In Canada's "marketplace of ideas," it's amazing how many stalls are being slammed shut these days and how many attendants are trembling for their very existence.

In the fields of justice, human rights and foreign aid, it seems that one non-governmental agency after another is being "de-funded" into non-existence or near paralysis by the Harper government.

So what, you ask. Well, the end result will likely be a less civil society with less informed debate and less public testing of ideas. Also, I suspect, less courage in the voluntary sector.

For decades, I have covered human rights and aid groups here and around the world and have never seen such a chill as what is happening now in our own country.

I am not talking about the normal, up-front budget cuts that most federal departments will now face and pass along, but a more sinister loss of funding that seems tied to political payback. The difference is profoundly important.

For when an NGO has its budget cut, apparently for speaking out, others fear the same fate. It brings to mind Winston Churchill's famous saying about grovelling before a fearsome power: "Each one hopes the crocodile will eat him last."

40 years of support

The latest group to feel the axe is the Canadian Council on International Co-operation, an umbrella group that co-ordinates public policy on the foreign aid front and is now in the process of laying off 17 of its 25 employees because the federal government withdrew its $1.8 million in annual funding.

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CIDA Minister Bev Oda appears at the G8 summit in Muskoka in June 2010. When it comes to groups like the CCIC, CIDA doesn't want to fund core budgets, her spokesman said. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)

After leaving the CCIC dangling since early spring, the Canadian International Development Agency, the body responsible for funding these NGOs finally announced late last week that no more federal money would be forthcoming.

Forty years of government support was eliminated in a terse statement.

The CCIC has had its critics in the aid community. Some experts feel it is too cerebral and politically correct. But important groups like Oxfam and Save the Children defend it and many NGOs feel its treatment has been shabby.

As Robert Fox, the director of Oxfam Canada put it recently in an interview with Embassy newspaper, if CIDA had concerns about what the CCIC does, then someone at CIDA should have called over and talked it through, rather than let the organization go through months of uncertainty. 

Gerry Barr, the well-respected head of the CCIC has been less forgiving: "This is the politics of punishment," he says.

"Today, you can see the emergence of a kind of partisan brush-clearing exercise and a punishment approach adopted towards those whose public views run at cross purposes to the government."

No warning

CIDA holds unusual life and death power over many Canadian NGOs because most of the government's foreign aid flows through CIDA to the NGOs that carry it out.

In today's Ottawa, all NGOs know a simple fact of life: Displeasing the government means CIDA can turn off your NGO tap with ease. Either by simply eliminating the flow or diverting it to another group that the government favours.

Last December, you'll remember, a large ecumenical organization called KAIROS, the human rights arm of 11 Canadian church organizations, saw its tap wrenched shut when CIDA cut off $7 million, the group's entire overseas budget, apparently for taking positions on the Middle East that the Harper government disapproved of.

Not long afterward, another organization called MATCH was also shut down by funding cuts. The only Canadian aid group exclusively focused on the rights of women in the developing world, it too had been critical of government actions.

Then, after Barr's CCIC protested that such cuts were causing a "chill" within the NGO community, it had its budget allocation for this year suspended and, now, cut completely.

Critical co-ordinator

On the government's ledger, the CCIC cut doesn't amount to very much. But for an essentially shoe-string organization, the loss of $1.8 million from CIDA represents over two-thirds of the CCIC budget.

Sometimes called the "heart and soul" of Canada's voluntary efforts overseas, the CCIC represents some 90 organizations, including some of the largest aid groups working on Canada's behalf.

For 40 years, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have funded the CCIC, even though they have often been exasperated by its blunt criticism.

But they did this because the organization was seen as the critical co-ordinator for advancing the knowledge, discussion and planning of foreign aid and development.

Foreign assistance is not just a matter of delivering help. It's also a highly complex matter of getting it right, if possible, through study, research, the exchange of ideas, co-ordination of plans, and, yes, open debate and criticism.

This is the area the CCIC excelled in. It played a leadership role and set high standards.

A deaf ear

Parsing CIDA's rationale for its many changes is difficult at the best of times.

Cutbacks today are sometimes justified after the fact, in private, by suggesting that certain NGOs were not meeting the current, big three aid priorities: children and youth; food security; and sustainable growth.

Canada's new aid priorities

South America: Bolivia, Caribbean regional program, Colombia, Haiti, Honduras, Peru

South and Central Asia: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, Vietnam

Eastern Europe: Ukraine

Middle East: West Bank and Gaza

Africa: Ethiopa, Ghana, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania

All are laudable goals, to be sure, but few trust CIDA to show consistency.

In fact, it was just last fall when the auditor general complained that Canada's foreign policy priorities, or "themes," have been reshuffled five times in the last 10 years, producing an astonishing 12 different themes in all.

For years, Barr and the CCIC have argued that CIDA's chronic attention-deficit disorder makes programming impossible when "based on themes that may have a half-life of six months."

"It's like planning next year's crop on the strength of this afternoon's weather," Barr says.

But for criticism like this, and others, CCIC now seems to be paying the price.

A real loss

At this point, the CCIC may survive without government funding, but it won't have the same research and analysis capability. The whole foreign aid community will have less independent information to go on and fewer opportunities to co-ordinate actions.

Meanwhile, the Harper foreign aid strategy of greater focus on fewer countries and more emphasis on economic development may be a good one. Or not.

I hope it's successful and will watch new efforts with interest.

But I wonder how we will be able to judge anything in this field in the future with any confidence if independent voices are silenced and independent information dries up out of fear of government retaliation.

At this rate we may yet find ourselves in an arid civic landscape where our only humanitarian guide to the world is a new press release from CIDA.

Then we will be lost indeed.