Back to Africa: What Canada should do



by David Black

December 1, 2016

Justin Trudeau made his first trip to Africa last week, visiting Liberia and Madagascar (for the Summit of la Francophonie). The trip was billed as an opportunity to “reaffirm Canada’s commitment to Africa.”

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has been on the continent twice in the past four months, probing options for a substantial Canadian deployment to a UN-mandated peace operation. Ministers Stephane Dion (Foreign Affairs) and Marie-Claude Bibeau (International Development) have also made recent visits. Together, they signal a desire to renew relations with the governments and people of the continent.

Because so little attention is paid to African issues in Canadian public commentary, it’s easy to imagine that these latest signals reflect the restoration of our normal or ‘best selves’ as enlightened internationalists, after the neglect of the Harper years. But this view is misleading. To be sure, many Canadian individuals and organizations have developed deep attachments to the countries and people of the continent. There have been moments when Canadian involvement has reflected what the current government calls “good global citizenship” (think of the Mulroney government’s role on South Africa, or the Chrétien government’s G8 advocacy of the Africa Action Plan).

But these moments have been interspersed regularly with long periods of high-level indifference, or worse. Think of Somalia, or successive governments’ habit of tackling budget deficits through severe cuts to the aid program.

Caught between a persistent political impulse to do something about widespread hardship in Africa and a deeply held view within much of the policy establishment that the continent is perpetually marginal to Canadian interests, the result has been a pattern of unsustained and incoherent engagements, shallow relationships and limited understanding.

How could the Canadian government ensure that this new round of interest and engagement breaks the mold, and lays the groundwork for more durable and mutually beneficial relationships? The answer lies partly in what it does with particular issues — partly in how these issues are connected to each other in the course of the policy process — and partly in the way Canadian policy is resourced, financially, intellectually and organizationally.

Canadian involvement in Africa typically has been viewed through the prism of a handful of high-profile issues — usually one at a time. Today, and on a number of previous occasions, the principal window on the continent has been peace operations. The previous traumas of Canadian peacekeepers in African environments are well known, and have led to much anxiety as the government contemplates a return to large-scale involvement.

But Canada cannot be taken seriously as a constructive multilateralist in the UN context without contributing substantially to collective efforts in challenging African peace operations. Nor can it ignore the concerns, both humanitarian and geopolitical, that have led many of its European allies to re-engage with UN missions in Africa.

Moreover, this country’s specialized capabilities mean that it could make a significant contribution to operational effectiveness — in Mali or the Central African Republic, for example. But if peace operations are to be more than short-term palliatives, they must be connected to a more sustained and sophisticated diplomatic and developmental role.

This, in turn, means a substantial re-investment in this country’s diplomatic presence on the ground — in development assistance funding (currently languishing at a desultory 0.28 per cent of GDP) to support sustainable development, and in the development research “ecosystem” within and beyond government, necessary to support intelligent policy discussions and decisions.

The same general point can be made about other areas of particular Canadian concern – for example, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent sexual health and rights, the extractive sector, or climate change and environmental degradation.

While the Trudeau government’s relatively active and constructive international orientation has brought it considerable goodwill in a context of mounting global uncertainty, official Canada has not been seriously engaged with most African issues and partners for a decade. Meanwhile, other non-African governments have been beating a path to the continent. Canadians must prove that they are “back” — for the long haul.

Image: AP Photo/Harouna Traore

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