OTTAWA (CUP) — The head of a major Canadian aid agency has attacked the federal government’s decision to match tsunami relief contributions made by citizens, touting it as a short-term solution that would become a long-term problem.
John Watson, president and CEO of CARE Canada, was critical of the government’s response to the devastation in Asia and Africa during a Jan. 18 public forum in Ottawa hosted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Watson said agencies that benefited from the matching plan might not be in the best position to provide aid in the hardest-hit areas. The plan encouraged private donations to agencies like the Red Cross, CARE and UNICEF by matching each dollar donated with government money for two weeks following the disaster.
“I think it is basically a mistake the way it has been done because the matching grants indicate which agencies are good at raising funds, not which agencies are actually doing the operations over seas,” Watson said. “Now we have a real problem trying to get the money from where it is to where it should be in terms of making a difference.”
The Canadian International Development Agency reports that about $200 million in government aid arose from the matching plan. The figure may grow as the audits of each aid agency are completed.
Watson did not say which agencies would not be able to effectively use the millions received through the matching plan.
But Watson explained that only a few aid agencies were working in some of the most devastated regions before the disaster. These agencies, Watson said, are best able to provide immediate aid and to ensure long term rebuilding, but the matching plan did not include some of them.
For example, Watson said Save the Children was one of the only aid agencies working in some regions of Indonesia before the tsunami flattened entire villages. But he said Save the Children has received “almost no resources as a result of this matching grant program and that is a serious problem.”
The result is aid money being poured into a quick-fix solution that does not provide efficiently for long-term reconstruction in the region, Watson said.
“These are the kinds of details you need to get into. Otherwise your short-term solution will end up being a long-term problem, and I am afraid that is the situation we are facing right now,” Watson said.
Watson called for better organization and co-operation amongst aid agencies and the government so that aid money could be collected and then distributed to the most effective agencies in each region of the disaster zone.
National Defence Minister Bill Graham, who also sat on the panel, was quick to defend the matching plan, saying it was carefully designed by CIDA.
“There certainly was a real effort on behalf of CIDA officials . . . to ensure that the agencies that were getting the matching grants were those that would be capable of delivering in the region.”
But the defensive lob provoked more criticism from Watson, this time aimed at what he said is bureaucratic fat that needs to be trimmed within the development agency. Watson said he has been in the aid business for 30 years and over that time CIDA has grow into a proverbial couch potato.
“I have seen CIDA go from one of the leading donors to one of the most bureaucratic, red tape-clogged donors you can imagine,” Watson said. “We have a serious crisis of aid in this country.”
Graham conceded in an interview after the forum that Canada is always looking for ways to streamline its aid response. But he also defended the bureaucracy at CIDA.
“Even large organizations like the Red Cross have their bureaucracy because that is what is necessary to guarantee the proper management of funds,” Graham said.
So far, Canada has pledged $425 million in aid over the next five years in southern Asia.