Canadian aid in Afghanistan and Haiti

A respected international think tank has delivered another in a string of devastating critiques of Canada’s claim to be helping improve the lot of the people of Afghanistan. The Senlis Council says that Canada’s claim to be delivering life-saving medical and other aid there is a lie.

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) says it spent $39 million in Kandahr last year and another $100 million in the rest of Afghanistan. Senlis conducted an extensive investigation into these claims. “We were not able to see any substantial impact of CIDA’s work in Kandahar and, as a matter of fact, we saw many instances of the extreme suffering of the Afghan people,” reported Nadine MacDonald, president and lead field researcher of the council at a news conference on August 29.

MacDonald described the council’s search into claims by the CIDA that it has provided several millions of dollars for a maternity clinic at the Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar City. When it visited the hospital, it found no such clinic. It did find 28 injured and starving children sharing eight beds and whose needs were being paid for out of the pockets of Afghan doctors who themselves complained about the total absence of foreign aid for their work.

This is not the first such horror story from Mirwais Hospital. In a CanWest News story dated February 17, 2007, Vancouver paramedic Edward McCormick gave a similarly disturbing report. In January, in a mission sponsored by the Senlis Council, he spent one month examining conditions in hospitals in Kandahar and British-occupied Hellman province. Conditions in the hospitals shocked him.

Kandahar’s main hospital (Mirwais), he reported, “is filthy and there is absolutely no medical equipment to be found anywhere.” Patients, including children, are dying needlessly from war wounds.

In a particularly damning comment on the Canadian military, McCormick says, “There is no sign of foreign aid in those hospitals.”

“The foreign army doctors have never bothered to go over and say hello.” Canada’s lavish home base in Kandahar is only a few kilometers up the road from Mirwais.

“There is a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan,” he concludes, “and the neglect that continues to be demonstrated in Ottawa is fueling support for the insurgency.”

The latest Senlis investigation was prompted by CIDA’s response to earlier complaints from the group. The agency published a list of projects it claimed to be financing. Presumably, it didn’t believe that Senlis or anyone else would bother to check out the list. But Senlis did, and it found nothing to substantiate CIDA’s claims. In other words, CIDA lied. Or, it doesn’t care where the tens of millions of dollars it spends in Afghanistan end up.

This is not the first lie by a Canadian government agency to cover up policy in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, when reports surfaced once again of Afghans detained by Canadians being subject to torture and arbitrary imprisonment, the Canadian government said the treatment of people it detains is overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Red Cross was obliged to issue an extraordinary public statement declaring, “Not true!”

The Senlis Council is a Europe-based think tank on issues of social and economic development of poor countries. It has been studying conditions in Afghanistan for several years. It has produced several reports specifically discussing the Canada-led war in Kandahar province. The reports conclude that Canada and its allies are destroying the lives and livelihoods of the Afghan people and will never bring about improvements for the people under current policy.

The conditions that the Council observes in Afghanistan are so desperate that it has begun to undertake relief work itself.

The Canadian government tried to dismiss the Senlis criticism. The government minister responsible for CIDA, Beverly Oda, dismissed Senlis as “having an agenda,” probably referring to the group’s advocacy of programs to help Afghanistan’s poppy-growing farmers. The minister later said, “she can’t say whether they’re right or they’re wrong.”

What makes the Council’s claims all the more striking is that it supports the war and foreign troop presence in Afghanistan. It merely quibbles with the way the war is being conducted. At the August 29 press conference, Nadine MacDonald called for more Canadian and other NATO-country troops into Afghanistan, “so the war can be won without bombing campaigns.” Unlike NATO, the council is sensitive to damage to the war effort, including to its public image internationally, caused by frequent bombings of the homes and villages of the Afghan people.

MacDonald also recently stated that it was “outrageous” that negotiations took place to free the 19 Korean religious proselytizers who had been captured and detained by Afghan patriotic forces.

What this means for Haiti

The Senlis reports on Afghanistan must prompt supporters of the Haitian people to step up our own research on CIDA’s claims in Haiti. During my recent visit there, I saw no evidence of Canadian aid programs reaching that desperately poor population. Time and again, Haitians with whom we met urged us to publicize the failure of aid programs there to deliver meaningful results.

I suspect there are a few beneficial Canadian programs in Haiti, including by non-government agencies. But they are a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed. And I have no doubt that Canadian claims to be helping ordinary Haitians are largely a lie. Moreover, the Haitian people need a lot more aid money and resources, but it should up to them and their sovereign government institutions to decide what to do with it.

If Canada is helping the Haitian people with social development, its embassy doesn’t think it important enough to report it. The interior walls of the embassy are covered with photos praising Canada’s presence in Haiti. They are exclusively devoted to its policing efforts. Several photos proudly show Canadian police arresting Haitians. (See my report on a visit to the embassy on my blogsite of my trip to Haiti.

Unfortunately, the Canada Haiti Action Network does not have access to thousands of dollars to pay researchers. But we have lots of dedicated activists, and a few of us should get together to do the necessary research on CIDA. And we should pressure the New Democratic Party, the Bloq quebecois and foreign policy think tanks to do the research on Haiti that they should already be doing if they are serious about developing a just and humanitarian foreign policy for Canada. And maybe some graduate students could get together and devote some research and writing to this subject.

A future solidarity delegation of activists from Canada should have as one of its goals investigating CIDA’s programs in Haiti. I hope that delegation happens no later than this winter.