In October, I attended a fund raising dinner and auction at an Ottawa church to support development of a legal clinic to assist women in eastern Congo. In some of their stories, captured on a brief video, the women describe how they had been gang raped and brutalized by young men who fight in armies and militias. These women were the lucky ones. They talked about how others had been murdered during their ordeals or left to die afterward. The goal on that October evening was to raise $25,000, enough money we were told to support the clinic for one year. People that night dug deeply into their pockets for $22,000 and we were asked to make our cheques to KAIROS, the Canadian ecumenical social justice group. Now, a scant six weeks later, we learn that Bev Oda, the minister in charge of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), has cut all funding to KAIROS. The news arrived in a terse telephone call from a faceless official who said that the organizationâ€™s projects do not fit with CIDAâ€™s criteria. Tell that to women in the Congo.
KAIROS acts on behalf of 13 of Canadaâ€™s major churches or church-based organizations, and it includes under its umbrella the Anglican, Catholic, Christian Reformed, Lutheran, Presbyterian and United Churches, as well as the Mennonite Central Committee, the Quakers and others. KAIROS, or its predecessor groups, have received money from CIDA for 35 years to support partners working in regions experiencing some of the worldâ€™s most serious human rights violations. The work of KAIROS is highly regarded in Canada and overseas.
KAIROS worked with its global partners to develop a program for years 2009-2013, focussing upon human rights and ecological justice.Â The budget was for $9.2 million over four years, with CIDA contributing just over $7 million of that amount. The proposal was submitted to CIDA in March 2009, where it moved through various levels of approval before arriving on Bev Odaâ€™s desk in July 2009. There seemed to be little cause for concern. KAIROS had received a positive audit report for its 2006-2009 work and a good evaluation. When, in September 2009, the agreement had still not been signed, KAIROS was granted a two-month extension on a previous contribution agreement. Sources say it was then that people at KAIROS began to worry. They were hearing that there was “trouble at the top”, which meant the ministerâ€™sâ€™ office, or more likely with this government, the prime ministerâ€™s office.
On November 30, KAIROS was told that it had been cut off. The organization says in a new release: â€œWe asked for an explanation and were informed that our program did not fit the government of Canadaâ€™s priorities. This was the last day of an extension to our current proposal.Â No written explanation has been provided.â€ In one telephone call, the Canadian government appears to have terminated a long-standing relationship between CIDA and KAIROS or its predecessor organizations. KAIROS says the decision, if not reversed, â€œwould cut funds to 21 ecumenical and citizenâ€™s organizations in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and cut educational work that helps Canadians across the country to develop skills and knowledge in the exercise of their global citizenship.â€
Minister Oda did not communicate with KAIROS about its fate — she rarely communicates publicly with anyone about her portfolio except in the most controlled of circumstances. But the â€œtrouble at the topâ€ may well have had more to do with the work of KAIROS within Canada than with its overseas projects. KAIROS has questioned, on environmental and hence ethical grounds, the rapid development of the tar sands in Western Canada. KAIROS hosted a forum in Calgary in October 2008 and organized a delegation of Canadian church leaders to visit the tar sands in May 2009. The Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance, prior to their takeover of the Progressive Conservative Party, were beneficiaries of generous support from the oil and gas industry. The Harper Conservatives exist on similarly friendly terms with the carbon industry and will not hear of any proposal that would scale back rapid development â€“ despite the environmental problems such development is causing. The implied criticism from KAIROS may have excited the ire of Conservatives at the top, even though most of the KAIROS budget is provided by the organization’s own donors and not by CIDA.
Canada as petro state
The eyes of the world are upon Canada as 192 countries meet in Copenhagen to discuss measures that would start to slow the runaway train of carbon pollution that causes global heating. Canada, which used to be respected among nations, is becoming a pariah due to its stubborn insistence to do little to mitigate the creation of greenhouse gases â€“ and the Canadian tar sands are among the largest emitters. George Monbiot, a columnist for The Guardian in Britain, recently wrote: â€œSo here I am, watching the astonishing spectacle of a beautiful, cultured nation turning itself into a corrupt petro-state. Canada is slipping down the development ladder, retreating from a complex, diverse economy towards dependence on a single primary resource, which happens to be the dirtiest commodity known to man.â€
The treatment of KAIROS is not only a punishment; it is a warning. Citizens for Public Justice, another fine ecumenical organization, has also questioned tar sands development, albeit in a polite and almost tentative way. Might CPJ expect repercussions? The Catholic aid agency, Development and Peace, has had a multi-year campaign to bring attention to the corporate behaviour of Canadian mining companies abroad. D&P receives CIDA funding. Should the organization be looking over its shoulder?
Fighting the cuts
KAIROS and its supporters are not going down quietly.Â The organization is asking its people to contact their MPs, requesting that the decision be reversed. A variety of NGOs and churches, including the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, which does not belong to KAIROS, have criticized the governmentâ€™s decision.
The issue appears to have some political legs as well. All opposition parties, including the Greens, who do not have a seat the House of Commons, have called for the move to be reversed. Liberal MPs Bob Rae and John McKay, as well as other opposition members, have raised the issue in Question Period in the House of Commons. As I wrote this, church and NGO LeadersÂ announced that they would convene a news conference on Parliament Hill to address what they callâ€ the unprecedented decisionâ€ to cut all funding to the human rights program of KAIROS.
KAIROS is asking its supporters, in addition to contacting their MPs, to send email messages to: Prime Minister Stephen Harper, email@example.com; Bev Oda, minister of international cooperation, firstname.lastname@example.org; and Margaret Biggs, president of CIDA, Margaret.Biggs@acdi-cida.gc.ca. KAIROS asks that those who write also copy their letters to KAIROS at email@example.com.