Monday, June 1, 2009

Diminishing Canada abroad, impacting the world's poorest

Further to last week's post on a multitude of Conservative sins that were impacting Canada at home and abroad, I would like to draw your attention to this Geoffrey York article in today's G&M: Banned Aid.  It brings home the effects the Harper changes to foreign aid is having on one of the world's poorest countries and how it is damaging our international reputation. Excerpts follow with my highlights in bold.  Read the whole thing.  Not because it is funny or there are pictures of kittens or some such.  Because it deserves to be read.

In the fall of 2004, when Paul Martin was prime minister and Irish rock stars were chattering ceaselessly about the need to help Africa, Canada raised the flag on a shiny new embassy here in the capital of Malawi.

It was the culmination of a warm and close relationship that has sent $440-million in Canadian assistance to the small republic wedged between Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique in southeast Africa over the past 45 years.

Optimism was in the air. Malawi was making progress – it was holding democratic elections, its farm output was improving dramatically – but it was still one of the world's 10 poorest countries, heavily dependent on foreign donors. And Canada was one of the most faithful of those donors.

Today, the mood has soured. In late September, barely five years after the opening, a small band of diplomats will watch morosely as the Maple Leaf is hauled down and the embassy closed for good.

There has been no announcement, nothing but a discreet notice buried deep in a government website, unnoticed for weeks. One diplomat in a nearby country called it a “stealth closure.” With staff at the embassy (technically a high- commission office, as both countries are in the Commonwealth) prohibited from talking to the media, Canada seems to be sneaking away in the night.

Sneaking away in the night.  Isn't that just like Harprorogue.

“It's very abrupt and sudden, and no proper reason was given,” says Emma Kaliya, chairwoman of an independent Malawian organization that had worked on women's-rights issues with Canadian aid. ... The real reason for the shift, of course, is a new calculation of Canada's business and geopolitical interests. Instead of Malawi and the seven other African countries, where most people are so desperately poor that they earn less than $2 a day, a bigger share of Canada's foreign-aid money will flow to middle-income places such as Peru, Colombia, Ukraine and the Caribbean, where Canada's commercial interests are more attractive. Canada's foreign aid seems to have become an instrument of its trade policy.

Ottawa insists that the “established need” of recipient countries was one of three main factors in the new priority list. But when eight of Africa's neediest nations are dropped – in favour of places where incomes are much greater – most observers find it hard to believe that “need” mattered much. ... Yet Canada's aid often works very well, making a crucial difference in the lives of the poor.  ...  Before the Canadians arrived a few years ago, the maize and banana farmers of Njale took their water from a dirty stream below their village. They hauled the buckets up the hillside to their shacks, knowing the dangers of the tainted water, yet having no choice but to drink it. Cholera was the inevitable result, leaving villagers sick if not dead.

Then the Canadian International Development Agency launched a $13-million water-supply project for 243,000 people in more than 500 southern villages. Today, the people of Njale take clean water from a tap, and cholera deaths have stopped.

“It has helped us so much,” says Esnat John, a 42-year-old farmer who sells her bananas from a tiny roadside shop. “There were a lot of cholera cases before, but now there are none. This project has allowed us to live. We will always be grateful to Canada. Without it, we would be dead by now.”

Ms. John's story is powerful evidence that Canadian aid saves lives among the poorest of the poor – and is deeply appreciated. “I'm getting a lot of heartfelt thank-yous when people hear that I'm from Canada,” says Owen Scott, a development worker in southern Malawi for Engineers Without Borders, a Canadian group.

The villagers are hoping that CIDA will expand the water project. Ms. John points to a hill in the distance, where a woman recently died from cholera because her village was too remote to qualify for the Canadian project. “Please assist those people,” she begs.

Yet the project – now in its final weeks of completion – is almost certain to be the last of its kind in Malawi. Under the Harper government's new policy, CIDA is unlikely to fund something so ambitious in a “non-priority” country. ... Across Malawi, people sing the praises of CIDA – and express bewilderment at the Harper government's decision to axe their country from the priority list. “All of us rejoiced and celebrated when Canada established its high commission here, a fully fledged embassy for the first time,” says Mavuto Bamusi, national co-ordinator of the Human Rights Consultative Committee, an independent group in Malawi that relies on CIDA for 20 per cent of its operating budget.

“What concerns us most is the reclassification of Malawi as a non-priority country. It makes little sense – it's ridiculous. Here is a country emerging from political dictatorship, and it has a democracy which needs to be nurtured. This is a time when Malawi needs support.”

With funding from CIDA, his human-rights group was working with Malawi's parliament on a program to make politicians more accountable. Now, he fears that he'll have to scrap the program. “We're not just laying people off – we're laying off the whole concept of parliamentary accountability,” Mr. Bamusi says. “This is about democracy surviving in Malawi. It sends a wrong signal to other countries – they could do the same as Canada.” ... The shift in priorities has been a disaster for Canada's image in Malawi. “Canada closing embassy,” blared a headline in The Nation, a leading national newspaper, which told its readers (wrongly) that Canada was terminating all of its aid to Malawi. ... More than three years after taking office, the Harper government is still floundering in its search for an Africa policy. In 2005, Paul Martin and the Liberals promised to double Canada's aid to Africa to $2.8-billion by this year. The Conservative government said it would still meet that goal, but redefined the base year, so that the new target was only $2.1-billion. It also gave no clear goal for what happens after the lower target is reached.

In late February, after years of ruminating, the government unveiled its new aid-priority list. It had 20 countries, versus the Liberals' 25, with the number in Africa chopped in half, from 14 to seven. “The surprise and shock were palpable,” reports Embassy magazine, which follows diplomatic issues in Ottawa.

International Co-operation Minister Beverley Oda has said little, telling parliamentarians that “this step recognizes the criticisms directed at CIDA of trying to do everything, for everyone, everywhere.”

But a deeper motivation seems to be the government's distaste for the celebrities who promoted the Africa obsessions. “What I will talk about is not something that aims to please Irish rock stars,” Ms. Oda sniffed in one speech.

Her announcement triggered an angry reaction around the world. Even CIDA's field workers were upset. Nobody from headquarters had consulted them before the decision, and nobody had consulted the African countries themselves. When the drastic shift was unveiled, African diplomats in Ottawa had to read about it in the newspapers. They calculated that CIDA would be sending only 35 per cent of its bilateral aid to Africa, down from 70 per cent previously.

Maybe the government should put on some blue sweater vests when they try and explain this one overseas. 

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Show Me Your Glory said...

Hello, I am a Malawian and a Christian minister. I would like to comment on your post. I am saddened by this development and pray that the Canadian government will rescind its decision to pull out of Malawi as they plan to do - or at least explain to the Malawi government why they are doing simply as a matter of courtesy. Hopefully, the Harper government will remain committed to the cause of development work not just in Malawi but in that whole region of Africa where the needs are great and the ground is "fertile" for development. As a Malawian, I am very proud of my country especially at this time after the successful and peaceful elections that we just had - the cleanest and most civil election we have had as a democracy. That makes me very proud to be Malawian. I have never been more proud to be Malawian than I am now. I thank God for the President that we have now, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika. He is a man of vision and sound economic principles. With or without Canada's support, I have every reason to believe that as Malawians we have the capacity to pull ourselves out of poverty, grow our economy, change our political landscape and take our place in the world as a nation that loves peace but takes our lives seriously. We are thankful for the support that we have received from Canada so far and we wish the Canadian government and people God's blessing. We will continue to move on with faith for we know that the best is yet to come for Malawi. Maybe someday, the Harper government will wake up and realize that there is really no justification for withdrawing support from a thriving economy and young democracy.

Constant Vigilance said...

Thank you for your comment. I will look to highlight it for other Canadians to have a read.

Please understand that most Canadians are in favour of our historic support for Africa. One of the conundrums with with democracy is that although the electorate is always right, they sometimes make a mistake and elect someone like our current PM.

Show Me Your Glory said...

Thanks and God bless!!

Lanie said...

Thanks and more power to you! An act of kindness means a lot during these days.

Anonymous said...