WASHINGTON — Among the stories that left an impression on Canada’s development minister from her early foreign visits was one about the shiny new cars pulling up to a refugee camp.
She was told their appearance meant one thing: A rich man, coming to buy a new child bride.
It’s apparently a recurring problem at the Jordanian refugee camp Marie-Claude Bibeau visited early this year. News reports have chronicled that issue at the Zaatari camp. A UN worker discussed it with her.
Bibeau shared the anecdote Friday as she announced $75 million in Canadian funding for assistance programs during international meetings in Washington — with more than a quarter of that going to Syria’s neighbours Lebanon and Jordan.
“When you think the greatest hope for your little 13-year-old girl is to give her to an old man, it means you’re really desperate,” she said in an interview.
She heard about myriad sources of strain on the two neighbouring countries during her visit, where she took stock of the international impact of Syria’s civil war and its historic flood of refugees.
Some refugee kids have missed school for two years. In 247 schools in Lebanon, the Lebanese children get the classrooms in the morning and the Syrians get them in the afternoon.
That’s just one snapshot of the challenge facing refugees who have found housing, outside camps — which is a clear majority of them. She said that pressure is testing the social peace in nearby countries, neighbouring Syria.
“If these countries erupted — that’s obviously not what we want,” Bibeau said.
“The conditions are there. When you don’t have access to a clinic, your children don’t have access to school, the cost of lodging has shot up… I was impressed to see these two countries had managed to maintain stability and social calm.”
The funding promised Friday is on top of $43 million in humanitarian assistance for refugees announced earlier this week, and is already earmarked in this year’s budget.
The $75 million included about $20 million for Syria’s neighbours, with other amounts set aside for a variety of projects touching on public health in Africa, nutrition, and a women’s program in Afghanistan.
Bibeau’s department is in the midst of a wide-ranging policy review.
But she cut short a suggestion that the current government’s development policies might actually be quite similar to the previous government’s.
“Yes we recognize that good things were achieved (before). That’s great,” Bibeau said. “It’s not reasonable to just change (everything) for the sake of it.”
She called women’s health projects her No. 1 priority. It was also a top personal priority of Stephen Harper’s. She said development will occasionally work side-by-side with the interests of Canadian companies — like the mining sector.
That was also a Harper government priority; that’s why it lumped the federal development agency into the same department as trade and foreign affairs — which the new government has renamed, but not restructured.
She’s also working on a new development institution aimed at creating a sustainable pool of development funds — an idea spearheaded by the last government.
The last government’s plan for a so-called development-dating web platform remains in the works; it would create a system where companies, NGOs and governments with shared interests could find each other and work together on projects.
But she cited her two top priorities as examples of a shift in priorities from the previous government:
- On maternal health, the new government has added funding for sexual education, birth control, and abortion in certain cases where it’s legal, to the previous government’s plan to support newborns and mothers.
- The second priority is issues related to climate change — like supporting the spread of green technology, and efficient farming. She said that’s where the new finance institution will focus.
“On climate change — we think it exists. For real,” Bibeau said.
“That’s not a negligible difference… Just those two (areas), it’s night and day. There’s a world of difference.”