Did KAIROS defunding come down to mining interests and one hand-written note?

| October 28, 2010

An internal memo to CIDA Minister Bev Oda recommending KAIROS continue receiving funding from the aid agency was modified under mysterious circumstances shortly before or after it was signed, reinforcing allegations of political interference.

Meanwhile, other documents show that before it was cut as a CIDA partner, KAIROS was engaged in a heated back-and-forth with diplomats at Canada's embassies in Mexico and Guatemala over the NGO's work on corporate social responsibility and mining.

KAIROS is a faith-based development group that counts among its 11 members the Catholic Church's Development and Peace, the Primate's World Relief and Development Fund, the Presbyterian Church of Canada, and the United Church of Canada.

While its name has changed several times over the decades, KAIROS had been receiving CIDA support since 1976 -- with the aid agency clearly happy with the results. "Financially, periodic audits and annual risk analyses confirmed that the NGO can be considered a strong partner," reads a memo to Ms. Oda that was obtained through Access to Information.

The current controversy erupted when, with its existing funding agreement with CIDA set to expire in 2009, KAIROS submitted a new $7.1-million proposal to undertake projects with local NGO partners in nine countries across three regions.

In evaluating the plan, officials within the aid agency consulted different divisions like the gender equality unit at CIDA, as well relevant Canadian missions in the field. A few tweaks aside, the vast majority were in favour.

"KAIROS partners work for the recognition of women's rights through activism [and] awareness-raising," the Canadian Embassy in Colombia said of a proposed project to focus on non-violent conflict resolutions and strengthening the democratization of indigenous groups.

"Many have paid for their lives, but they are beginning to be heard and are making headway. Their activities stand a high chance of success: full support."

Yet it appears KAIROS's work on corporate social responsibility as it related to Canadian mining efforts rubbed diplomats in Mexico and Guatemala the wrong way.

In Guatemala, KAIROS had proposed working with a local NGO named CEIBA to "promote human rights to life, health and prosperity by supporting the ecological sustainability [Guatemalans] seek, including reducing the impact of climate change and unsustainable resource extraction," according to a description of the proposal.

When asked for their opinions of the project, however, the response from Canadian diplomats in the field was an unambiguous "no."

"The issue of foreign investment in the extractive industries has gained great prominence in Guatemala," reads one heavily redacted comment from an unidentified official within the embassy in Guatemala City. "Canada is at the center (sic) of a heated, polarized debate, due to the prominence of current and planned mining investments....

"The proposed local partner, CEIBA, has concentrated on anti-mining activities recently. Their publications use inflammatory terms and language to swart (sic) any mining activities and opposes free trade."

Following another redacted section, the memo concludes: "KAIROS and CEIBA are openly unwilling to consider the concept of sustainable mining even on a case-by-case basis, they are not in a position to foster a balanced or an impartial monitoring effort."

Similarly, diplomats in the economic, political and trade section at the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City criticized KAIROS's plan to work with another local NGO named CIEPAC to help communities in Oaxaca and Chiapas "acquire the capacity to defend their rights, participate in policy development in relation to resource extraction/mining, and to determine development processes in their communities."

The diplomats noted that Canadian mining companies "are overwhelmingly present in Mexico," with $4 billion invested over five years in 53 mines, 500 exploration projects, 200 companies and 290,000 local workers.

However, the Canadian diplomats in Mexico alleged that KAIROS had earlier "demonstrated its position was 'anti-mining' rather than 'pro-sustainable mining.'" They went on to state that the "proposed KAIROS partner, CIEPAC in Chiapas State, is anti-trade, anti-globalization, blaming foreign investment for social ills."

"[The embassy] does not agree with KAIROS' contentions that mining in Mexico represents a violation of indigenous rights, notably the right of consultation, and has inevitably led to impoverishment of local population."

However, the diplomats then admit that they have "never visited the proposed KAIROS project sites, nor received any representations from Mexican or Canadian interests against KAIROS."

When given a chance to respond, KAIROS staff fired back, stating that they considered statements the organization was "anti-mining" as "lacking in credibility" and welcoming the opportunity to "brief the Embassy [in Guatemala] on its activities and play its traditional role of mediator between the aggrieved indigenous population, the trade representatives at the Embassy and the mining interests to ensure that all parties understand each other's concerns and come to a mutually acceptable understanding, rather than desperate confrontation."

None of the documents are dated, but it appears Canadian diplomats at both embassies hesitantly came around following meetings with KAIROS.

"After a second review of the KAIROS proposal and the Organization, our representatives in Mexico decided to support the proposed program," reads one note. "KAIROS is a well-known and respected Canadian NGO."

However, the diplomats did request that "resource extraction, human rights, and climate change should not be linked in Mexico when offering workshops to poor indigenous communities, but presented separately." KAIROS said it already disaggregated the issues.

The ol' switcheroo?

After soliciting feedback from CIDA sections and embassies in the relevant countries, a number of memos and background documents were prepared for Ms. Oda in advance of approving the project.

"CIDA bilateral desks and Canadian posts abroad confirm that the proposed country components of the program are strategically aligned with our country program objectives, or complement these well," reads one of the backgrounders.

"In Mexico and Guatemala, our embassies initially expressed concern over mining activities, which KAIROS addressed."

The tone of the memos are such that they categorically endorse the full $7.1-million proposal, saying the entire package of projects would directly and indirectly benefit 2.5 million women and girls and 2.9 million men and boys by teaching "the targeted poor their human and legal rights, together with successful negotiating techniques to obtain fairer shares of local wealth."

