MONTREAL — The presidents of universities in Israel, Jordan and the West Bank have joined in an unusual joint appeal to Canada’s foreign aid agency to preserve funding for a McGill University program that brings together Arab and Israeli social work students, training them to be “peace ambassadors” in their homelands.
The survival of the McGill Middle East Program in Civil Society and Peace Building is in jeopardy because the Canadian International Development Agency does not intend to renew its funding.
The aid agency, known by the initials CIDA, has said that due to worsening conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, the agency has changed its priorities and intends to focus on serving the immediate humanitarian needs of the Palestinians rather than investing in peace projects.
The program’s founder, however, claims the cutoff may be due at least partly to an independent evaluation of the program last year that he said smacked of “anti-Israel bias.” The federal aid agency denied there was bias in the decision.
The McGill Middle East program, which has been praised for its innovative and practical approach to creating a better climate between Israel and its neighbors, has won strong backing from prominent members of Montreal’s Jewish community, as well as Queen Noor, widow of the late King Hussein of Jordan, who is the program’s international spokeswoman.
A delegation that included the presidents of Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva, An-Najah University in Nablus, Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem and the University of Jordan in Amman met recently in Ottawa with Susan Whelan, Canada’s international cooperation minister, to lobby for continued Canadian funding.
A spokeswoman for Whelan described the session as a “courtesy meeting” and said “no decisions” would result from it.
The two-year McGill Middle East program consists of a one-year, graduate-level social work course at McGill for Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians, followed by a year of field work at one of five affiliated “practice centers” in low-income neighborhoods in East and West Jerusalem, Beersheva, Nablus and Amman. Students are encouraged to become “ambassadors for peace” while helping people who are disadvantaged. Twenty-six fellows have completed the program since it was started in 1997.
The five centers help about 30,000 people annually, providing home renovation, home visits to the elderly, and programs for poor children with disabilities or learning problems and who are suffering from psychological trauma originating with the intifada.
The Canadian development agency made a grant of $1.8 million (in U.S. funds) to the McGill Middle East program in 1998, paid out over a four-year period, on the condition that the program match that amount. The agency authorized another $300,000 last November. Payments are scheduled to end in April.
Last year, the development agency sent a retired social work professor to the Middle East to do an independent evaluation of the McGill program. His report, released last October, cited weaknesses in the program and recommended against further funding. Professor Jim Torczyner, the founder and director of the McGill program, said the report smacked of “anti-Israel bias,” and may have been influential in turning the federal aid agency against the program.
Development agency spokeswoman Dominique Hetu, however, said the agency’s own conclusion was that the program was successful and is leaving behind a valuable legacy. She added that the project “is not over definitely. But if [the partner institutions] want subsequent extensions of the funding, they must present a new proposal. They still have two months.”
In January the president of the federal development agency, Len Good, wrote to McGill that its Middle East program “was conceived [during] the 1998 Oslo peace process, when peace-building initiatives held promise for the future. This context no longer exists, nor is the situation likely to improve in the short term.
“The priority of the international donor community has shifted to increase funding toward alleviating the humanitarian and economic crisis [of the Palestinians] through meeting basic human needs in the face of deepening poverty and a sharp rise in unemployment.”
Hetu conceded that there had been a “shift in CIDA’s priorities,” but added that “the practice centers have a role to play in that.”
All CIDA grants to the McGill program are channeled to its work in the Palestinian territories and Jordan, because Israel is not considered a developing country.