Canada is moving closer to total irrelevance on the world’s fastest-growing continent, experts say, and a pattern of abandoning trade, diplomacy and investment in Africa means Ottawa is caving in to Russia and China.
“Africa is going into Canada’s friendly zone if the current approach remains because it is lukewarm,” said Stanley Achonu, Nigeria director for One Campaign.
His organization, which fights extreme poverty and preventable disease, testified this week before a Senate foreign affairs committee examining Canada’s relationship with a continent on track to nearly double its population by 2050 .
Liberals have been promising an African strategy for years. The long-overdue document was described as a framework last year and has yet to be published.
In recent years, senators have warned that Canada is lagging behind its peers and emerging nations in setting strategies for trade and development with the continent of more than a billion people.
They note that Africa represents most of the world’s potential for solar cells and has vast reserves of critical minerals and carbon-reducing ecosystems. The World Bank says an impending continental free trade agreement could lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty and inject US$3.4 trillion into African economies.
But to get there, Africa needs better governance, major infrastructure projects and debt restructuring, says Christopher MacLennan, Canada’s top bureaucrat who oversees foreign aid.
Nicolas Moyer, head of the education non-profit organization Cuso International, testified that Canada is losing power in countries where Beijing and Moscow are gaining influence and reducing the outsized role Ottawa played in previous decades of development work.
“Canada actually needs Africa more than Africa needs Canada,” said Moyer, whose group was formerly called Canadian University Service Overseas.
“The longer our distance from Africa persists, the greater the challenge will be to repair relations and build on them for the future.”
Moyer said much of Africa could be a key partner for Canada, as South Korea has developed. The country remembers Canada’s sacrifices in the Korean War and decades of development work, and is now an economic powerhouse that sees Ottawa as a key partner in everything from artificial intelligence to natural gas imports.
Moyer noted that Canadian investment has helped drive real change across Africa, for example with Liberals and Conservatives focusing on maternal health and women’s access to education.
These investments have led to fewer teenage pregnancies and lower rates of child marriage, helping to drastically reduce the infant mortality rate.
“Canada can be a leader on the African continent, if not through the power of the purse, but through conviction, alignment and long-term commitment to our partners,” Moyer said, but that will require “resisting the disruptions, of which there are many, to change our directions.”
This would require a decolonial approach of identifying what Africans want and playing a supportive role in advancing those goals, for example by organizing international summits.
In places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Moyer’s group has helped support gender and sexual minorities by funding entrepreneurial projects for them.
This gives marginalized people a foothold in the economy so that they can pursue their own projects, for example using radio programs to combat anti-gay stigma in a way that is not seen as imposing Western values.
Achonu said Canada’s focus on LGBTQS2+ rights will go further if African countries feel respected and see that Ottawa wants to invest in their success instead of lecturing on social issues, a strategy he says risks that cooperation will be “dead on arrival”.
“Building a partnership first will open the door for future rights talks,” he said.
Many of these recommendations were mentioned in a report last July by Co-operation Canada, an umbrella group of development organizations, which said countries from Japan to India had already published strategies on how to work with Africa.
He suggested that Canada focus on working with civil society groups in Africa, arguing that many of the issues facing the continent require working with more than just government officials and preventing authoritarian rule.
Achonu also said Ottawa should help provide low-cost financing for infrastructure projects by tripling funding for FinDev, the development finance institution.
He noted that the government last year increased the agency’s budget for work in the Indo-Pacific by $750 million and said a similar increase would help build African projects.
Achonu said China’s popularity in Africa stems in part from branding exercises.
“All over Africa you see concrete infrastructure that you can point to … financed by China or built by Chinese companies with loans. But I can’t say the same about Western partners who want Africa on their side,” he said.
Part of the issue is that Canada funds programming instead of construction projects, he noted.
“Are there tangible things that Africans can point to and say ‘built by Canada’ or ‘made by Canada?’ And I don’t say that lightly – Canada saves lives, the investments you make in critical areas like health are not fashionable.”
MacLennan said Canadian officials are still warmly welcomed in Africa and said Ottawa does not face the same pressure as its European peers, who have a more visible presence in Africa, because Canada’s geographic location requires it to focus on the visible as well. presence in the Indo-Pacific.
The International Development Research Centre, a federal Crown corporation, has argued that Canada maintains its relevance in Africa in part by working with individual countries.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on February 11, 2024.