November 16th, 2011
Canadian international development non-profits are frustrated with what they say are long delays and a lack of transparency rooted in a new system that determines which groups get federal funding for projects.
The groups say this has led to critical programs being shelved and jobs cut. But the minister responsible for the Canadian International Development Agency, which doles out the funding, says the government needs to ensure each project it approves is an "effective use of taxpayers' resources."
CIDA used to fund Canadian civil society groups working abroad by responding to their requests for funding. The process allowed groups to develop relationships with CIDA staff to ensure easy communication about the status of a request. But the system was also vulnerable to criticism that some groups were receiving privileged access.
In July 2010 CIDA overhauled how it funds partner groups as part of its effort to boost aid effectiveness. Through its new Partnerships with Canadians Branch it switched to a system guided by the government's thematic priorities and 20 countries of focus. The new system meant CIDA would put out periodic calls for proposals based on its standing programs and special ones such as the Haiti reconstruction initiative.
"By introducing more transparency, timeliness, and predictability in partnership funding," International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda was quoted in a news release at the time, "we can help ensure that more of Canadians' money and resources are applied directly to development efforts on the ground."
The change represented a dramatic shift, said Julia Sánchez, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, an umbrella group of development NGOs. Some groups that had access to CIDA for core funding for decades were forced to compete with other groups for limited money for specific programs that fit with CIDA's programming priorities. Members were anxious about its implementation, she said.
Gordon K. Wiebe, chairperson of the Community Builders Benevolence Group based in Vancouver, said his group worked with its partners in Tanzania and Haiti and spent more than $20,000 to craft two applications (one was 29 pages) for a CIDA call for proposals for projects under $2 million, which it submitted before the CIDA-imposed April 29 deadline. A private donor committed more than $100,000, he said, because CIDA required groups to match its funding on a 1:3 or 1:4 basis.
CIDA told applicants that they would all be advised of the results by Sept. 30. But Mr. Wiebe is still waiting.
Last week he responded to Embassy emails from Sumbawanga, Tanzania, where he said he was trying to explain the delay to a local partner. His colleague was set to travel to another capacity-building project in MacDonald, Haiti to do the same.
The projects are being kept alive with private funding, he said. "But without CIDA funding these projects are much more limited and so CIDA becomes like a ship that everyone waits to come in," he wrote.
And with every passing month of not knowing whether the project will get CIDA funding, "the private donor has reduced confidence in our Society's ability to expand its effort with public funds," he wrote.
All that affects the communities in which the projects are taking place, in parts of the world where life expectancies are low and a year is a long time to wait, he said.
He hoped CIDA would "not penalize member agencies for vocalized opinion of that which seems self evident to all."
Others were more leery of talking publicly, fearful it would sink future funding. But according to CCIC, other groups are experiencing similar problems.
"[T]here is a high degree of frustration among many applicants about the process," said a briefing note it released publicly in October.
"Critical programming needed on the ground in developing countries is on hold or has been cut...Staff positions have had to be cut. And contingency plans for new funding have had to be put in place with no clear timelines."
While some results of calls for proposals have been prompt (the Haiti Recovery and Reconstruction decision was announced two days after CIDA's proposed deadline for telling groups the results), those for the Under $2 Million stream are late one -and-a-half months. Applicants for the Over $2 Million stream have waited even longer, three months past the anticipated Aug. 15 results reveal.
Altogether, CCIC estimates about 210 applicants are waiting. Small groups may be the worst affected as they don't have the same level of savings as the biggies to fall back on.
Ms. Sánchez doesn't know why there is such a delay. But she notes what she says is a pattern that some members have speculated might be evidence of political opportunism. CIDA told groups applying for Muskoka Initiative projects that they would hear by May 31, but no announcement came until Sept. 20, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited New York City to attend the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.
Meanwhile, Ms. Oda announced another set of projects related to aboriginal youth internships on June 21, National Aboriginal Day, three months ahead of CIDA's Sept. 30 results deadline. That program was small—with only eight proposals being accepted.
Ms. Oda's spokesperson, Justin Broekema, said in an email to Embassy that "The deadlines CIDA committed to for notifying applicants are different from public announcements. Prior to public announcements, CIDA notifies applicants as soon as possible."
NDP CIDA critic Jinny Sims said the government is absolutely allowed to choose when to announce decisions.
"But on the other hand, if you're not approving things because you're waiting for the opportune time to announce, that then interferes with the work that needs to be done on the ground, and the dollars we have are not so effectively used," she said.
The delay could also just be a case of growing pains, said Ms. Sánchez. "It's a new system and it's not going to be perfect from Day 1. That, I think, everybody understands," she said.
Since releasing the briefing note last month, she said CCIC and CIDA officials have had constructive conversations about how to improve future funding rounds. But Ms. Sánchez worried the delays in this round will create a domino effect that will cause CIDA to miss or push back those rounds.
Mr. Broekema said the time to review proposals depends on several factors including the number received, size, complexity and risks associated with each proposal.
"We need to ensure each project is an effective use of tax payers' resources," he said. "This process of due diligence occasionally results in some minor delays."
Applications for the delayed Under/Over $2 Million streams are in the "due diligence and evaluation process," he said, adding the he couldn't speculate on when applicants will be notified of results.
"[If] we require the NGOs and the agencies to live with those timelines, then why are we not living with our part of the bargain?" questioned Ms. Sims.
Besides better communicating timelines and respecting deadlines, CCIC has also recommended that CIDA boost transparency around the application and selection process. Applicants don't know the number of applications received, the total demand for funds, or what weight CIDA puts on judging various aspects of each proposal, it said.
"The criteria assessed in each call are clearly laid out as part of the application form and guidelines," said Mr. Broekema.
One Canadian aid group representative who didn't want to be named because of existing CIDA funding dependency stressed that CIDA is doing a good job communicating with aid groups and being transparent in other areas, such as through its Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Network.