How to Prevent Africanization of Foreign Aid to Belarus

As the Belarus civil society receives pledges of financial support from international community, the issue of how to make this aid effective is moving up on the agenda list.

Last week Belarusian civil society secured pledges of $120 million from 36 donor states at a fundraising conference in Warsaw. The United States raised its annual aid contribution from $11m to $15m. The European Commission plans to quadruple its aid to $21.5m. Poland said it would double its support to $14m. It is one thing to obtain the money, it another thing to ensure that the money is spent efficiently and minimize abuses.

Many countries in Africa receive billions in foreign aid but people and civil activists see no sign of those funds and continue to live in poverty. The absence of rule of law and transparency in those countries is the main cause of corruption and abuses. Even in a developed democracy such as the United Kingdom corruption scandals take place on a regular basis. Recently, a number of members of the British Parliament had been sanctioned for their submission of false invoices to fraudulently claim expenses from the budget. Media and law enforcement agencies had to intervene to stop these practices.

It is important to avoid “africanization” of Belarusian aid. Belarus is more similar to many African countries than to Britain because of its sultanistic political regime. However, Belarus is different from African countries in another important respect. It is surrounded by three European Union countries and a large portion of Western aid goes to Belarus-related institutions in those countries. It is important to distinguish between two recipients of foreign aid – those operating in the European Union and those based in Belarus. Approaches to controlling efficiency of monetary expenditures should be different for these two situations.

Recipients in the European Union

It appears that the largest recipients of Belarus foreign aid in the European Union are the European Humanities University (EHU), Belsat, and the European Radio for Belarus. Monitoring efficiency in such institutions is relatively straightforward because they are located in democratic countries. They should publish regular reports showing how they spend donors’ money and the effect of their activities on Belarus. For media projects, the effect can be measured by the growing number of their audience. It is important to make sure that the media do not preach only to those who are already converted but also reach out to the apolitical majority of Belarusians.

For educational projects such as the EHU, the measure of efficiency should be similar to benchmarks used foe any other European universities. The only caveat is that the main target of their efforts should be Belarus. Success can be measured by the number of publications of their teaching stuff, the number of students from Belarus and their career choices following graduation and several years thereafter. Monitoring whether the students return to Belarus or remain engaged in working on Belarus-related topics is crucial. As with other universities, information about publications of teaching staff, student and scholarly projects should be available on Internet.

It is also important that decision-making and hiring policies of the EU-based institutions are transparent. They have a dual role – first, helping Belarus civil society an, second, to bringing up a new generation of Belarusian journalists, scholars and administrators.

Recipients in Belarus

Belarus authorities made it nearly impossible for Belarus civil society to obtain financial aid through legal channels. Therefore, ensuring transparency in Belarus is more difficult. At the very least the donors should focus on several key directions – media, civil society activists, and helping the repressed and try not to duplicate their efforts.

Democratic activists in Belarusian small towns are particularly vulnerable. Once they are dismissed from their jobs it is virtually impossible for them to find another source of income. Because they do not speak foreign languages and do not benefit from networking opportunities abroad, they deserve special attention of donors. Perhaps inviting those people to work on a temporary basis aboard, even to do less-qualified jobs, could significantly help them.

It is important to limit wasting money on the so-called political tourism. This happens when democratic activists endlessly go to conferences and seminars abroad. The costs of taking part in such activities can be very significant and the benefits are questionable. For instance, the money spent on a short trip of one opposition activist to the United States would be enough for a provincial opposition activist to cover living expenses of an activist thrown out of job for half a year.

In any event, donors should make sure that there accountability mechanisms are in place. The reporting rules, however, should be adjusted to the realities of working under the most repressive regime in Europe.

Monitoring effectiveness of foreign aid

It is unrealistic to expect that Western diplomats will micromanage financial aid to Belarus civil society. Major donors may not also fully understand the situation in Belarus. A better solution could be setting up an advisory board composed of prominent Belarus experts and representatives of Belarus diaspora. This board should be independent both from the recipients of foreign aid and from the donors. Ideally, these people should also be nationals of countries other than Belarus. This would make them less vulnerable to pressure from the Belarus regime.

This body could formulate recommendations, resolve conflicts of interests and black list the abusers. They could also help with the alignment of foreign aid with the main priorities such ensuring that Belarus population has access to uncensored information.

Of course, exposing cases of corruption among opposition will inflict reputation damage not only to the abusers but also to the Belarus civil society in general. Belarus official propaganda will undoubtedly widely publicize these instances in the state-controlled press. But perhaps this sacrifice is worth making to make sure that most of the foreign aid reaches its target.

Belarus Digest