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Foreign aid organizations fret that more cuts are coming in federal budget

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OTTAWA - Foreign aid advocates are fearful the Conservative government is planning to make even deeper cuts to foreign aid in next week's budget.

A coalition of non-governmental organizations, including the Canadian chapter of Engineers Without Borders and the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, has launched an online petition urging the government to spare foreign aid from the chopping block.

"As you consider your choices for the 2014 budget, please do not cut vital foreign aid funding that supports childhood vaccinations, promotes healthy newborns and mothers and helps lift millions out of poverty," reads the petition, which currently has 15,000 signatories and is aiming for 30,000.

"The world expects Canada to lead, and so do we."

In 2012, the Conservatives announced they were cutting almost $380 million, or 7.5 per cent, from Canada's $5.3-billion annual aid budget. That included $290 million in unspent funds that were returned to the treasury.

The government didn't make any further cuts in last year's budget, but it did merge the work of the Canadian International Development Agency with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

That move raised concerns from NGOs that Canada's long-held commitment to alleviating global poverty would take a back seat to pursuing trade and investment opportunities for corporate Canada in developing countries.

Just this week, International Development Minister Christian Paradis said promoting economic growth goes hand in hand with fighting poverty.

"Sustainable, private-sector-led economic growth and poverty reduction are two sides of the same coin," Paradis said in a statement upon his return from a mining conference in South Africa.

"That is why Canada is supporting African governments as they look to manage their extractive sector more transparently and responsibly. We are ensuring communities draw the greatest benefit from the development of their natural resources to create prosperity and growth across the African continent."

Paradis also recently denied suggestions from critics that Ottawa is essentially subsidizing mining companies by funding development projects in many of the countries where they operate.

In a statement Tuesday, Paradis insisted the forthcoming budget would not short-change the aid effort.

"Our government's commitment to helping people who live in poverty and responding to humanitarian crises remains strong," he said.

"Canada will continue to lead these efforts while delivering value for aid dollars and ensuring that its investments make a real difference in the lives of the people they are intended to help. Canada's aid envelope through 2015 was laid out in Budget 2012."

One aid expert joked that Paradis's desk must be "the biggest in the world" since so many foreign aid projects die there. Foreign aid proposals must now be approved by cabinet ministers.

"They never get a thumb's up or a thumb's down, they just disappear into the labyrinth," Stephen Brown, a University of Ottawa professor who's written a book about CIDA, said in an interview.

Ariane Cartwright of Make Poverty History, another sponsor of the online petition, agreed.

"They're not spending even what they have, and that's very discouraging because this is money that could be used for fighting poverty overseas," she said.

"We don't want the budget to be balanced on the backs of the world's poor, and we want to go into this budget with hopes rather than fears."

Helene Laverdiere, the NDP's development critic, says her party is watching closely to see what the government is up to on foreign aid — not just next week, but in the months to come.

"We have no clear signals from the government regarding the budget, but given the track record of this government, there are reasons to be worried," she said. "And even if there are no specific cuts next week, we're worried they'll continue with their backdoor cuts."

Brown, meantime, says he suspects further foreign aid cuts are in store when the government introduces the budget on Feb. 11.

"The foreign aid budget has already been frozen, it's already been cut, but I expect them to cut it more, because clearly reducing poverty globally is not a priority," he said.

"They're not real believers in foreign aid. The budget balancing is a great excuse, because then it makes it look like a tradeoff. But the fact is, they're not ideologically committed to social justice on an international level."

According to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada is 14th in the world in terms of money committed to foreign aid, a ranking that represents .32 per cent of the country's GDP.

The OECD urged Canada two years ago to reverse the cuts to its foreign aid budget and set out a clear vision for how it carries out overseas development.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had an incorrect name for one of the NGOs involved in the petition.

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