Did British aid help Bangladeshi police lock up dissidents?

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Scathing report into British aid budget warns funding helped Bangladeshi regime track and imprison political opponents

British aid may have helped a police force in the developing world to spy on and arrest opposition protesters, a report has found.

The British government trained Bangladeshi detectives to track mobile phones and monitor social media activity, in a move that could have resulted in anti-Government leaders being rounded up and jailed, a report found.

Ministers risk bringing Britain “into disrepute” by spending millions of pounds in training the police forces of regimes with poor human rights records, a highly critical report from the Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI) said.

Improving justice systems is regarded as a vital part of Britain’s £11 billion a year aid bill, as corruption and rent-seeking frequently holds back developing economies.

But the ICAI gave Britain’s £95 million-a-year budget to improve policing and security in the developing world an amber-red rating – meaning it is performing poorly and “significant” improvements are required.

The report found that spending in sixteen countries, including Nigeria, Malawi and Sierra Leone, is having just “pockets” of short-term success in fighting corruption, gender discrimination and incompetence among local police forces and judiciaries.

“We found that the Department for International Development’s (DfID) attempts to promote reform were largely failing to deliver any real difference for poor people,” the report concluded. “Indeed, we found that DFID was repeating activities that have little prospect of success.”

ICAI inspectors were “surprised” to learn of a programme run by DfID and the United Nations “helping to develop the intelligence functions of the Bangladesh National Police, including providing software and training to the Criminal Investigation Division on how to track mobile phones, analyse call data and monitor social media.”

The police claimed the training had broken up human trafficking and prostitution gangs.

However, the report went on: “Our concern was that this assistance might also be misused.

“We were informed both by DFID and UNDP that politicisation of the Bangladeshi police had increased in recent times. We saw evidence that the prison population spiked during periods of opposition activism. In a deteriorating political context, the intelligence capacity built by UK assistance could be used to monitor and suppress political opposition groups.”

DfID said it had challenged the Bangladeshi police on the allegations, and found there was “absolutely no evidence” of links between UK aid spending and political repression.

In the past two years the Department has scrapped programmes in Sudan, where the police had violently attacked protesters, and Congo, where police units were accused of extra-judicial executions.

A programme in Ethiopia to support local police was cancelled last year amid mounting allegations of rape, torture and murder by the regime.

The report warned that ministers and civil servants appear “uncertain” about “what types and level of risk are justifiable” when spending aid money in countries that violate human rights.

“Clearly, support for security and justice institutions can raise some genuine ethical dilemmas and the risk of doing harm is real,” it said.

More generally, the report found that the department was often not “focussed or realistic” and repeatedly tried to attempt projects that had no great prospects of success.

It went on: “The use of empirical evidence and contextual analysis is often weak and poorly linked to programme designs. Some DFID advisers report feeling under pressure to over-promise on results, leading to unrealistic programmes.”

“Implementers feel under pressure to deliver wide geographical coverage, resulting in programmes that are spread too thinly to achieve sustainable results. DFID’s procurement of contractors is causing a range of problems, including long delays and rigid or unrealistic programme designs.”

It went on: “In the policing sphere, common reform strategies, such as building model police stations and community policing pilots, are producing, at best, isolated results that are not scalable or sustainable.”

“Little attention is being given to sustainability, at either the financial or political levels.”

The report praises programmes to help women and girls achieve redress from the legal system

It is the latest in a number of critical reports of aid spending by the official independent watchdog.

A DfID spokesman said: “Security and justice are the most challenging sectors we work in and DFID focuses on countries with the biggest potential for improvement. We have made good progess particularly in helping women and girls gain access to justice, but where concerns about human rights and instability become too high, we have no hesitation in shutting programmes down.”

Source: The Daily Telegraph