Foreign aid accountability: Poland vs. Canada

Researching this story on Polish support for the democratic opposition in Belarus, I called up a contact at the Polish embassy in Ottawa. Within a couple of hours, he sent me personal cell phone numbers for the relevant deputy ministers working on the file. The Polish ambassador invited me to come by for a chat. Did I want to interview Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski? No problem.

You might find this unremarkable. Surely most ministries want to publicize the work they do. You would be wrong — at least if we’re talking about Canada and its current government. In the past five years, I’ve spoken on the record with precisely one person at Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs who wasn’t a spokesperson reciting usually banal and evasive talking points that someone else had written.

As it happens, Canada also says it is supporting democracy in Belarus. It pledged $400,000 to the cause in February. Of this, $100,000 was pegged to support Belsat, a Belarusian language television station based in Warsaw and broadcasting into Belarus. I contacted Belsat in March and was told they hadn’t received the money.

A little later I received another note from Belsat saying they had been in touch with Irex Europe, an NGO that aims to builds civil society by supporting independent media. Belsat said Irex Europe told them only $70,000 of the promised Canadian funds would reach Belsat, while Irex would keep the rest. I called Irex Europe and spoke with its director, Mike de Villiers. He said Irex Europe has no contractual agreement with either Belsat or the Canadian government but had been in discussions with both parties. He said a 70-30 split would not be out of the ordinary. Irex Europe would use its share in a case like this to cover administering the rest of the funds, evaluating how they were used, financial oversight and training.

None of this is necessarily scandalous. But it does leave some questions that Foreign Affairs should answer: When will the money promised to help Belsat be dispersed? Is Canada channeling that money through a third party? If so, why? How much will that third party keep? What does Canada expect in return?

I tried for weeks to get answers. Phone calls. Emails. One spokesperson ignored me. Another seemed embarrassed by the talking points he was given. Neither would — or were allowed to — answer my questions.

Here’s why this matters to regular citizens as well as journalists. Canada, though Foreign Affairs and the Canadian International Development Agency, spends hundreds of millions of dollars supposedly promoting democracy, human rights, economic development and the rule of law in foreign countries. I say supposedly, because we don’t really know how this money is spent or what it accomplishes.

Let’s take, as an example, CIDA’s “Zimbabwe Civil Society Fund – Phase II.” The focus of the $3.5 million dollar fund, says CIDA, “is to ensure that civil society organizations and citizens can participate in democratic reform and transition in Zimbabwe.” It’s a worthy goal. Zimbabwe, of course, is still a crushing dictatorship. Now, it could be that democracy will bloom in Zimbabwe any day now, or it could be that CIDA is wasting millions of dollars. Or perhaps the money is pushing incremental progress that may one day bear fruit. It sure would be nice to know more about how CIDA is using this money to get a better idea of what the answer might be. Don’t bother asking. I tried to find out how CIDA was spending money on a related Zimbabwean project. It took a formal access-to-information request and three years of waiting.

Let’s look at another example. Canada’s democracy promotion in Belarus is being funded through Foreign Affairs and the Glyn Berry Program for Peace and Security. Berry was a Canadian diplomat who was martyred in a terrorist attack against the United Nations in Afghanistan in 2006. A program that seeks to promote democracy and human rights is a fitting legacy. I wanted to know where the money in this program is being spent. I asked Foreign Affairs. No response.

Hell, let’s look at the biggest example there is: Afghanistan. I called Foreign Affairs a while back to book an interview with our ambassador to Afghanistan, William Crosbie. No response. Bizarrely, I still hear staff at Foreign Affairs complain that Canadians don’t understand what the department does in Afghanistan. They may be right, but it’s their own damn fault.

I happen to meet a lot of people who work for Foreign Affairs and CIDA. They’re not idiots. Most are well traveled and well educated and frustrated by a government that gags them. But that doesn’t mean the programs they run are effective and efficient. They might be. They might not. Right now we can only guess.

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