OTTAWA (CCN) — Ten years of fighting off friendly fire attacks from the pro-life movement and politically motivated budget cuts from Ottawa has left outgoing Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace executive director Michael Casey feeling inspired, consoled, hopeful and at peace.
Casey has already moved on to a new job as executive director of the Canadian Co-operative Association and the Co-operative Development Foundation of Canada, while Development and Peace is expected to announce his replacement by June. As he took possession of his new office April 2, Casey spoke to The Catholic Register about his decade leading Canada’s biggest Catholic lay movement with more than 10,000 members and a unique relationship with Canada’s Catholic bishops.
“I found it a fascinating and enriching experience for me personally. It opened whole new horizons of perspective,” Casey said.
For all the storms endured, Casey looks back on a list of accomplishments, including raising $21.5 million to help reconstruct Haiti after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, another $12 million to rebuild homes and livelihoods in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, 85,000 signatures presented on Parliament Hill last spring calling for tougher regulation of Canadian mining companies operating in poor countries and 460,000 postcards in 2006 asking the Canadian government to recognize access to clean and safe drinking water as a human right.
Casey took over in January of 2005 and was immediately faced with launching a reorganization to adjust to new economic realities. But those new realities quickly gave way to even bleaker economics.
In 2012, Development and Peace suffered a 68 per cent cut in government funding for its programs abroad, when a two-year process of renewing its five-year funding agreement with CIDA ended with a surprise decision by International Development Minister Bev Oda to fund less than a third of the Development and Peace projects her own department had already agreed to.
Dealing with government became progressively more difficult during Casey’s tenure as an accountability agenda seemed to take over from the actual work of lifting communities out of poverty. Development and Peace staffers were increasingly chained to their desks writing reports and ticking boxes as Ottawa demanded ever more measures of bang for its bucks.
“In the interest of looking for aid effectiveness and taxpayer accountability and all these things, governments are looking for tangible returns,” said Casey. “Not realizing that true development is a very human-based thing. It takes time.”
Casey didn’t just hear it from politicians and bureaucrats. The public too began to entertain doubts about traditional development work.
“How do you know you’re making any progress? The billions and billions of dollars that have been spent on poverty reduction by all of these agencies all over the world, well why do we still have a billion poor people?” Casey asked himself. “The questions are valid. I just think that there hasn’t been sufficient nuance to the debate.”
In January 2013 then International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino suspended all new funding to Haiti because while visiting he didn’t observe much volunteering despite piles of rubble still on the streets in Port au Prince.
“Many of the new initiatives proposed strike me as simplistic. It ain’t as easy as it looks. Unless you have a deep understanding of the principles of development, the values and the human aspect of it, it ain’t going to work,” said Casey.
Dwindling financial commitment doesn’t ensure success either. Between 2012 and 2013 Canada’s official development assistance fell 11.4 per cent in constant dollars, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. By comparison, the United Kingdom, still recovering from a devastating run on its banks, increased its spending by 28 per cent and reached the United Nations target of contributing 0.7 per cent of its gross national income. By 2013 economically stable and healthy Canada was down to 0.27 per cent of Gross National Income and 1.9 per cent of budgeted government expenditure.
In 2014 the OECD ranked Canada 17th out of the 35 donor countries it tracks.
Even when the money is budgeted, Ottawa is failing to spend it. In 2013 CIDA left $300 million from its budget unspent.
And then CIDA folded entirely, becoming a part of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development in 2014.
But unlike so many development NGOs that depend on government, Development and Peace never got more than 40 per cent of its money from Ottawa.
“Development and Peace is truly blessed as an organization because of the support of the church and the network of members across the country, which has sustained this thing for 50 years,” said Casey. “That’s a real special gift.”
A number of pro-life bloggers and organizations over the years have charged that Development and Peace projects have ties with groups that support abortion. In 2009, LifeSiteNews.com alleged that a Mexican human rights organization which provides legal representation to people facing military and police prosecution was supporting a Mexican abortion rights coalition. An investigation by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops found no direct link between the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Centre and abortion advocacy, but suggested Development and Peace was guilty of “imprudence.”
A followup investigation looked at 248 Development and Peace files and found 13 that were questionable and two that “posed a problem.” As a result, Development and Peace initiated procedural changes to ensure no donor money was affiliated with groups that support abortion.
Every Catholic development agency in the developed world now faces constant suspicion and scrutiny from pro-life activists, said Casey.
“All of us have adapted to this as the new normal,” he said. “This is an element that is going to be there. Your best advice is to just stay true to what you are, stay true to who you are and keep doing it. Even if you have to keep re-explaining and educating about what you do — well that goes with the mission.”
Casey believes Pope Francis’ messade of compassion bolsters the Development and Peace mission and ethos.
“His message is so (much about) what we do that it’s a real boost, not just to our spirits as beleaguered practitioners but it’s a real validation of what we believe in,” he said. “For all of the ups and downs and controversies we’ve had internally, it’s still an expression of a vibrant and alive Catholic Church.”
Casey says Canada’s Catholic Church would not be itself without Development and Peace — “this wonderful expression of human compassion, human dignity, the core values of what Christianity is really all about.”