by Kat Guerin
Over the past six months, Canada’s international cooperation sector has watched with concern the evolving media coverage and investigations regarding the WE Charity and its related organizations. As a sector, we have refrained from any statements that might interfere with ongoing investigations into a charity whose internal operations remain unknown to most.
We have taken this time to interrogate ourselves and each other regarding the multiple impacts of power asymmetries, reflect upon potential improvements of our governance and partnership models and engage in a transparent and a forward-looking dialogue with the Canadian political establishment and the public. Cooperation Canada’s Code of Ethics, which counts over 90 signatory organizations, is a key resource guiding conversations about accountability and the normative foundations of our sector. Through this Code of Ethics, Cooperation Canada members commit publicly to core principles including organizational transparency, accountability and integrity. They commit to prevent and avoid conflicts of interest, comply with local laws and manage funds both appropriately and accountably.
Cooperation Canada is also coordinating the Canadian Centre of Expertise on the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, Digna, and working on setting up structures for a collective anti-racist agenda. We are also facilitating strategic discussions about ways of improving the sustainability and the ownership of international cooperation initiatives and improving outdated national legislation, dating back to the 1950s, which regulates charitable sector accountability.
“Recent stories regarding WE Charity and affiliated organizations’ operations in Kenya are deeply concerning and are in no way representative of how experienced international development and humanitarian organizations operate” said Nicolas Moyer, CEO of Cooperation Canada.
The many stories swirling around the WE organizations also highlight the importance of transparent structures and practices of civil society organizations, and the value of sector-wide frameworks and communities of practice to advance best practice in accountability and governance.
WE Charity has, for the most part, remained outside of collective Canadian international cooperation sector platforms. The Charity is not among the ninety-one members of Cooperation Canada, has not signed the aforementioned Code of Ethics, and is the only large Canadian self-described international development organization which is not a part of any of the national coordination and consultative groups of the sector. The charity is also not a part of our joint commitments, advocacy campaigns, policy monitoring groups, or accountability frameworks. Without these interactions that allow for sharing of good practices and transparent communication, we are unable to fully understand operational processes of the WE organizations. Yet stories swirling around these organizations are having a real impact on public trust for others who work globally for a better, fairer and more equitable world.
International cooperation organizations operate in different environments around the world, often in complex and difficult circumstances, promoting goals of improved global health, human rights, gender equality, education, refugee protection, food security and nutrition, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and many others. Regardless of their respective program priorities, all of our members would agree that our key shared institutional capital is public trust. Without trust, we are unable to do our critical work, to form equitable partnerships, engage with communities, governments and private sector actors, or mobilize resources towards international assistance. To protect this trust, our organizations consistently err on the side of caution to avoid unnecessarily complex financial structures and both real and perceived situations of conflicts of interest. Ensuring transparency of our efforts and nurturing trust-based relationships has been and remains a top sector priority.
As a part of accountability measures, organizations in the international cooperation sector are subject to the regulations of the Canada Revenue Agency and regulatory authorities in all jurisdictions where they operate, to reporting requirements of donor agencies, such as Global Affairs Canada, as well as those of the federations and networks to which many belong. These mechanisms are backed by complaint mechanisms and audit processes to which organizations are subject.
While private sector engagement remains an important part of community development work, collaborations with private sector organizations must support charitable purposes. Charitable organizations cannot serve to support private enterprise objectives and careful legislative and regulatory mechanisms are in place to ensure this.
Cooperation Canada takes seriously any allegations of unethical practices within our sector and condemns any violations of the public trust and international or national legislation on charitable activities. We will continue to support sector-wide coordination around ethical practices and governance structures, offer platforms for sharing of good practices in this area, and support our members in engaging in equitable and transparent dialogues with sector stakeholders, national and international partners, the communities we strive to serve, and the Canadian public.
Cooperation Canada invites all Canadian organizations working in international development and humanitarian assistance to join us and their peers in advancing shared objectives and best practice as we all seek to work for a better world that is fair and inclusive for all.
Kat Guerin is manager of communications for Cooperation Canada. Since 1968, Cooperation Canada (formerly known as the Canadian Council for International Cooperation) has brought together more than 90 organizations working in the international development and humanitarian sector. CC advocates for these groups by convening sector leaders, influencing policy and building capacity. Together, they work with partners both inside and outside Canada to build a world that’s fair, safe, and sustainable for all. They collaborate with various organizations, governments, citizens, and community groups, but every interaction is defined by one promise: higher human capacity to apply creative solutions and meaningful action to the world’s most complex development challenges.