Britain’s foreign aid department was on the defensive this week, following a Mail on Sunday article casting scorn on the decision to spend £200 million in aid on Bangladesh, after the violent and possibly rigged spectacle of the country’s election at the end of last year.
In a blistering response, the Department for International Development (DfID), called out the Mail’s headline, which it said was ‘factually inaccurate’ and said that ‘No UK aid was given to the Government of Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi Election Commission or any Bangladeshi political parties for this election.’
But while it may be true that the department has not given money directly to the Bangladeshi government, has the department been disingenuous in its denial? Mr Steerpike can reveal that DfID has in fact given money to two organisations which provided support to the Election Commission and political parties in Bangladesh last year.
As part of the £16 million ‘Strengthening Political Participation’ programme, which is intended to boost ‘locally led election observation and support civil society to demand more accountable politics’ the department has given money to the Asia foundation and Democracy International (which is co-funded by the United States aid department).
The first of these organisations: the Asia Foundation, runs an election observation campaign in Bangladesh which mostly works with NGOs. But its website also says that it has ’partnered with the Bangladesh Election Commission in a comprehensive civic education campaign to update the electoral roll.’
The second: Democracy International has much closer links to political parties in the region. Writing about the DfID project, the NGO says that it will continue to ‘support political party activists and citizens as they build the skills they need to become effective leaders, advocate for inclusive policies, and constructively engage with one another to mitigate conflict’ which sounds to Mr S exactly like, err, UK cash funding political parties in Bangladesh – albeit through an NGO, and before the election took place.
But even if Democracy International has not directly handed over UK cash to political parties in Bangladesh, readers will be glad to know that they have given them something else instead: awards. Ahead of the December election last year, as part of DfID’s programme, Democracy International organised an awards ceremony for 39 political leaders who were ‘Champions of Peace’ including members of the Awami League, the opposition party which has now been implicated in voter intimidation and electoral violence.
The current prime minister’s advisor, HT Imam spoke at the event, and told the audience that ‘It is everyone’s responsibility to work in collaboration in order to ensure that the election is held in a free and fair manner.’ He has since described the recent vote, marred by alleged gang rape at a polling station and widespread violence by his party as a ‘wonderful, free and fair national election’
The department has responded to Mr S’s claims by clarifying that ‘No UK aid was given to the Government of Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi Election Commission or any Bangladeshi political parties for this election for any activities, either directly or through our partners at the Asia Foundation and Democracy International.’ And that though the Democracy International programme does work with the political parties of Bangladesh, funds are not provided to the parties themselves.
Still, Mr S can’t help but think, what a great use of taxpayer’s cash.