Federal cabinet minister makes surprise visit to Afghanistan

Security concerns are keeping Canada's minister for development from inspecting any of the projects in Afghanistan being funded by her department.

The secret trip to Kandahar by Canada's minister for development to visit troops was a "hasty photo op" that doesn't reflect the reality of life in Afghanistan, NDP Leader Jack Layton said Monday.

Security concerns kept International Co-operation Minister Josée Verner from inspecting any of the Afghanistan projects being funded by her department, prompting questions about why the pricey trip was necessary at all.

"It's quite clear that the government has not got a plan for addressing a situation in Afghanistan," Layton said in the House of Commons. "What we have are photo ops announcing funds for aid, but at the same time the government is spending the same amount in a week in a military operation as they're spending for aid."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper supported Verner's secret trip as a morale booster. She arrived in Kandahar on Sunday for a surprise visit, then flew to the capital Kabul.

Verner addressed the media on Monday afternoon in a teleconference from Afghanistan, describing the secret trip as an occasion "to meet my people" and announce funding for two new projects.

But NDP Defence Critic Dawn Black said media clips showing Verner handing out schoolbags to children don't reflect the reality on the ground.

'Children are virtually starving'

"She was obviously not outside the camp at all, or outside Kandahar city or Kabul at all," she said. "Children are virtually starving inside Kandahar city; the aid doesn't appear [to go to] women and children that need it the most."

Canadian aid officials and diplomats have been under government-imposed travel restrictions while in Afghanistan, after Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry was killed in a roadside bomb attack in January.

Earlier in the week, Verner's press secretary dodged questions about whether the minister was to head to Afghanistan over the weekend and denied there were plans to do so.

"There is a security issue there," Verner said Monday, defending the decision to keep the journey out of public knowledge.

Federal funding of development projects has come under criticism in recent weeks by the Senate standing committee on national defence and security.

The committee interviewed a witness who said funds from the Canadian International Development Agency are not flowing into Afghanistan as planned for the rebuilding of schools, hospitals and bridges.

'Money is still going'

Verner, whose ministry oversees CIDA, Canada's main agency for development assistance, said reports that projects in Kandahar were being held up for lack of funds were false.

"We never stopped any money in Kandahar," she said Monday. "The money is still going."

Verner added that CIDA would be working with the World Bank to monitor the funds and make sure they're well spent.

The Senate's security and defence committee wanted to go to Afghanistan to investigate the reconstruction spending, but they couldn't get in and had to spend six days in a Dubai hotel. The trip expenses the committee racked up while waiting for permission have been held up for scrutiny for being spent on the public dime.

Since Canada sent troops to Afghanistan in 2002, 42 soldiers have been killed.

Verner was expected to restrict herself to meetings in secure compounds.

On Sunday, Verner announced $14.5 million for a girls' education project that will be set up by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, an Asian non-governmental organization.

Project will benefit 120,000 schoolchildren

The project involves the building of up to 4,000 community-based schools, setting up after-school programs and training about 4,000 female school teachers. Verner estimates that the project will benefit 120,000 schoolchildren.

Verner also announced $5 million for a program to help integrate women into local markets, providing them with small loans to create home-based gardens where they can grow fruits and vegetables to feed their families and to sell.

During her visit in Kandahar, Verner said she also met with the director of women's affairs, who told her security for women was their main concern. There have been attacks on prominent women in Afghanistan by the Talibanin the last year or so, attacks that are meant to intimidate.

The project will be managed by the Mennonite Economic Development Associates, an organization based in Waterloo, Ont. Verner expects the project will benefit more than 5,000 people.

"Canada is proud to help Afghan women realize the promise of the country's new constitution, which recognizes the rights of women," she said in a news release.

"These projects also mobilize the power of women as agents of economic development and social change, to improve the well-being of their families and communities."

With files from the Canadian Press