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The Governor-General does Africa - but why?

Governor-General Michaelle Jean is greeted by an honour guard as she arrives in Dakar on April 14, 2010. Senegal is the first of four countries she will visit on a 10 day trip to Africa.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Dear Excellency:

Greetings to you in Africa. I gather it was the Prime Minster who instructed you to make this journey, and just between us, I was a little surprised since I thought governors-general choose their own schedule. Guess I was wrong again.

To tell you the truth, I'm having trouble discovering exactly why Stephen Harper wants you in Africa, and especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Cape Verde. The smart money around here, as you must have heard, thinks the trip is about the Prime Minister's ambition to have Canada win a rotating seat on the UN Security Council this year. You may be joining the ranks of politicians and senior civil servants who have been running around the world lobbying foreign governments on behalf of this crusade. Since (as I'm sure you privately agree) Mr. Harper has no discernible foreign policy beyond cheerleading for Israel and pushing trade deals in Latin American countries with lousy human-rights records, his lust for this goal is mystifying to many.

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However, always a true patriot son, I am happy to offer you some advice on how you can help advance the Prime Minister's agenda. After all, he'll need Africa's votes at the United Nations, and at the moment Canada's reputation on the continent is lower than a snake's belly. It's true that our reputation has been highly romanticized, and that on the whole, as with all rich countries, Africa has enriched Canada far more than Canada has aided Africa.

Still, I hardly have to remind you that Mr. Harper has managed to bring relations to a new low. He peremptorily cut off aid to eight very poor African countries, including Rwanda, one of your destinations, and has now frozen all aid to to the continent. In fact, the Rwandan ambassador was among the African diplomats in Ottawa who took the unusual step of publicly expressing their dismay at their countries' abrupt loss of Canadian aid.

And I'm sure you've been told that your government has chosen not to investigate the Canadian mining companies named in UN reports as being complicit in the terrible violence in eastern Congo - as it happens, another of your destinations.

Ignoring these issues while you're there would be too conspicuous. Defending them would be poison. Reversing them would gain Canada much regard in many parts of Africa. Go for it, Madame.

You are going to meet President Joseph Kabila of the DRC -a dubious honor, I must say. You will want to mention to him last week's stern report by the International Crisis Group; it strongly rebukes him for ignoring (as usual) his commitments to introduce more democracy while actually centralizing more power in his own office. You can be sure that he will be grateful for Canada's candor and will immediately offer his support for the Security Council seat.

Then you're off to tragic eastern Congo, perennial home of the world's greatest humanitarian disaster. I'm afraid you have some optic problems here. In a 10-day trip, your planners have given you exactly seven hours for this visit while you'll have 23 hours in Cape Verde. Cape Verde has 500,000 inhabitants who are now deemed to be at middle-income level, a rare phenomenon in Africa. I have to tell you this schedule is seriously puzzling to me.

You may also need to explain why, of all possible sites, you're visiting HEAL hospital in Goma. It does good work in caring for the region's many women victims, but that's the problem. It implies how generous and effective foreign donors are, grossly distorting the reality of eastern Congo. HEAL hospital is not part of the country's health system, it isn't owned by Congolese organizations (of which there are innumerable), and it isn't sustainable. Whenever external financing stops, the hospital will almost certainly close down. Then what?

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Luckily, you'll already have been warned, courtesy this newspaper's Africa correspondent Geoffrey York, that there are bad vibes in eastern Congo towards the Canadian government.

First, there's CIDA's $15-million for a campaign against sexual violence, in principle a fine thing. But Mr. York cites an internal Canadian government evaluation that "Canada was spending too much money on T-shirts, vests, caps, cardboard folders and gaudy posters while failing to make progress on the bigger issues of prevention and justice".

A courageous leader of a local women's group told Mr. York that "A lot of money is mobilized around the world for sexual violence programs, and it's lost in administration and logistics. The foreign experts have to be flown in and lodged. They have to have 4x4 cars and a good salary and danger pay. They're in lakeside houses for $6,000 a month. All of this is money that could go to the program. How much will reach the victim? The victim, at the end, will get nothing."

There's more, Madame. Another Congolese human rights group, Heritiers de la justice, was expecting $75,000 from Kairos, the Canadian church-backed NGO, to train women who had been violated to instruct other sexually-assaulted women about their legal rights. But since the Harper government abruptly cancelled Kairos's own grant, this Congolese group will get nothing. This project "gave me strength and courage," one of the women who was to be trained told Mr. York - she and her daughter had both been gang-raped - but now she's left in limbo. And the head of the project told The Globe he felt as if he were "drowning" when he learned that Ottawa was cutting the funds for his justice project.

Excellency, think how easily you can restore Canada's reputation in the seven short hours you'll be in that part of the world.

Then it's right across the road to Rwanda, where you could make friends again by announcing that Canadian aid will be restored. But watch your footing there. Rwanda's government is pretty controversial. It has powerful fans like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, the CEO of Starbucks, and many others. But it's been harshly criticized by human-rights organizations. How have you been advised to handle this delicate task, Governor-General? And (just between us) why in the world was this one of the countries the Prime Minister decided to send you to?

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In fact it all makes you wonder exactly what Mr. Harper in mind when he ordered you out of the country. What does he really think about Africa, if anything? Knowing the man, we may never find out. But of course I know you can't comment - at least publicly. Bon voyage, bon chance, et au revoir.

Gerald Caplan is a former New Democratic Party national campaign director and is author of The Betrayal of Africa

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