12/07/2011 08:53 EST | Updated 02/06/2012 05:12 EST

Should Canada Stand Guard Over Congo's Elections?

Where was Canada while voting racked up a death toll in Congo, a country that's inherited billions in foreign aid dollars? We don't know for certain that sending 60 or 600 Canadians would have saved lives, stopped ballot stuffing or police brutality. But it couldn't have hurt.


There are 32 million registered voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is about the size of Western Europe but with a fraction of the infrastructure. Ballots for last week's election travelled to remote regions by canoe, delivery men portaging like nomads to reach the farthest of the polls, which totalled 63,000.

Adding to the logistics crisis was a purported negligence from the international community. Fewer foreign dollars and fewer electoral observers made it to Congo's polls this time around than during its 2006 presidential race. Some claimed the international community had abandoned Congo to its own questionable devices, allowing disorganization to descend into violence.

And so it went. Armed men attacked voter kiosks and hijacked delivery trucks loaded with ballots; their gunfire killed at least five. Some ballots were found marked before polls opened. Other polls failed to open at all, upsetting crowds with tempers heated by long lines and the central African summer. Polling stations were set on fire.

Where was Canada while voting racked up a death toll in Congo, a country that's inherited billions in foreign aid dollars?

Six Canadian election observers were deployed to a country with 72 million people. This wasn't enough.

We don't know for certain that sending 60 or 600 Canadians would have saved lives, stopped ballot stuffing or police brutality. But it couldn't have hurt.

"Neutral parties can literally mean the difference between peaceful elections and violent protests," says Glenys Babcock, policy analyst and president of Pragmora, a Toronto-based think tank. Babcock is a former consultant to the World Bank who specializes in policy and advocacy measures to develop peace in post-conflict countries. She recently travelled to Congo, where locals told her that neutral observers instilled confidence in the fate of their country's election. Her group, Pragmora, unsuccessfully petitioned the Canadian government to send more observers.

It's not clear why Canada sent so few.

Safety may have been a concern. But even minor injuries to election observers are "anomalies," says Kevin McMahon, roster program director at CANADEM, a non-profit with 1,200 potential election observer's resumes on file, ready for deployment at the behest of the federal government. His group deployed the six to Congo.

So it becomes a question of Canada's moral imperative: whether or not to guide fledgling democracies through elections.

It's an important question for Congo, where Canada has invested millions to bail out a country still reeling from 12 years of civil war. With a tenuous peace agreement and five million dead, Congo became a foreign aid magnet and Canada paid up -- more than $300 million to United Nations peacekeeping efforts since 1999.

When the poorest country in the Americas chose a new president in 2006, Canada sent 127 observers to Haiti. When disillusioned Ukrainian voters headed to polls (one station proffered vodka and sausages) in 2010 for the first election post-Orange Revolution, a Canadian contingent of 200 observed.

We know that Congo wanted outside help during this election. After the Congolese government sent a request in June for oversight from foreign nations, Canada's Green Party, Liberal MP John McKay, and Babcock's group, Pragmora, all beseeched Canada to send an independent mission, or at least play a bigger role.

McKay told the Globe and Mail that Canada's minor electoral contribution is evidence that Ottawa is ignoring Africa in its policies.

We don't think Canada is ignoring Congo. It's more like Canada's support for the country is selective to the point of paradoxical.

Foreign governments spent $3.3 billion on Congo's rehabilitation over the past decade. Between 2009 and 2010, Canada alone donated $50 million in aid dollars.

Just weeks ago, Bev Oda, minister of international cooperation, announced 25 new initiatives to boost Canadian aid in Africa, with a price tag of $200 million for projects including $4 million for Congo's health sector.

Where Canada is forking over tens of millions for food, health and educational assistance, we'd bet that democracy is also a good investment, and it ensures that the rest of our money is put to good use.

Election observers interview voters, observe polls, watch for ballot stuffing and monitor the final count, acting as sentinels of a democracy-in-progress, and at a very low cost to Canada.

Since observers are volunteers, explains McMahon, the only costs incurred are for flights and, in the case of Congo's mission, a €268 per diem, or $367 CAD.

With airfare, we calculated that for six to stay for the 10-day observing period is about $27,500 CAD. That's cheaper than military intervention. It's cheaper than blue-helmet peacekeeping.

Bev Oda's office didn't mention exorbitant costs as the reason.

The department tasked with determining Canada's level of participation in foreign elections sent a canned answer in response to our questions about decision-making: "We work together with our international partners to determine our election observation efforts."

One Canadian election mission wouldn't be a cure-all for Congo's decades of conflict. But at the very least, there should be a transparent discussion surrounding Canada's decision to adopt or abandon a country in need.