McLeod Group Blog

North-South Institute Ends with a Whimper

McLeod Group Blog, September 11, 2014

The pain and suffering of the North-South Institute is over. After almost 40 years of high-quality, award-winning work, the NSI has capitulated to its Canadian government tormenters and is shutting down. The official communiqué announcing the decision said that the Institute “has not been successful in diversifying and growing its funding sources to the extent required to ensure financially sustainable operations.”

This is polite shorthand for what really happened. The NSI depended for most of its history on core funding from the erstwhile CIDA. The Harper government has made it clear that it doesn’t like “talk shops” and “think tanks”—at least not this one—and it seems that where international development is concerned, it doesn’t much like thinking at all. So the NSI, along with many other very worthy non-profits and charitable organizations, was jollied along on hope and half-promises until the respirator simply gave up the ghost.

The Harper government has said, and will no doubt say again in this connection, that it is under no obligation to fund anyone it doesn’t want to fund. That’s true: no obligation. But it does have a responsibility to recognize and support achievement and merit in this field, as it does with Canadian scientists, educators, historians, artists, athletes and the institutions that house them. The NSI filled a unique position in Canadian international development. It provided good scholarship, wise advice and a useful service to government and the wider Canadian development community. It was also highly respected internationally and among its counterparts in Britain the United States and Europe, most of which receive considered, but generous support from their governments.

The NSI did diversify its funding, winning contracts and providing services to development organizations far and wide. But it wasn’t enough. In any case, the drive for “diversification” raises a question asked recently by the New York Times in relation to offshore funding of American think tanks: does foreign funding lead to undue foreign influence in domestic policy-related think tanks? This is a question the Harper government has posed itself in relation to the foreign funding of Canadian environmental organizations.

Then why didn’t the NSI diversify its Canadian funding base? There has always been a problem in Canada finding corporate, foundation and institutional support for international development. On a per capita basis, institutional giving for international development is a fraction in Canada of what it is in the United States. Where development policy is concerned, it is even tougher. This is an area in need of serious attention.

So it’s the end of the road for an organization that was recognized in 2012 by the Global Go To Think Tank Survey as the world’s top think tank with an operating budget of less than $5 million.

A sad thing about the demise of the North-South Institute is that it has folded with almost no protest. Its board and senior management remained silent through more than a year of financial crisis, hoping that if they were polite, something would change in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development or the Prime Minister’s Office. And they advised others not to make a stink on their behalf.

A stink might not have helped, but it would not have made matters any worse than they now are. The same can be said for the dozens of other Canadian institutions quietly awaiting a similar fate. Giving up without a fight: is this the Canadian way?

Eliot famously ends his poem, The Hollow Men, like this:

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

It’s hard to know who the most hollow men are in this story: the ones among Prime Minister Harper’s cabal who govern by neglect and malice, or those on the periphery who refuse to speak up because it might jeopardize their funding.