operations abroad.

But as for the notion that damage-mitigating projects should be paid for solely by mining companies themselves, it’s implausible to think that those companies could design and implement such programs. That’s what NGO expertise is for. CIDA funding makes it possible for Canadian NGOs to put that expertise to use, and for both NGOs and corporations to be held accountable for living up to basic standards in doing so.

The existence of such projects doesn’t suffice to eliminate concerns about exploitation of developing countries and their people by industries of the so-called Global North. But as long as developing-country governments welcome these industries to operate in their countries, mining operations by Canadian corporations will continue apace. If CIDA-funded CSR projects can be effective in mitigating potential damage and spreading the benefits of those projects downward from governments to the people, they should be applauded rather than deplored.

In short, CIDA’s support for CSR projects in no way belongs among the litany of that agency’s current woes.

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Read Stephen Brown’s response to this post.

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