Canada’s desire to do good in Africa outstrips its willingness to spend, new docs reveal

Click to play video: 'Trudeau heads to Africa looking for UN security council votes'
Trudeau heads to Africa looking for UN security council votes
WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is on a quest overseas to gain support for Canada to win a United Nations Security Council seat, starting first with a trip to Africa – Feb 6, 2020

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wings his way to the West African country of Senegal on Tuesday evening for a two-day official visit, new government documents released to Global News acknowledge that Canada’s desire to do good there and in sub-Saharan African countries outstrips the resources the federal government has allocated to achieve that goal.

Even though half of Canada’s $6-billion-a-year foreign aid budget will soon go towards projects in the region south of the Sahara Desert — from Senegal in the northwest to South Africa in the south and Ethiopia in the northeast — the top bureaucrats at Global Affairs Canada told their political bosses last spring that Canada simply did not have the resources to accomplish all it wants to do in the region.

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“While Canada is a committed partner of Sub-Saharan Africa, we know that the scale and scope of the region’s needs will continue to exceed our available resources,” said a memo prepared in early 2019 by the top bureaucrats for Chrystia Freeland, Jim Carr and Maryam Monsef, then serving, respectively, as the ministers for foreign affairs, international trade diversification and international development.

The memo, which was requested under federal access-to-information laws by Global News in June 2019 but only recently released, is titled “Narrative of Global Affairs engagement in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Bureaucrats only set out to work on that new “narrative” in fall 2018, three years after the Trudeau government took office.

“Now is the time to re-envision Canada’s relationship with sub-Saharan Africa,” the 2019 memo said.

As part of the review of Canada’s “engagement strategy” for the region, Ottawa adopted four objectives for its foreign policy in sub-Saharan Africa:

  • Promoting human rights and inclusive governance
  • Supporting poverty reduction
  • Investing in green economic growth and trade diversification
  • Contributing to peace and stability efforts

In the memo, bureaucrats tell the ministers this new sub-Saharan narrative is not expected to generate much interest in Canada.

“The approved content … is not expected to garner any public or media attention [and] at this point in time, no specific parliamentary implications or outcomes are expected,” the memo said.
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Nonetheless, the bureaucrats at Global Affairs Canada suggest new opportunities are emerging throughout Africa for Canadian foreign policy.

“Each country is distinct, with its own priorities and goals for the future,” the memo says. “And each country has its own view of how Canada can be a valued partner in making the most of emerging opportunities.”

Trudeau spent the past weekend in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where, among other things, he had one-on-one meetings with leaders from 10 different African countries. He also became the first Canadian prime minister to speak on the margins of an African Union Summit. The government is hoping Trudeau’s personal engagement in Africa this week translates into votes for Canada in June when it seeks a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

In Senegal, Trudeau has a full itinerary of events, including a visit to Gorée Island, just off the coast of Senegal’s capital Dakar. The island was once the notorious embarkation point for millions of enslaved Africans.

While Canada has been criticized both at home and abroad for spending a relatively small amount of its gross national product on foreign aid — just 0.28 per cent compared, for example, to its Security Council seat rival Norway, which is spending one per cent of its GDP on foreign aid — bureaucrats last spring were already laying out an argument repeated by Canadian diplomats in Addis Ababa over the weekend that Canada’s overall level of foreign aid was, in their view, of decreasing interest to African leaders.

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“We hear the region’s leaders calling for a more modern, mature relationship based on mutual trust and accountability — one that enhances trade, investment, and foreign policy alongside international assistance. We want to work together to build this,” the memo said.

“While our African counterparts appreciate our historic ties and steady support through international assistance, they are looking to redefine their relationship with Canada.

“This includes developing a more robust partnership that brings more trade and investment alongside international assistance to help accelerate economic growth.”

In Addis Ababa, Trudeau said Canada would provide $10 million in assistance to the African Union Commission for gender equality projects, while Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced a grant of $1.25 million to help the federal elections agency in Ethiopia improve its operations as well as participation by women and youth.

“Women’s rights are human rights and Canada will put these rights at the heart of its work in Sub-Saharan Africa to amplify voices that need to be heard,” the memo said.

Indeed, on his current travels, Trudeau is accompanied not only by the permanent ambassador to the United Nations, Marc-Andre Blanchard, but also by his ambassador for women, peace and security, Jacqueline O’Neill. O’Neill was as constant a presence in the meetings Trudeau had with African leaders over the weekend as any member of his delegation.

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Trudeau also announced that Canada and Ethiopia would enter into talks for a foreign-investor protection agreement, the kind of agreement that is usually the first step towards a broader free trade agreement.

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