Kairos still looking for answers

TORONTO, ON—The real reason why Ottawa chose to de-fund Kairos late last year remains a secret. But executive director Mary Corkery knows one thing for sure: a lot of Canadians care—not just about the 21 grassroots partners working for peace and justice around the world that Kairos can no longer afford to support—but also about their nation's faltering commitment to international development.

Sympathetic phonecalls, cheques and pledges of donations from across the country continue to pour into Kairos' mailboxes nearly four months after a spokesperson called from the office of Bev Oda to say the minister in charge of CIDA, Canada's international development agency, would not be signing the four-year contract on her desk for $7.1 million.

"We've gained hundreds of people. They're still phoning and advocating, speaking to people locally, media, local reps, sending contributions," says Corkery. "It's very moving, actually."

Kairos supporters in ridings across the country have since met with 70 members of the Conservative caucus to express their concerns.

Kairos has also written a letter, signed by church leaders from the 11 denominations represented by Kairos, requesting a meeting with the Prime Minister.

Still wondering

Oda hasn't offered any reason for the decision except to repeat that Kairos' work no longer matches CIDA's new priorities. CIDA publicized those priorities—food security, children and sustainable economic growth—in September, six months after Kairos applied for the funding. Until then, CIDA had approved Kairos' application at every step of the process.

Later in a speech in Jerusalem, Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney suggested Kairos had been de-funded because of its position on Israel. In the flurry of back-and-forth that followed, Kairos insisted it did not support a boycott of Israel and failed see how its critiques of actions by the Israeli government added up to anti-Semitism.

Kenney later said the real reason Kairos had been de-funded was because it didn't match CIDA priorities.

For now, says Corkery, Kairos has scraped together "a token amount" to send to its partners—about 16 per cent of the money they would have received. If the government won't change its mind Kairos, will continue to do advocacy work on environmental and indigenous rights issues in Canada, but will have to drop its funding program for international partners. These partners are grassroots church groups working for ecological stewardship and the rights of indigenous people in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Funding for advocacy?

While the case of the lost funding hasn't been cracked, there are some clues that the Conservative government is uncomfortable with Kairos' advocacy work in areas of the environment, the tar sands and human rights.

Gerry Barr, CEO of Canadian Council for International Co-operation, says the argument that federal dollars shouldn't go to groups that do advocacy work doesn't hold water.

"Every single NGO in Canada advocates, and rightly so," Barr says. "Anyone who thinks you're going to alter a world in which there is an egregious level of global poverty without advocacy is not living on the same planet you and I are."

Corkery believes advocacy work is at the heart of the Christian gospel. And Kairos' new supporters seem to agree. "They understand the issue of advocacy being named as something negative and extremist when it's at the heart of a Christian work for justice, and it's at the heart of our gospel mission," she says. "It's about actually asking what's a the root of poverty and what is causing poverty or allowing human rights abuses."

Radical label

Kairos has been mislabeled as some kind of radical group, says Paul Heidebrecht, who directs the Ottawa office of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and represents the organization on Kairos' board.

"MCC and Kairos have a long history of making prophetic critiques of government. It doesn't matter what party they are," Heidebrecht says. Any public statement Kairos makes must be vetted by Roman Catholics in Quebec, Christian Reformed Christians in Alberta and everyone in between. Kairos' 11 member denominations include Anglican, United, Mennonite, Lutheran, Quaker, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic Christians.

A $5 billion challenge

Barr agrees that Kairos is hardly a "nest of lefties." He believes Kairos fell victim to partisan politics and sees this case as a symptom of deeper troubles within Canada's aid portfolio.

In the past five years, CIDA has tabled seven new priorities for aid. Constantly chasing after the flavour of the week "leaves the agency exhausted and confused," says Barr. Judging Kairos' four-year proposal on the basis of priorities that change every year is like basing next year's crop on this afternoon's weather, he says.

The March 2010 federal budget froze Canada's international assistance spending at $5.2 billion—0.33 per cent of Canada's GNI. That's less than half of the UN target of 0.7 per cent.

Only the U.S., Japan, Italy and Greece have pledged a smaller percentage to international aid this year than Canada.

"The government which is doing best is also doing least," says Barr.

It's a dismal message for Canada to send to the world as it prepares to champion the cause of maternal health at the upcoming G8 summit in Huntsville, Ontario. "How much luck are you going to have effectively chairing a pledging conference on [global maternal health] if you've telegraphed to all of your compatriots that you're coming in empty?" says Barr.

Other faith-based development and aid organizations, including MCC are on edge, waiting to see what CIDA will do next says Heidebrecht.

"We have a big policy challenge on our hands, and it has to do with a $5 billion public file," says Barr. "The key to understanding that challenge and understanding the solution lies in what has happened and what will happen to Kairos."

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