CIDA’s democracy promotion in Zimbabwe

If Mugabe were to accuse Canada of meddling in Zimbabwe’s domestic politics, he’d have a point

Longtime visitors to this space have read me raging, like an increasingly maniacal King Lear on the heath, about the Canadian International Development Agency not answering an access-to-information request that I filed in 2007.  Last week, almost three years later, they did.

I had asked CIDA about a multi-million dollar democracy promotion program in Zimbabwe. At the time, back in 2007, I had recently returned to Canada from Europe, where I had reported from countries such as Georgia, Ukraine, and Belarus, where pro-democracy movements had tried to overthrow autocratic governments. In Georgia and Ukraine, these movements were successful; not so in Belarus. A factor in all three cases – and also earlier in Serbia – was the involvement of Western governmental and non-governmental organizations, such as the Soros Foundation and the National Democratic Institute, that promote political parties, civil society, and democratic governance.

This got me thinking about CIDA’s work in illiberal societies. CIDA’s self-described mandate says nothing about promoting democracy and good governance abroad, instead referencing the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, which in turn focus on things like child mortality, disease, and education. But CIDA spent millions in Zimbabwe on a “Rights, Democracy and Governance Fund” with explicitly political goals: “This project supported civil society organizations in demanding and promoting democratic governance and respect for human rights in Zimbabwe.”

(The project has now been amalgamated into the “Zimbabwe Civil Society Fund 2006 – 2011,” which has a $7.5 million budget.)

It seemed to me that CIDA faced, and faces, a challenge operating in countries such as Zimbabwe, where the government is dictatorial and the opposition is democratic. Many Canadians would balk at the idea of Ottawa funding the opposition in a foreign country. Any hint that the United States might do something similar in Iran, for example, is greeted with uproar. Yet when spending money in a place where it is only the opposition that shows any democratic tendencies, how is it possible to support civil society without undermining the existing government?

I personally don’t have a problem with Canada doing so. I think we should, where possible and practical, weaken and undermine Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, among other thugs and despots. But to do so through CIDA struck me as a stretching its mandate, as it is now defined.

So that’s what motivated my access-to-information request three years ago. I narrowed the scope of my request a couple of times, as CIDA said doing so would speed up their response. In the end, I focused exclusively on phase three of the Rights, Democracy and Governance Fund, which ran from 2003 to 2006 and had a budget of $2,139,914. CIDA’s response to my request resulted in nearly 5,000 pages of documents. I’ve spent the past few days going through them.

The results are mixed and a little murky. The vast majority of documents are not censored, but some are. And it’s not always easy to entangle exactly what went on, or what certain projects entailed, by reading the paper trail.

There are nevertheless several things worth highlighting. Canada funded the National Constitutional Assembly, a Zimbabwean NGO that was closely allied to the Movement for Democratic Change political party. In other words, we weren’t funding Zimbabwe’s opposition directly, but we came close. Again, I don’t have a problem with this. But were Mugabe to accuse Canada of meddling in Zimbabwe’s domestic politics, he’d have a point.

Money was spent for apparently questionable results. At least one “consultant” landed several contracts for workshops on such things as “capacity building” and “awareness,” with goals that included: “to get empowered through learning” and “to sharpen the saw.” A CIDA official reviewing his invoices complained that they were unclear and, in places, gave contradictory information.

CIDA also gave money to an association of Zimbabwean NGOs to hold a conference for Zimbabwean members of parliament, media, and government officials as part of efforts to lobby against a proposed bill that would restrict the activities of NGOs. “I would say [the association] accomplished its objectives, short of enlisting 40 MPs to attend the workshop,” concluded a CIDA official.

Even had the association convinced more MPs to attend, it’s unclear what would have been the use. Mugabe ruled with an iron fist. The legislation passed.

On the other hand, CIDA worked with Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. This is a top-notch organization. I’ve written about one of their brave members, Beatrice Mtetwa, here.

CIDA also paid for Zimbabweans to attend at least one human rights conference in Canada. I have no idea how useful the actual conference was. But I believe nothing exposes the hollowness of anti-Western tirades by people like Mugabe as effectively as bringing people who’ve grown up hearing them to a city like Montreal and telling them to look around, read what you want, go where you please.

I’ll end with a broader point. CIDA spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It’s an important department. But its purpose seems muddled. Is CIDA about feeding the hungry and building schools, or promoting democracy and human rights? If its mandate is to include all of the above, shouldn’t the agency say so explicitly? And if democracy-promotion is to be among its goals, how does that fit with other government agencies – the much-beleaguered Rights and Democracy, for example, or the waiting-to-launch Canadian Centre for Advancing Democracy, with similar mandates?

I’ve been thinking about these things a lot lately. As always, I’d welcome input from those involved – either in the Comments section below, or to me directly.