The memos noted that if the proposal were to be rejected, some of KAIROS's 21 Toronto-based staff would have to be laid off, and up to 30 co-funded projects in 18 countries "would likely be shut down almost immediately."

In addition, "The mandate of KAIROS would most probably be changed and curtailed; possibly KAIROS might be disbanded completely."

At least one former official says what follows is mystifying.

The final memorandum has three signatures on it. Two are from Sept. 25, 2009, when CIDA acting vice-president Naresh Singh and the aid agency's president, Margaret Biggs, signed the document. Ms. Oda herself signed the document two months later, on Nov. 27, 2009.

However, while the entire memo recommends the project, a hand-written notation has added "not" into the final sentence, which as a result reads: "RECOMMENDATION - That you sign below to indicate you not approve the contribution of $7,098,758."

The notation does not include any initials to indicate who made the change, or when.

Several former officials who were asked to look at the document said they had never seen anything like it before.

"In my experience no 'not to approve' memo is ever written to the vice-president, president or minister," said Nipa Banerjee, who worked in CIDA's partnership branch for seven years. "It is just not considered necessary.

"In this case, it is even more strange that the 'Not' approval recommendation was hand inserted, without any initials," she added. "If the memo made it up to the minister's office, it is unlikely that the vice-president or the president would have inserted the 'not' and sent it to the next higher level."

Added another retired senior CIDA officer who maintains close ties to the aid agency: "No competent senior official sends up a memo to the minister and asks her to say 'no' unless the body of the memo is a well-argued case for rejection. Here the whole memo is saying KAIROS has been a great partner for decades and always done a good professional job. It even says they know how to meet her new country priorities."

Indeed, a request for funding from Montreal-based NGO Alternatives also obtained through Access to Information that was ultimately rejected never got past Ms. Biggs, who simply scratched "not approved" on the final document. There are no signatures on that memo.

That raises the question: Did Ms. Oda initially sign the document, only to change her mind? Did someone else see the signed document and change it themselves? By not taking credit, were they trying to pin the blame on CIDA officials?

Ms. Oda's spokeswoman would not say who made the change.

"It is not important who wrote the note," Jessica Fletcher wrote in an email. "The fact is, the minister agreed not to fund the specific project. Obviously this was noted before she signed the document."

Ms. Fletcher downplayed the significance of the change, saying the document obtained by Embassy represented "the old format" of approval memos.

"The new format now has two options for the minister: Agree with recommendation or Do Not Agree with recommendation," she said. "Now the appropriate box is checked off rather than a handwritten note."

Ms. Fletcher reiterated that "after completing due diligence, it was determined that the KAIROS proposal did not meet Government of Canada priorities. This is not political interference."

Ms. Banerjee has her doubts.

"We have no evidence, but I wonder if one of minister's advisers would have inserted the 'not' either just before it went to the minister or even after," she asked. "The latter work would be criminal."

The retired senior CIDA officer questions what happened in the two months between the time the vice-president and president signed the document, and when Ms. Oda finally got around to it.

"What happened in the missing two months?" he asked. "Maybe she had already signed it with a reluctant 'yes' but some other 'very important person' finally decided it was indeed 'no' and just crudely and hurriedly added the 'not.'"

The officer said such a move probably isn't illegal since Ms. Oda would have been aware of the final decision, "but courtesy to her own deputy minister and staff and explicit accountability would say she should have at least initialled the change."

Little on Middle East

Either way, KAIROS staff were officially notified on Nov. 30, 2009 that the organization's proposal had been rejected. The story had broken across the country by Dec. 2, with the NGO saying it never received an explanation for why it had been cut as a CIDA partner.

Behind the scenes, there appeared to be some confusion as senior managers decided how to respond.

"Have we in the past been as[k]ed for a written response when a partner proposal is not approved?" Mr. Singh, the acting vice-president who'd signed off on the KAIROS memo, asked his staff in an email on Dec. 2.

"Can you ask about the experience of other [directors-general] as well and let me know in an hour, as I want to discuss with Margaret [Biggs] how to proceed."

The unedited response: "I have canvassed several Branch managers who confirmed that we ALWAYS reply in writing when there is a rejected proposal." A template was attached.

Since then, the government's public response, which it has adhered to with one notable exception, is that the KAIROS proposal did not meet the aid agency's priorities.

That exception came at an anti-Semitism conference in Jerusalem on Dec. 16 when Immigration Minister Jason Kenney linked the decision to cut the NGO as an aid partner with its supposed role in leading a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.

Mr. Kenney later denied any links between KAIROS's role in such a campaign and CIDA's decision to cut the organization and, on the surface, it appears that statement holds true.

The $7.1-million package of projects proposed by KAIROS and ultimately rejected by CIDA did include one section devoted to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Specifically, the organization planned to work with four Palestinian and Israeli NGOs on human rights and governance issues.

However, the concerns that were actually raised about KAIROS's proposal in the region dealt more with local politics and the four partners.

"Post is not aware of the modus operandi of the four partners and wonders if they co-operate strategically," officials at the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv queried.

"Interesting project, but could be fraught with 'reputational risks,'" wrote an official identified as working in the "Ramallah development section." Exactly what those "reputational risks" are isn't explained. However, the official added: "Training and media, legal issues and human rights is good value for money and fills a genuine need in Palestinian communities."

There is absolutely no mention of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign in any of the material obtained by Embassy.

Lee Berthiaume is the managing editor for Embassy Magazine. He is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Globe and Mail, The Montreal Gazette, and the Vancouver Sun, among others. This article first appeared in Embassy Magazine.

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