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February 23, 2011
Lorna Dueck on Kairos, CIDA and the pursuit of the Christian voter.
Regardless of your political or religious faith, you might want to join me in saying a small prayer of thanks for all those Canadian politicians courting the Christian vote.
Otherwise, we may never have learned of CIDA Minister Bev Oda's doctored document, nor of the inner workings of the Canadian International Development Agency, responsible for giving away $3.6 billion of our tax dollars.
This gets my vote as the biggest politics and religion story in years because, among other things, it revealed the lack of accountability for those government policies that affect the poorest on the planet. Plus, it reminds us that the church has a useful voice in democracy.
For those who follow faith-based developments closely, it is well established that the Conservative government has been very active courting the votes of Christians of all types.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney made that very clear when he told the Western Catholic Reporter [http://www.wcr.ab.ca/wcrthisweek/stories/tabid/61/entryid/526/default.aspx] in January that the Conservatives had successfully swung the Catholic vote into their camp, away from its historic Liberal loyalties.
Not quite so well known is that, in 2009, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff assigned a faith relations portfolio to one of his Christian members of caucus, MP John McKay, to attempt to get the Catholics and other faith groups back on board.
"I am hoping that this initiative will free up some political space for faith leaders to speak into the marketplace of ideas and not feel that they will end up battered and bruised and run out of town on a rail," McKay told the Catholic Register in April 2009.
Good luck with that.
The big tent
McKay went on to say that the Liberal party is a big tent under which both evangelicals and Catholics should feel comfortable.
But the Canadian church has an even bigger tent and for every social conservative in it, there are just as many social liberals, people who believe everyone should start out with an equal and fair chance, and be given more chances (the doctrine of grace) if they need it.
Social liberals, it is said, spend too much money and effort on every unfortunate soul, and may well need social conservatives to rein them in.
But these kind of community-creating discussions go on every Sunday morning in churches across the land. Theology is combined with real problems, real issues, and it spills over into informing the political process at all levels.
"That's what churches do," says Jennifer Henry, a staff manager at Kairos Canada, the coalition of 11 church-backed groups that is at the centre of Oda-gate.
"That's part of the diversity that makes up a healthy democratic conversation."
After 35 years of supporting Kairos, CIDA has now refused the group's latest funding request, $7 million for projects that affect almost 250,000 people in eight countries.
These projects were aimed at reducing human rights violations, encouraging environmental sustainability and promoting gender equality. But the projects were deemed not to be a fit with CIDA's new priorities: sustained economic growth, children and youth, and food security.
Almost lost in this complex saga is the Conservative shift in how CIDA's funds are handed out.
Previously, these non-governmental organizations listened to their partners in the developing world and attempted to build grant proposals based on these needs.
Under the new terms, CIDA shifted to a competitive bidding process where it sets the agenda and puts out a call for tenders. The NGOs, as they are called, then compete against each other for the work.
"It might be a good way to fix your deck at the back of the house, get three quotes and take the best quote, but it's no way to run charity," says McKay, the Liberal critic.
In fact, the dispute over that approach has been the hidden core of Oda-gate, and many NGOs are thrilled that it has now been exposed.
We who give
To the $3.6 billion in international aid that CIDA doles out each year, add more than $1 billion from Canadian charities, much of it collected in places of worship, according to Toronto's Mark Blumberg of Global Philanthropy.
That helps explains why faith-based groups have such a vested interest in foreign affairs policies.
But before we get righteous about who gives what - and who deserves to be heard - the real heroes of Canadian generosity are nannies, cleaners and those most often at the bottom end of the earning spectrum who send home an estimated $9 billion each year to their families back in developing countries.
We really need to hit pause and sit for a while on that truth.
There were plenty of abuses and agendas over foreign aid when the Liberals were in power, but Oda-gate has given us a delicious teaching moment to understand what's going on with helping the poorest of the poor.
"Foreign aid has always been used for political ends," says Andrea Paras, a post-doctoral fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. "However, the Kairos case indicates that the present government is willing to be more explicit about its political objectives in ways that are counterproductive to good development practices.
"Everyone I've spoken with in the NGO world is so concerned about the relationship of CIDA to its NGOs, concerned that CIDA is increasingly politicized."
At the end of the day, this controversy has been a helpful illustration of the Christian church's participation in our democracy and has exposed many issues we need to investigate further.
The nettlesome charity at the centre of the controversy describes the meaning of its name, Kairos, as coming from the Greek word for time. Not ordinary time but holy or God-given time, "a time of crisis and new possibilities, a time of repentance, renewal and decisive action."
This controversy has surfaced more than a few places to apply those conditions.
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