With all eyes on Africa, Canada looks the other way

PUBLICATION: Globe and Mail | DATE: 2010.5.11 | SOURCE: Globe and Mail

Burkina Faso is a country of 15 million tucked between West Africa’s coastal nations and a vast lawless desert. Its Foreign Minister, Bedouma Yoda, has just visited Ottawa to figure out why Canada’s not that interested.

His country counts Canadian companies, mostly mining firms, as their largest source of foreign private investment. But last year, Ottawa dropped Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest nations, from the list of countries where Canada will concentrate bilateral aid.

“We have not understood why. And we have asked the reason,” Mr. Yoda said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “It’s illogical that while doing a lot of business in Burkina Faso, development aid won’t complement this opening in the private sector.”

Burkina Faso isn’t the only African country confused about Canadian intentions. Embassies, such as the one in Malawi, have been shut. Last year’s slightly smaller list of 20 priority aid recipients marked a shift to Latin America, but eight African countries were dropped, and just one, Sudan, added. It was taken as a signal.

“Africa understood that Canada was becoming disinterested in her,” Mr. Yoda said.

The hardheaded question now is: Will it hurt Canada’s interests? A demographic boom is coming to Africa, one that is expected to see its population double to 2 billion in 40 years. Its fate and its economy will matter to Canada’s children.

Even now, Canada, courting rising economic powerhouses in China and India, might take note: Those countries are rushing into Africa, along with Russia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia, seeking a stake in the continent’s rich resources, contracts for roads and wireless phones, and an edge in future business.

Before the 2008 financial crisis, many African nations were posting annual growth rates of 6 or 8 per cent. Angola’s was 16 per cent in 2008. By 2050, Nigeria’s economy will be bigger than Canada’s, according to projections by both Goldman Sachs and PricewaterhouseCoopers, and South Africa’s just a little smaller.

“People of my generation spent a long time talking about when China and India will begin to stir,” former prime minister Paul Martin says. “Well, when it happened, it happened with an explosion.

“The takeoff for Africa is inevitable. You may wait for it for a long time. But understand that when it happens, as it happened in the case of China and India, it’s going to happen overnight.”

China has emerged the big low-cost producer, but like Japan and South Korea before, its rising wages and an aging population will pass the high-growth mantle to other Asian countries, Mr. Martin argues. Africa, with a store of resources and energy potential and a young and large population, will follow.

He worries Canada is getting out on the ground floor. So does another former prime minister, Joe Clark, the long-serving foreign minister under Brian Mulroney, who travels often to Africa and has watched other countries rush to build connections.

In Democratic Republic of the Congo, China is now bartering, with one state corporation negotiating for mineral rights and offering a road built by another state corporation as payment – an alarming prospect for Canadians who might want to compete. The Russians, Mr. Clark says, are deliberately going back to old Cold War allies and connections.

But Canadians already have connections. Its missionaries have been there for a hundred years. Teachers, doctors and nurses are there now. Africans have been educated here. Canada’s place as neither superpower nor former colonial power are an underestimated asset, Mr. Clark says. Foreign policy, whether Brian Mulroney’s vocal opposition to apartheid or Jean Chrétien’s spearheading a G8 African development initiative at the 2002 summit in Kananaskis, Alta., has often built goodwill. Aid matters, but so does aggressively pushing investment, trade and diplomatic presence and alliances, Mr. Clark says.

“That reputation remains strong despite not being reinforced for the last few years. But it won’t forever. We can lose it,” Mr. Clark says. “And we can lose it by inattention.”

There is an uptick in attention. Last May, 17 African ambassadors publicly fretted at a Commons committee that Canada had downgraded Africa in its foreign policy; in recent months, the Harper government has tried to counter that notion.

Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon travelled to an African Union summit in January. Trade Minister Peter Van Loan visited Kenya and South Africa in March. In April, at an African Partnership conference in Toronto, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda announced a package of $178-million in already-allocated aid over six years to a group of African countries, including $10-million a year for Burkina Faso. On Saturday, Mr. Harper announced that Ethiopia and Malawi were being invited to the G20.

There is skepticism: Canada is running for a seat on the powerful UN Security Council, and wants the vote of the 53 African nations. Some African diplomats privately wonder whether a revival of interest is part of the UN campaign.

Mr. Cannon notes that Canada fulfilled its 2005 G8 commitment to double aid to Africa last year. “When you speak to African countries, they all know that Canada is reliable and trustworthy, and we have lived up to our commitments there,” he said in an interview. “When we indicate that we are going to do something, we’re going to do it.”

That has weight. Neither France nor Italy are expected to meet their admittedly larger G8 pledge. But the Canadian government hasn’t said whether aid will go up or down now, as multiyear agreements expire.

The Harper government has argued that removing African countries from the list of 20 focus nations for bilateral aid won’t cut them off from all Canadian aid. They can still get aid, mostly from regional pools, Mr. Cannon noted.

Mr. Harper’s pledge to champion a G8 initiative at the Muskoka summit this June to combat childbirth and infant deaths could prove important to fighting a persistent problem in much of Africa – depending on what’s delivered.

For those who don’t subscribe to Mr. Martin’s rosy view, Africa’s population boom at least means its stability will matter. The number of conflict zones in Africa is half what it was 15 years ago, but the potential for conflict and radicalization will matter to Canadians, Mr. Clark argues.

Last year, Canadians Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were kidnapped by a new al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, while on a UN mission to Niger. They were taken to Mali, and freed with the help of officials from Mali and Burkina Faso. Now Mr. Yoda, Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister, is asking for Canadian help, such as funding for satellite surveillance, to watch the vast desert that spreads to their north and serves as a pipeline for weapons and people smuggling, and now terrorist networks.

As it happens, Mr. Cannon has said helping vulnerable countries beef up security to prevent terror threats is also a key part of G8 talks.

“But it’s one thing to speak, and another to act. And we propose to act. And to act, it requires means,” Mr. Yoda said. “That’s why we have to reinforce our relations.”

His pitch is that better relations with Burkina Faso and Africa are in Canada’s interests. If al-Qaeda activities expand, it could cut off business opportunities for Westerners, destabilize countries and export threats. And if Africa doesn’t have tools to aid development, business with the West – and Canada – won’t grow.

“There are quite a lot of countries who are coming to Africa today,” he said. “And it would be a pity if Canada didn’t profit from that situation.”