Prime Minister Stephen Harper signalled a major shift in Canadian aid policy yesterday, saying that Canada's primary focus is moving away from Africa and toward the Western Hemisphere.
"Canada's sole focus and primary focus is not necessarily Africa, but we remain engaged there, we will meet our targets and will move forward with that plan into the future," Mr. Harper told reporters at the G8 summit.
Mr. Harper, who was sharply criticized this week by celebrity anti-poverty activists Bono and Bob Geldof for Canada's failure to live up to its aid commitments to Africa, made in 2005, indicated that he is not as focused on African poverty as were his predecessors.
"Obviously, a focus of our new government is the Americas, where we also have countries that have developmental challenges," he said.
Mr. Harper's officials disclosed this week that Canada's aid budget for Africa in 2008-09 will total $2.1-billion, a sharp drop of $700-million from the $2.8-billion committed by the Liberals in their last budget in early 2005.
A fight has broken out between the government and the Liberals over who first reneged on the Africa promise, with the Tories saying that the lower target was first slipped into documents prior to the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, in the summer of 2005, when Paul Martin was prime minister.
In the House of Commons yesterday, Government Leader Peter Van Loan insisted that Ottawa remains committed to doubling its aid to Africa, blaming the cut on the previous government.
Mr. Martin and the former finance minister, Ralph Goodale, have strenuously denied cutting the commitment, insisting it remained $2.8-billion until they left office.
Mr. Harper's increased focus on Latin America and the Caribbean has been underlined by the fact that he plans to make a trip to the Caribbean and South America next month.
"Africa is obviously going to remain an important target for us," Mr. Harper said yesterday. "The only thing I would say maybe a little bit different is that, in the case of Canada, we have a different neighbourhood than Europe."
Josée Verner, the International Development Minister, made the same point in an interview this week in Embassy, an Ottawa publication for diplomats, saying that Latin America is to get more attention. "We want to help in our hemisphere. We are just starting the process of working on that, and I hope that we will be able to table something as soon as possible."
Molly Kane, executive director of Inter Pares, an Ottawa-based social justice organization, said that by shifting its aid focus, Canada would be bucking an international trend to put the most emphasis on the world's poorest nations, which are in sub-Saharan Africa.
The original promise of $2.8-billion was based on a doubling of Canada's spending on African aid from a base set in 2003-04. That figure was originally expected to be $1.4-billion, but actual spending that year ended up at $1.05-billion, allowing Mr. Harper to say that his government is still doubling its aid to Africa.
Mr. Martin and Mr. Goodale both deny allegations that they quietly chopped $700-million from the aid budget in their final months in office.
Mr. Goodale said in an interview that the commitment was specifically laid out in the budget of February of 2005 as $2.76-billion by 2008-09 and that any attempt by the Harper government to reduce the promise is dishonest.
"The commitment was clear. The commitment was in the budget. It lays out the arithmetic. Why are they trying to fudge it? ... The $2.8-billion was noticed at the international level. If the government is now saying that they will be only delivering $2.1-billion, that is a major breach of faith," Mr. Goodale said.
"From a Canadian point of view, we are arguing about fiscal issues. In Africa, it's life and death. The reality is that this will cost livelihoods and cost lives in Africa."
Mr. Martin said he had stuck with the $2.8-billion number even after it turned out that spending in the base year of 2003-04 turned out to be $1.05-billion.
"In fact, at Gleneagles, it was common knowledge that Canada had spent $1.05-billion in 2003-04," a spokesman for Mr. Martin said, insisting that his promise went beyond the G8 commitments.