Breaking down the black box: Engineers Without Borders advocates for transparent aid practices

Students walking through the Bowl on Oct. 17 may have seen a large black box with the letters “CIDA” scrawled on it. This mysterious display was part of Engineers Without Borders’ attempt to raise awareness about the need for international aid transparency.

The Canadian International Development Agency spends $5 billion annually on development and poverty reduction around the world. After it is allocated, it becomes extremely difficult to follow up on how effective that aid was.

This is where the black box comes into play. As EWB’s website says, “Each event will feature a big black box, as a metaphor for Canada’s aid — money goes in, but no one’s quite sure what happens after that.”

“CIDA spends $5 billion of taxpayer dollars every year on poverty alleviation,” said James Wattam, “so we’d really like to know what they’re spending that money on and be able to judge whether they’re spending it in the best way possible.”

Wattam is EWB-University of Saskatchewan Vice-President Advocacy.

The U of S event was part of a nationwide effort to shed light on the need for aid transparency. There were EWB members standing near the box talking to passers-by about their goals and encouraging them to sign supplied postcards to be mailed to the federal Minister for International Cooperation, Bev Oda.

The postcards ask Oda to have Canada sign on to the International Aid Transparency Initiative, which aims to have nations and large organizations make their aid donations and their outcomes public. The IATI was developed after the Third High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, held in Ghana’s capital city of Accra in September 2008.

Australia, Finland and Germany are among the countries that are already signatories to the IATI, along with organizations such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations Development Programme. Canada is not listed as either a signatory or as endorsing the IATI on its website.

One of the largest benefits of the IATI, according to Wattam, is that it will allow for comparisons between aid projects, and make them more efficient.

“We’ll be able to compare CIDA’s information with the World Bank’s information,” he said, “and if they’re doing a project in the same area, the same sector, you’ll be able to judge which project is working better.

“We can’t really call on CIDA to change a whole lot if we don’t know what they’re actually doing right now,” Wattam said.

EWB has only been advocating for aid transparency for several months. Its advocacy efforts are “pretty young,” according to Watttam. Nevertheless, EWB members decided they wanted to narrow in on a specific area in which to fight for change, and they have pursued it persistently since.

“What we have realized is that it’s important to focus on something if we want to get it done,” Wattam said.

Some of the boxes created in other cities for the Oct. 17 campaign were lifted into the air by helium balloons or hit with a barrage of pumpkins, but Wattam said the main function of the U of S box was to be large enough to attract attention.

“I think it would probably be illegal to float this thing with helium balloons, because it would probably break something on its way down,” Wattam said with a chuckle.


Photo: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf