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Canada’s African aid marred by organizational turmoil, changing priorities

Hundreds of children are living in poverty in the village of Goulgoultoun in northern Burkina Faso, within sight of a Canadian gold mine. In 2011 and 2012 alone, CIDA announced $31-million in partnership deals with Canadian mining companies, mostly for training projects.

Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail

You couldn't blame Africans if they are starting to get puzzled by Canada's foreign-aid policies.

In the past few years alone, they've seen Canada opening and then closing an aid office in Malawi. They've seen Canada picking Mali as a "country of focus" – and then halting its aid when the country was hit by a military coup. They've seen Canada handing over millions of dollars to Zambia for health programs, and then suspending its aid when nearly $900,000 was embezzled by crooked bureaucrats.

Canada's aid policy in Africa has been buffeted by organizational turmoil and frequent changes in priorities. Ottawa has shuffled its list of aid targets, giving greater priority to its commercial trade partners (generally not in Africa) and adopting new ideas, like partnerships with private mining companies, instead of its traditional poverty-reduction goals. Then, on Thursday, it announced that its aid agency, CIDA, would be absorbed into the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Department.

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It has been a confusing time for Canadian aid policy, and Africa has borne the brunt of the confusion. Here are some examples of the shifting fashions in Canadian foreign aid in Africa.

The old CIDA

The traditional method of foreign aid was simple: Rich countries paid for shiny new things and gave them to poor people in poor countries. Up until recently, this method was common at CIDA, too. In 2009, for example, I visited some remote villages in southern Malawi that had received CIDA aid. Under the supervision of a Canadian contractor, $13-million worth of water pumps and pipes had been built in the villages to provide clean drinking water.

Many of the villagers were happy with the project. But there was one big problem: Hundreds of the new water taps had stopped working. Two years after they were installed, no more than 65 per cent of the taps were still functioning (some officials estimated that as few as 35 per cent were working). The villagers could not afford to maintain the pumps and pipes, and they lacked training in how to keep them going, so the water system soon deteriorated. It was a classic flaw in the old model of foreign aid.

The trusting CIDA

Instead of donating expensive things to poor countries, CIDA began to shift to a different strategy: "building capacity" in poor countries by giving financial support to a government department or agency, so that the local officials would develop experience in administering their own programs. Countries like Kenya and Zambia began to receive millions of dollars in direct financial aid for their education and health programs.

But this strategy, too, had its pitfalls. In Kenya, more than $1-million in CIDA funds intended for schools was misappropriated by corrupt or inept officials in the education ministry. In Zambia, about $880,000 in CIDA money was stolen by embezzlers in the health ministry, and Canada was obliged to suspend a $14.5-million aid program.

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In Ethiopia, where Canada provided up to $150-million in aid annually, a report by Human Rights Watch in 2010 found that the authoritarian Ethiopian government was using its foreign aid to reward its supporters and crush dissent. After the report became public, CIDA demanded an investigation and "corrective action" by the Ethiopian government.

The flip-flopping CIDA

Every few years, the federal government has shifted its foreign-aid targets, adding or removing countries from its priority list. Africans found it dizzying to keep up with the changes, and CIDA staff were demoralized.

In the Malawian capital, Lilongwe, I visited an impressive new building with the Canadian flag fluttering outside it. The building was opened in 2004, primarily for CIDA's programs in Malawi, during the era of Liberal former prime minister Paul Martin. Just five years later, the flag was hauled down and the building was closed, because Malawi had been removed from Canada's list of "countries of focus."

Canadian aid workers were upset and frustrated. The decision had been made without consulting them. And many Malawians were equally angry. They said CIDA's help had been vital in saving lives, educating children and supporting democracy. They were shocked and disappointed when the aid was cut.

The trendy CIDA

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Rather than pioneering its own new approaches, CIDA has often preferred to follow trends set by other Western countries. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there was huge international concern over a reported epidemic in sexual assaults against women and girls, so Canada poured $15-million into a campaign against sexual violence. But Congolese women's leaders said the campaign was ineffective, with much of the money wasted on T-shirts and posters. An internal CIDA investigation found that some elements of the campaign were weak or even "non-functional."

Last year, CIDA followed a global trend by boosting its "partnerships" with the private sector. In CIDA's case, its deals were primarily negotiated with the Canadian mining industry in Africa and Latin America. Supporters hailed it as the model for the future, but critics called it a taxpayer-funded subsidy for a profitable industry.

In 2011 and 2012 alone, CIDA announced $31-million in partnership deals with Canadian mining companies, mostly for training projects. One of its partners was Iamgold Corp., a Toronto-based miner that has become the biggest private investor in the West African nation of Burkina Faso.

I visited the company's mining site in Burkina Faso last year, and its president insisted that its CIDA partnership was an altruistic attempt to help the unemployed young people in an impoverished country. But he also acknowledged that it could have indirect benefits for the company.

The CIDA mining partnerships were controversial and often criticized by social activists. But CIDA minister Julian Fantino refused to back down, promising more partnerships with the mining industry to "lift these countries out of poverty."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More


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