CIDA, DFAIT, and promoting democracy abroad

Last year’s revolutions of the Arab Spring were, and remain, the greatest opportunity for the global growth of democracy since the end of the Cold War and the resulting spread of freedom in Eastern Europe.

Democracy promotion is ostensibly a priority for this government. In the 2008 Throne Speech, Canada was promised: “a new, non-partisan democracy promotion agency will also be established to support the peaceful transition to democracy in repressive countries and help emerging democracies build strong institutions.”

More than three years later, that promise is unfulfilled. But Canada still has the framework to pursue democracy promotion through the Canadian International Development Agency, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Both CIDA and DFAIT claim democracy promotion as part of their core mandates. It should follow, therefore, that the Arab Spring presented them with an unprecedented opportunity.

CIDA, I think it’s fair to say, has been passive. None of the primary Arab Spring countries — Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt — are among CIDA’s “countries of focus.” Of the three, only Egypt receives significant Canadian aid: about $18 million in 2009-2010, little of which explicitly targeted growing democratic governance.

“Essentially, not a lot has changed,” International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda said in an interview with Maclean’s, when asked how the Arab Spring has affected CIDA’s democracy promotion efforts in the countries swept by last year’s democratic revolutions. “In many of those countries we never had a bilateral program.”

CIDA did respond to the humanitarian needs that arose from the revolts and, in the case of Libya, civil war.

But Oda says promoting democracy remains a CIDA goal, adding: “We’re very stringently looking at the most effective way of doing democracy promotion… We want to make sure first of all that our assistance is welcome, and that we’re effective in what we’re doing.

Oda also argued that democracy promotion covers a wide range of activities. A program seeking to empower women, for example, may also increase their participation in the electoral process.

I think this is something of a dodge, but not an invalid one. Vocational support for women, literacy training, poverty reduction: all these things arguably strengthen the foundation of a functioning democracy.

There is also the issue — which Oda brought up — of politicizing aid. CIDA won’t train political parties, for example. I’m not as convinced by this. If we support democracy, we shouldn’t be afraid to support parties that do the same, even if — especially if — those parties are struggling against established governments. I spent some time in Belarus and Venezuela a few years back talking to democratic activists who had received training from the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. None of them were proxies or shills for the American parties, but they were deeply grateful for the help they received preparing for a more open political system.

CIDA doesn’t need to work directly with political parties to strengthen democracy abroad, though. This can also be accomplished by supporting civil society and human rights advocacy groups; and by training election monitors, journalists, judges, police, and government officials. CIDA does some of these things already, including in Egypt, but it is clearly not a funding priority in that country. Details about projects aimed at supporting democratic governance and human rights — such as this one — don’t appear on CIDA’s website.

DFAIT says its “Democracy Unit” is “mandated to lead Canada’s whole-of-government policy development on democracy support.” Its primary envelope for funding democracy-building projects is the Glyn Berry Program, named after a Canadian diplomat who was killed in a 2006 car bomb attack in Afghanistan. The program has an annual budget of $5 million. Of this, $3 million is specifically aimed at promoting democracy abroad.

DFAIT spokeswoman Aliya Mawani answered my questions on democracy promotion by email. Her responses were not as specific as I had hoped, but she did provide more insight than DFAIT volunteers on its website:

“The Democracy Envelope currently supports 16 projects in the Americas, the Middle East-North Africa, Burma, Pakistan, Belarus and Zimbabwe,” Mawani writes.

“About one third of the Democracy Envelope (about $1 million/year) is spent in the Americas.  This programming includes support for the Friends of the Charter, an initiative   which aims to prevent democratic crises in the region; projects in Ecuador to support civil society and promote dialogue with Ecuadorian authorities run by Participation Ciudadana and the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy; and a project led by International IDEA aimed at strengthening Bolivia’s Regional Legislative Assembly and its ability to engage with citizens.

“In Africa, the Democracy Envelope currently supports projects facilitating constitutional reforms in Zimbabwe with the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, and promoting the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance with the Institute for Democracy in Africa.

“In Pakistan, two projects with the Parliamentary Centre and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs are focused on strengthening capacity of the national and regional parliaments.

“In terms of global democracy support projects, DFAIT provides funds to the World Movement for Democracy to undertake civil society capacity building worldwide to improve its ability to advocate for the development of laws that allow civil society to actively participate in democratic processes.

“In the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, DFAIT has provided funding to a number of expert organizations to support independent media, and citizen participation in democratic processes, including elections. For instance, funding was provided to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) to support voter registration in Tunisia in 2011; to Rights & Democracy to train more than 100 political bloggers and independent journalists in Egypt (2010); and to German NGO, Media in Cooperation and Transition (MICT), for a project to train journalists ahead of elections and the 2011 constitutional referendum in Egypt.  DFAIT also provided funded the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections to support the training of domestic election observers in Lebanon (2009-10). Regionally, funds were also provided to EQUITAS to support a training-of-trainers project in the area of citizenship education including a gender dimension, and to the UN Department of Political Affairs’ program to deliver electoral support and conflict prevention programming in the MENA region.

 ‘In the context of the Arab Awakening, Canada is monitoring the situation in the MENA region closely in order to identify opportunities where we can best support transitional countries seeking to build democratic institutions and increase the role citizens play in political decision-making processes.

“In addition to programming focused specifically on democracy initiatives, DFAIT supports projects that contribute more broadly to democratic processes.  This includes funding to support the implementation and integration of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women Peace and Security.

“In recent years, DFAIT, through the GBP, has also contributed over $1 million to mediation support efforts that help to build democratic processes and assure that countries in transition are able to build sustainable, robust democratic institutions and increases the role citizens play in political decision-making.  A further $24 million has been allocated for transitional justice support since 2006 to promote strong and effective international criminal justice institutions.”

So what to make of all this?

First of all, I don’t think there’s an easy recipe for promoting democracy abroad. And it gets more difficult the more repressive a country is. You can train democratic activists in non-violent resistance, for example, but you risk making those activists vulnerable to charges of being foreign pawns. Furthermore, much of this information — as well as the means of contacting and communicating with other pro-democracy activists who have gone through similar fights — is now available on the Internet. An aspiring democrat in, say, Syria can reach out to veterans of Georgia’s Rose Revolution on Facebook.

I personally favour tactics that fund free media; support democratic dissidents (and their families, when those dissidents are inevitably jailed); monitor elections; research and document human rights violations, so that perpetrators know they might one day be held to account; train political parties, judges, civil servants, prison wardens, and the like; and support obviously practical human rights organizations (i.e. those providing legal help to persecuted democrats, rather than, say, “capacity building” workshops). But I don’t pretend any of this is straightforward.

That said, I think CIDA missed a chance to further its democracy promotion mandate when democratic revolts rocked the Arab world last year. Even those CIDA-funded programs that do promote the growth of civil society and democratic institutions tend to pre-date the Arab Spring. A faster, more agile CIDA might have responded differently.

DFAIT’s approach to promoting democracy appears comparatively more focused. Most of what Mawani outlined above strikes me as principled and practical — though, again, more details would help readers and I better judge. I think DFAIT should be much more transparent about this. It shouldn’t take a journalist’s request for this information to be made public.

Finally, I think Stephen Harper was on to something back in 2008. It’s easy for the goal of spreading democracy to get forgotten or muddled when its part of the much larger mandates of CIDA and DFAIT. A separate dedicated agency was a good idea when Harper floated the idea, and remains so today.


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.