Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Return of the humanitarian junket

According to the London Free Press, Controller Gord Hume would be "shocked" if anyone opposed a recommendation to Board of Control to support a CIDA-funded initiative lending the City's solid waste management expertise to municipalities in Cambodia (PDF). Allow me then to shock Hume and the theatrical sentiments he employs to ward off scrutiny.

"I think part of our responsibility as a leading municipality is to help others in the world," said Hume of the project, a laudable objective if true in the first place, or if it could be assumed that the municipality is competent at helping Londoners in the second. In any event, it should come as no surprise that there is neither documented nor even anecdotal claims of any connection between London's expertise in the subject and the experiences or resources of waste management in tropical third-world countries in the staff recommendation to Board of Control. The benefits to Cambodian municipalities can only be imagined, which is more than can be said for any benefits to London despite the bald assertion of Noelle Grosse, outreach officer for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities sponsoring the program.

Given the dubious merits of the project for either Cambodians or Londoners, the most that can be said for it is that an electronic exchange of emails or reports would probably do no harm. However, there are decidedly tangible benefits to the municipal employees on behalf of whom the City's Chief Strategic Planning Officer and Chief Administrative Officers are making the recommendation to Board of Control, which include paid travel and expenses for "one or 2 technical missions" to Cambodia each year for two or three years on paid municipal staff time — of which the Planning Officer, Jennifer Kirkham, has already had one opportunity to take advantage. Just as certainly, there would be direct and appreciable costs to taxpayers of paying staff time to employees in Cambodia.

Weighing the speculative benefits against the concrete costs, the program appears to be another of the City's exercises in providing junkets to its employees under the guise of humanitarianism, as when Council set aside $25,000 last year to cover shortfalls in fund-raising for a project sending city staff to Honduras to install playground equipment.

As for the question of why Hume would wax so hysterical in defense of junketeering even in advance of any criticism, politicians like himself are by and large sequestered in a close society in which actions and thoughts are more often scrutinized and approved by their managerial peers who expect to benefit from shared codes and purposes, than by taxpayers.