Barbara McDougall, a former foreign affairs minister, brought a great deal of experience to the table as chair of a Canadian government development agency. Unfortunately, Ms. McDougall also came encumbered with a corporate directorship at Imperial Tobacco. That directorship ended in March, but the whiff of a "tobacco link" persists, and has made the International Development Research Centre a virtual pariah among health and tobacco-control organizations around the world. As the IDRC board prepares to meet this coming week, there is great pressure on Ms. McDougall to resign, or to have her fired. That pressure should be resisted.
The ability of the IDRC to fulfill this small but significant part of its mandate has become increasingly difficult, not on the basis of any evidence that Ms. McDougall has used her role at IDRC to promote some sinister tobacco industry plot, but based on the perception of second-hand smoke around her ties to Imperial Tobacco. This spring, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation withdrew a $5.2-million grant for the IDRC's tobacco-control programs in Africa. An Australian tobacco-control conference refused IDRC money, claiming a "tobacco link." The World Health Organization also asked two IDRC representatives to withdraw from a tobacco-control conference.
Tobacco cessation is not a large part of IDRC's remit. But the agency's role is to help developing countries use science and technology to confront challenges they face, and the fact remains that tobacco use in developing countries is a major health issue. It is also true that the tobacco industry is notorious for its misuse of research to soft-pedal the devastating harm caused by cigarette use. There are troubling signs that the campaign being waged against Ms. McDougall may spread to IDRC projects health spending generally. Canada cannot be a credible player in development research and not be involved in health.
Ms. McDougall's involvement with a tobacco company, which overlapped for more than two years with her chairmanship of the IDRC board, placed her in some degree of conflict. Both Ms. McDougall, and the government, should have recognized that problem prior to her 2007 appointment as chair. There is a lesson here. Ms. McDougall has become an issue, and her ongoing leadership role has hampered the effectiveness of IDRC.
Canada, however, cannot submit to pressure from a single-interest group. Ms. McDougall is but one vote on a distinguished board of an agency with an exemplary track record. The powerful anti-tobacco movement wants her head, but ultimately, the need for Canada's money is greater. The clamour will subside.