Canada's aid agency isn't getting into the mining industry, but is working with companies in developing countries so it doesn't have to "continually bail them out," International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino said Wednesday.

In a speech last week, Fantino said the Canadian International Development Agency's co-operation with the mining and extractive industry "is a prime example of how a government agency like ours can partner with the private sector to advance global development objectives."

But in a teleconference from Haiti Wednesday morning, where he is visiting Canadian aid projects, Fantino said there's a lot of confusion over what CIDA is doing with the industry.

"We're not partnering with the mining industry. We're creating an environment where the industry on its own can achieve success," he said.

Fantino said CIDA wants to "be helpful in the sense of enabling them to compete on the world stage, if you will, but at the very same time, assist countries that are considering exploiting their extractives," to help the countries with environmental regulations and the social responsibilities of the mining companies. 

"We're not getting into the extractive business.... This is trying to help the needy countries to enable them to help themselves, to develop sustainable economies such as we've seen can be done with countries so that we don't have to continually bail them out with their food issues, their education, their health issues and on it goes," Fantino said.

NGOs not funded 'for life'

Asked about what the agency had cut from its shrinking budget to afford to spend $25 million on the Vancouver-based Canadian International Institute for Extractive Industries and Development, Fantino took aim at criticism that the government has cut funding to certain NGOs or aid groups.

The money isn't coming from the government's previous pledges for maternal, newborn and child health, food security or health and education programs, he said.

"That $25 million is separate and apart. It doesn't get taken away from anything else that we're doing," Fantino said.

"Even the cuts that people are speaking about, these were not cuts per se. These were adjustments made, programs that we enter into are not for life. We don't fund NGOs for life. Things change and we adjust accordingly."

Some aid groups have said they're worried about the shift to partner with mining companies.

Robert Fox, head of Oxfam Canada, said it's not clear that support for Canadian mining corporations is actually a viable way of ending poverty and promoting equality.

There have been mining companies in Africa, Asia and Latin America for decades — in some cases for centuries — and they haven't actually necessarily contributed to ending poverty in the developing world, he said.  

"So the critical question is, is the presence of those companies in those countries going to create wealth that stays in those countries and promotes development and opportunity in those countries? Or is it really just more extraction of wealth from parts of the world that have always extracted wealth and exported it to the North?" Fox said.

'Don't lose sight of that basic mandate'

"We're quite concerned that CIDA not lose sight of its objective and its mandate, which is to end poverty and promote human rights around the world.... We want to ensure that we don't lose sight of that basic mandate," Fox said.

Jamie Kneen, spokesman for Mining Watch Canada, said there are a number of ways Canada could help communities in which mining companies set up. Many of those communities need better environmental regulations and help collecting taxes from the companies, he said.

"I think taxation is a growing concern, as people realize how much money is being generated and how little is staying in the communities where the mining is taking place," Kneen said.

If the local and national governments collected a fair share of the revenue from natural resource development and properly distributes it locally, "then the local government would be able to actually respond to community needs," he added.

A spokesman for Barrick Gold, one of three companies working with aid groups funded by CIDA, says the company has a mandate to share the benefits of mining in the communities in which it operates.

"In developing countries, that often means making investments in community development and poverty alleviation," Andy Lloyd said in a statement to CBC News. "But we recognize that mining companies are not experts in development and so we look for partners who share those goals and who have the right expertise."

Barrick is working with World Vision in Peru in a project partly funded by CIDA. Lloyd says the company's partnership is with World Vision, not CIDA.

"The suggestion that CIDA is funding corporate social responsibility is just plain wrong. This is a model that is used all over the world very successfully. We have supported similar projects in partnership with CIDA’s counterparts from the United States, Australia and New Zealand," he said.

With files from Laurie Graham