Will Canada get serious about aid diversion to terror?

Absent robust vetting measures, the potential for the abuse of funds intended for humanitarian purposes in areas controlled by terror organizations is immense.

Flag of Canada. Credit: Pixabay.
Flag of Canada. Credit: Pixabay.
David Schiff. Credit: Courtesy.
David Schiff

In October, following detailed investigations, Israel declared six major Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations due to their links to the internationally designated terror group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In response, some donor governments are reconsidering the processes used to select and engage with NGOs operating in the West Bank and Gaza.

Most recently, the Dutch government announced that it would cease all funding to the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), a Palestinian NGO. This follows an 18-month investigation, which identified 34 officials who worked at UAWC in 2007-2020 and whom had ties to the PFLP.

This development is particularly salient in Canada, which allocates about $6 billion CAD annually to international aid. A new NGO Monitor report reveals that the Canadian government, via the United Nations and other intermediaries, has provided millions to projects carried out by PFLP-linked organizations in recent years. The primary beneficiary of this funding is the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC)—one of the six organizations designated in October.

UAWC’s myriad ties to the PFLP were known from public sources long before the Israeli government banned the group. As early as 1993, UAWC was identified in a USAID report as the “agricultural arm” of the PFLP and having been founded by PFLP members.

More recently, in Dec. 2019, two of its employees, Samer Arbid and Abdel Razeq Farraj, were indicted over their alleged direct involvement in an Aug. 2019 bombing that killed 17-year-old Israeli, Rina Shnerb. Arbid, identified by Israeli authorities as the commander of the PFLP cell responsible for the murder, served as a “senior staff member” and “financial director” at UAWC at the time of the attack.

Farraj, who allegedly authorized the attack, served as UAWC’s “finance and administration director.” Notably, earlier this year, Israeli authorities ordered the organization’s Ramallah headquarters closed for a period of six months, citing security concerns.

Both the European Union’s anti-fraud mechanism and the Dutch government launched investigations into UAWC and other NGOs following the indictments in 2020. Pending the results of its investigation, the Dutch government has frozen ongoing funding to UAWC.

Like their European counterparts, Canadian officials also knew about UAWC’s terror ties well before the Oct. 2021 designations. An Oct. 2020  Canadian government memo noted that officials are “closely following the ongoing Dutch investigation into the UAWC,” but insisted that Canada no longer funds UAWC and that “due diligence” is exercised to ensure that funds are not diverted to terror.

In a similar vein, Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly stated categorically during a Dec. 8 parliamentary hearing, “Canadian tax dollars will never be used to fund terrorist organizations. Period.”

In contrast to these unequivocal statements, NGO Monitor’s report shows that UAWC is listed as an implementing partner on a Canadian-funded project with a $15.6 million total budget, facilitated by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which runs through March 2022.

The online grant database for Global Affairs Canada (GAC) provides incomplete information, and the ministry does not maintain organized records of secondary project partners. Thus, from outside the government, it is challenging to determine how much Canadian funding UAWC received in recent years.

However, despite the lapses in transparency, NGO Monitor research indicates that Canadian funding committed to projects involving UAWC in some capacity since 2015 exceeds $30 million. GAC’s lack of transparency and adequate tracking of grants to NGOs raises important questions regarding policy making in this important realm.

Absent robust vetting measures, the potential for the abuse of funds intended for humanitarian purposes in areas controlled by terror organizations is immense. The possible consequences of lax and nontransparent funding policies were dramatically illustrated in May, when Israeli security services revealed how massive amounts of donor funds to Palestinian NGOs are diverted to the PFLP.

According to the investigation, these NGOs participated in an elaborate scheme that included “reporting fictitious projects, presenting false documents, forgery and inflating invoices and receipts,” in order to divert money to “the families of PFLP ‘martyrs,’ salaries of PFLP members, recruitment of new members, and the advancement of terror activity.”

While Canadian officials declare that aid does not fund terror organizations, a lack of concrete, robust vetting mechanisms does not inspire confidence that funds will not be exploited in a similar manner again in the future. Moreover, the failures of transparency impede independent evaluation of Canadian funding. The channeling of aid through the U.N. or via powerful NGOs does not relieve the government of accountability and responsibility for ensuring that taxpayer funds reach the intended beneficiaries.

To say that the funding of organizations like UAWC is inconsistent with Canada’s stated values of human dignity, peace and security would be an understatement. It is imperative, therefore, that Canada implement effective screening and tracking procedures that address all channels and levels involved in the funding process, to ensure that funds earmarked for humanitarian aid do not fall into the wrong hands. Substantive action is necessary to prevent future misuse and misconduct.

Additionally, Canada should launch its own independent investigation of its UAWC funding, and not outsource that responsibility to the Dutch government. Only Ottawa can take responsibility for the disbursal of Canadian taxpayer dollars.

David Schiff is deputy editor at NGO Monitor.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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