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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Foreign aid accountability: Poland vs. Canada

  1. The government gags CIDA
    The government gags the Ministry of the Environment
    The government gags it's own MP's
    The government makes me gag too.

  2. The government gags CIDA
    The government gags the Ministry of the Environment
    The government gags it's own MP's
    The government makes me gag too.

    • LOL … made my gray day brighter ;0)

  3. Blame the Message Event Proposal (MEP), Mr. Petrou. If the questions you're asking don't have a clear and defined positive contribution to the government's image, the MEP will never clear the PMO.

    It appears that the only place in which this government believes in the Precautionary Principle is when it comes to dealing with information requests. If there's an outside but quantifiable chance that you question might prove embarrassing to the government, your request is thrown into the bottomless pit.

    EDIT: Here's a copy of it, Michael. If you fill it out ahead of time it might speed up the process.
    http://hilltimes.com/HT/2010/april/mep-20100426.j

  4. Blame the Message Event Proposal (MEP), Mr. Petrou. If the questions you're asking don't have a clear and defined positive contribution to the government's image, the MEP will never clear the PMO.

    It appears that the only place in which this government believes in the Precautionary Principle is when it comes to dealing with information requests. If there's an outside but quantifiable chance that you question might prove embarrassing to the government, your request is thrown into the bottomless pit.

    EDIT: Here's a copy of it, Michael. If you fill it out ahead of time it might speed up the process.
    http://hilltimes.com/HT/2010/april/mep-20100426.j

  5. OK, but you have to remember that Poland is still only a couple decades out from being an authoritarian regime. They probably haven't developed a biased, leftist media bent on conjuring up faux scandals with which to distract and embarrass the government. It's not really a fair comparison, at least at this point. Wait until their good projects get sidetracked by lefty journalists with agendas… then we'll see a change in their 'interview whoever you want' tone.

    I guess the good news for those who opposed the measures preventing Canadian aid money from funding safe abortions in Africa is that, for all we know, the money might be funding abortions anyway.

  6. OK, but you have to remember that Poland is still only a couple decades out from being an authoritarian regime. They probably haven't developed a biased, leftist media bent on conjuring up faux scandals with which to distract and embarrass the government. It's not really a fair comparison, at least at this point. Wait until their good projects get sidetracked by lefty journalists with agendas… then we'll see a change in their 'interview whoever you want' tone.

    I guess the good news for those who opposed the measures preventing Canadian aid money from funding safe abortions in Africa is that, for all we know, the money might be funding abortions anyway.

  7. . Unfortunately power money and appearances are the only motivating factors in this government's policies. Steven Stonewall 's tactic is stall stall stall until even the most persistent journalist throws up his hands and says to hell with it. When he does Harper will smile and say "My work here is done"

  8. . Unfortunately power money and appearances are the only motivating factors in this government's policies. Steven Stonewall 's tactic is stall stall stall until even the most persistent journalist throws up his hands and says to hell with it. When he does Harper will smile and say "My work here is done"

  9. LOL … made my gray day brighter ;0)

  10. So Poland acts like a democracy because it was once an authoritarian state. Canada acts like an authoritarian state because it was once more democratic. Thanks for clearing that up.

  11. Listen, what use is a free press if the press is just going to mess with you? If the press in Canada isn't going to play ball and just go off on their leftist scandal-mongering adventures, they shouldn't be surprised or whiny about the fact they're being shut out.

  12. Listen, what use is a free press if the press is just going to mess with you? If the press in Canada isn't going to play ball and just go off on their leftist scandal-mongering adventures, they shouldn't be surprised or whiny about the fact they're being shut out.

    • So, conservative governments should be immune to scrutiny? Personally, I think scrutiny is more important than any perceived unfairness or bias by the media. There is right-wing media in Canada, too. It's a total red herring that the media, as a whole, is left-wing. And even the left-wing media will gladly gobble up any juicy scandals produced by a left-wing government. I mean, don't you remember the dozens of scandals from the Chretien years? Many of these supposed scandals didn't turn out to be accurate, like the HRDC billion-dollar boondoggle. Investigation turned out maybe a couple of million in dubious spending.

      Conservatives need to stop whining about perceived media bias. Even if it exists, accountability is more important. If you really love your country, you shouldn't excuse its abuse just because it's your team doing the abusing.

      • Who are the Conservatives here for? They're here for CANADA. I could see the need for scrutiny if we were led by socialists (NDP), separatists (BQ) or crooks and liars (Liberals), but Conservatives are here for Canada. I think we can trust Mr. Harper and his team to do the right thing. It's about real Canadian leadership, and the Conservatives and Mr. Harper have it to spare. The media need to let Harper and his team do their work, and focus on the economy.

        • Besides, if we can trust Harper to do the right thing, he has nothing to fear from allowing everyone to keep an eye on what he is doing.

        • Hahahahaha! Thanks for the laugh! Now go collect your paycheque, like a good CPC troll.

          • You must be mistaken, sir… the only payment I need is to know that Mr. Harper is still the captain of the good ship Canada, keeping us afloat on the Sea of Chaos and Coalitions. Full steam ahead!

            Ok, I better stop now, I might have a stroke.

          • Oh, okay my earlier question was answered ;^)

        • Wait, I sniff parody here, and feel embarrassed for having to explicitly ask… you are not serious? Man, you're good!

      • You might want to check your chain. Can you see anybody jerking it?

