The huge charitable foundation run by software czar Bill Gates and his wife has yanked funding from an anti-smoking research project in Africa because of the tobacco industry links of a former Canadian cabinet minister.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's partner on the project is Canada's International Development Research Centre, a federally funded agency whose chairman is former Tory external affairs minister Barbara McDougall. When the Gates group found out that Ms. McDougall was until last month on the board of directors of Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., it promptly pulled the remaining funds from its initial $5.2-million (U.S.) grant.
The foundation said in a statement that it is "deeply disappointed" that Ms. McDougall held both roles, and "this conflict is unacceptable as we work to support meaningful tobacco control programs in Africa."
This is the second time in two months that the Gates foundation has cancelled a Canadian-led project. In February, the federal government and the foundation killed an $88-million AIDS vaccine plant planned for Canada, saying it was not needed and the bidders were not up to the job.
Ms. McDougall has been chair of the IDRC since 2007, while serving on the board of Imperial Tobacco - a subsidiary of British American Tobacco PLC - until she left that position at the end of March. The conflict came to light only last month.
The Gates foundation was alerted by the African Tobacco Control Alliance, a Togo-based group that was organizing some of the research project and was set to co-host a conference with IDRC in Dakar, Senegal. Last Wednesday the African group announced it was pulling out of the meeting because of Ms. McDougall's perceived conflicts, and the Gates foundation followed up by cancelling its funding for the remainder of the project two days later.
Rachel Kitonyo, chair of the ACTA, said in an interview from Nairobi that her group could not continue the work because its constitution forbids it from having any direct or indirect links to the tobacco industry, and it does not want to work with partners that do.
The future of the project, which is studying smoking and tobacco control in 18 African countries, is now up in the air, she said. While the work is almost complete, it is not clear whether it will be able to run to its conclusion, she added. "We certainly hope that a means can be found so the work in 18 countries doesn't stop."
Ms. Kitonyo said the situation has shocked the participants, because "Canada has been known to be a front-runner in tobacco control. ... So for us it came as a surprise that such as situation could have happened in the first place."
It is not good enough that Ms. McDougall left the Imperial Tobacco Canada board at the end of March, she said. "That doesn't necessarily break any connections. There's a perception that she has been a tobacco industry operative."
IDRC spokeswoman Angela Prokopiak said the agency's board provides "strategic direction" for the organization and deals with governance issues, but is not responsible for the selection, approval, or management of projects.
The IDRC directors never discussed tobacco control while Ms. McDougall sat on the Imperial Tobacco board, Ms. Prokopiak said. "The chairman has not sought to influence IDRC's approach to tobacco control. Indeed she has never discussed it."
Ms. McDougall did not respond to a request for an interview.
The Gates foundation is still funding several other IDRC projects, including a $48-million grant to improve think-tanks in developing countries.
The Canadian lobby group Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada said it wrote to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in March to complain about Ms. McDougall's role at IDRC. In its letter it noted that Canada has signed the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which forbids anyone employed by the tobacco industry to serve on a body that sets tobacco control policy or public health policy.
Because the IDRC does work in both those areas, Ms. McDougall has a clear conflict, said Neil Collishaw, research director at Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada. He called the halt of the African research project a tragedy, and said the situation has given Canada "a very substantial black eye."
Liberal health critic Carolyn Bennett said yesterday that the situation might have been avoided if the Conservative government had established its promised public appointments commission, which was to independently choose people for positions that would have otherwise been patronage appointments. The commission was never created.