When charitable giving raises suspicion

About CHF10.2 million in Swiss bilateral development aid went to Liberia in 2011. Keystone

News of a ‘questionable’ half-million Swiss-franc donation to a Clinton Foundation project in 2011 has aroused criticism, as well as questions of how – and why – humanitarian organisations choose their aid targets.

Swiss newspaper Schweiz am Sonntag caused a stir on Sunday when it reported that the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) donated CHF484,000 ($486,000) to the Clinton Foundation in 2011, to support a project dedicated to reducing infant mortality in Liberia between 2011 and 2013.

The donation was branded ethically “questionable” by the German-language paper, given that it was made by a neutral country to an organisation founded by former US president Bill Clinton.

The timing of the donation also raised the question of a conflict of interest, as it overlapped with intense political and legal negotiations surrounding the exchange of information about American accounts held with Swiss banks, potentially for purposes of tax evasion. 

A former employee of SDC quoted in the article called for greater transparency in Swiss development aid, criticising “the opaque mixture of development cooperation with politically motivated actions”.

But an SDC spokesperson denied any dubious implications, telling the paper: “The SDC has no other operational or financial links with the Clinton Foundation. Switzerland has no hidden agenda and doesn’t implement development cooperation for political purposes.”

Goal alignment

It seems to be a clear case of he-said, she-said: critics have suggested that a sizeable Swiss donation to a foreign foundation was politically motivated – presumably to ease US pressure on Swiss banks – while the SDC defends its motives as non-corrupt. So how does the SDC choose which projects and countries to support?

The graphic below illustrates how Switzerland distributed its bilateral development aid in 2011. Bilateral aid targets countries directly, whereas multilateral aid is given via international organisations such as the World Bank or United Nations. Liberia, shown in the bottom right of the graphic, received CHF10.2 million in Swiss aid in 2011, of which the donation to the Clinton Foundation project represented about 5%.

Noémie Charton, a spokesperson for Switzerland’s foreign ministry, stresses that the donation in question was made by the SDC to a specific project implemented by the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), aimed at reducing maternal and child mortality in post-conflict Liberia.

“The overall goal of the project was to enhance the delivery of primary health care in Bomi County, with a focus on maternal, newborn and child health, with the aim of leveraging cost-effective interventions that will later form the basis of a national scale-up plan,” Charton told swissinfo.ch.

Charton confirmed that there has been no further funding of Clinton Foundation projects since the CHAI contributions were finalised in 2013.

While the SDC did not respond directly to questions regarding alleged conflict of interest surrounding the donation, Charton stated that the CHAI project was selected over other projects because “its aims were in line with the SDC’s strategy in Liberia.”

According to the SDC’s website, its country and regional strategies are defined based on the seven objectives outlined in Switzerland’s Dispatch on International Cooperation.

The SDC says it chooses which non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to work with based on which partners it can achieve “maximum impact” with. It has no separate funding tool to support projects by third-party organisations, but it can make contributions to support them if they carry out activities autonomously. Allocations are made via “project or programme” contributions, which depend on an organisation’s “competences and capacities and the relevance of its activities”, as well as their own financial contributions.

Countries are selected for SDC support are based on a list of “priority countries and regions” (PDF), which does not explicitly include Liberia.

Investigation concerns

The Schweiz am Sonntag article revealed that at the time of SDC’s donation to the CHAI project, Hillary Clinton, then the US Secretary of State, was in direct contact with former Swiss cabinet member and foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey. The SDC is a unit within the foreign ministry.

Now, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the White House on November 8, there are concerns that the Clinton Foundation could be subjected to an FBI investigation, in which Switzerland could potentially find itself involved.

Roland Büchel, president of Switzerland’s Foreign Affairs Committee, told Swiss newspaper Tribune de Genève on Monday that clarifications on the issue will be required from the Swiss foreign ministry, and specifically from foreign minister Didier Burkhalter, during the FAC’s upcoming session in Geneva next week.

Going forward, parliamentarian Carlo Sommaruga told the French-language newspaper: “We must henceforth make sure that the money has been invested. The effectiveness of the project must be evaluated. For the future, we need to pay more attention to SDC’s spending.”

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