  13. So, conservative governments should be immune to scrutiny? Personally, I think scrutiny is more important than any perceived unfairness or bias by the media. There is right-wing media in Canada, too. It's a total red herring that the media, as a whole, is left-wing. And even the left-wing media will gladly gobble up any juicy scandals produced by a left-wing government. I mean, don't you remember the dozens of scandals from the Chretien years? Many of these supposed scandals didn't turn out to be accurate, like the HRDC billion-dollar boondoggle. Investigation turned out maybe a couple of million in dubious spending.

    Conservatives need to stop whining about perceived media bias. Even if it exists, accountability is more important. If you really love your country, you shouldn't excuse its abuse just because it's your team doing the abusing.

  14. Who are the Conservatives here for? They're here for CANADA. I could see the need for scrutiny if we were led by socialists (NDP), separatists (BQ) or crooks and liars (Liberals), but Conservatives are here for Canada. I think we can trust Mr. Harper and his team to do the right thing. It's about real Canadian leadership, and the Conservatives and Mr. Harper have it to spare. The media need to let Harper and his team do their work, and focus on the economy.

  15. Welcome to the world of foreign aid accountability Michael.

    I understand your frustration with CIDA and Foreign Affairs, but you can't just blame our government for gaging them.

    This is common practise "U.N. officials won't release internal audits of their programs to the fund's investigators". The reason is they don't want the public to know how much money gets sucked up by administrative NGOs i.e. IREX Europe 70/30 split and corruption in the countries they are providing aid to. They respond "Without a spotlight, without investigations, and without some sort of accountability, it's impossible to root out corruption," he said. "But just simply withdrawing donations, I do believe, would condemn millions of people who are not involved in the corruption to terrible fates."
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41221202/ns/health-he

  16. Ignatieff accused Harper of cutting back on HIV/AIDS funding in Africa during the debate Tuesday – here is what is really happening.

    "Money for anti-AIDS program misspent
    A full 67 percent of money spent on an anti-AIDS program in Mauritania was misspent, the investigators told the fund's board of directors. So did 36 percent of the money spent on a program in Mali to fight tuberculosis and malaria, and 30 percent of grants to Djibouti.

    In Zambia, where $3.5 million in spending was undocumented, the fund decided the nation's health ministry simply couldn't manage the grants and put the United Nations in charge of them. The fund is trying to recover $7 million in "unsupported and ineligible costs" from the ministry.

    The fund is pulling or suspending grants from nations where corruption is found, and demanding recipients return millions of dollars of misspent money."

    ———-
    Sweden has announced that it will not pay its 1.5 billion kronor ($226 million) contribution to the global fund to fight AIDS unless more is done to ensure the cash does not fall into the wrong hands, a report said Saturday.
    http://www.thelocal.se/31586/20110123/#

  17. Ignatieff accused Harper of cutting back on HIV/AIDS funding in Africa during the debate Tuesday – here is what is really happening.

    "Money for anti-AIDS program misspent
    A full 67 percent of money spent on an anti-AIDS program in Mauritania was misspent, the investigators told the fund's board of directors. So did 36 percent of the money spent on a program in Mali to fight tuberculosis and malaria, and 30 percent of grants to Djibouti.

    In Zambia, where $3.5 million in spending was undocumented, the fund decided the nation's health ministry simply couldn't manage the grants and put the United Nations in charge of them. The fund is trying to recover $7 million in "unsupported and ineligible costs" from the ministry.

    The fund is pulling or suspending grants from nations where corruption is found, and demanding recipients return millions of dollars of misspent money."

    ———-
    Sweden has announced that it will not pay its 1.5 billion kronor ($226 million) contribution to the global fund to fight AIDS unless more is done to ensure the cash does not fall into the wrong hands, a report said Saturday.
    http://www.thelocal.se/31586/20110123/#

    • Wrong hands? Did they identify before they promised the cash who's hands were right (sic) and who's were wrong? I doubt it. Besides, that is the culture. It is wrong to try and change that because it doesn't meet the expectations you developed in your own country. Believe you me, lots of cash passed under the table in the back rooms of the 1st world before Sweden decided to straddle the moral high ground.

  18. You can't trust anyone with power. You're not a reasonable person if you think otherwise. Anyone with significant power needs to be under a microscope to keep them honest.

  19. Besides, if we can trust Harper to do the right thing, he has nothing to fear from allowing everyone to keep an eye on what he is doing.

  20. You might want to check your chain. Can you see anybody jerking it?

  21. You have to fight fire with fire, Leo. If the nasty people are corrupt and on the take, then you'd better belly up to the bar and get on the take, too, if you want things to change. < sarcasm >

  22. You have to fight fire with fire, Leo. If the nasty people are corrupt and on the take, then you'd better belly up to the bar and get on the take, too, if you want things to change. < sarcasm >

  23. Wrong hands? Did they identify before they promised the cash who's hands were right (sic) and who's were wrong? I doubt it. Besides, that is the culture. It is wrong to try and change that because it doesn't meet the expectations you developed in your own country. Believe you me, lots of cash passed under the table in the back rooms of the 1st world before Sweden decided to straddle the moral high ground.

  24. Updating talking point alert

    It is now "The U.N. does it too!"

  25. Updating talking point alert

    It is now "The U.N. does it too!"

  26. Hahahahaha! Thanks for the laugh! Now go collect your paycheque, like a good CPC troll.

  27. You must be mistaken, sir… the only payment I need is to know that Mr. Harper is still the captain of the good ship Canada, keeping us afloat on the Sea of Chaos and Coalitions. Full steam ahead!

    Ok, I better stop now, I might have a stroke.

  28. Wait, I sniff parody here, and feel embarrassed for having to explicitly ask… you are not serious? Man, you're good!

  29. Oh, okay my earlier question was answered ;^)

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