Canada and Sub-Saharan Africa: Beyond Consistent Inconsistency?

By David Black, Dalhousie University

A preview of David Black’s CIPS lecture on October 22, 2013

Among the various criticisms of the Harper government’s foreign policy, its presumed neglect or even abandonment of sub-Saharan Africa is among the most frequently invoked. There is much to this story, and much to be explained in telling it.

But there are two problems with this critical account. First, it must deal with the fact that in a number of key respects—notably its allocation of bilateral aid—the government has largely sustained the emphasis on Africa enacted by its predecessors. Second, in focusing on the Harper government’s apparent disinterest in matters African, the criticism has fed into idealized portrayals of previous governments as cleaving to a consistently generous ‘internationalist’ approach towards the continent and its challenges. In fact, one reading of the Harper government’s initial indifference towards Africa—and its more recent, tentative and limited correction of that indifference—is that it is but the latest installment in a long-running serial of consistent inconsistency.

A sounder approach would include a more comprehensive understanding of the interplay between the various dimensions of Canadian involvement in Africa (developmental, diplomatic, commercial, security and human) so as to recognize both the complementarities and contradictions among these dimensions.

To be sure, Canadian involvement in Africa has been marked by exceptional moments, often associated with particular Canadians. (Think, for example, of the Mulroney-Clark moment on apartheid South Africa, the Romeo Dallaire moment in the face of the Rwandan genocide, the Robert Fowler moment on the Angola Sanctions Committee, and the Jean Chretien moment in orchestrating the G8’s Africa Action Plan at Kananaskis.) In various more routine ways, too, Canadian governmental and non-governmental representatives have been good international citizens in Africa.

Underneath these moments, however, has been a limited, shallow and under-resourced policy approach toward Africa, and a deep vein of skepticism within much of the Canadian foreign policy establishment concerning the priority that should be placed on the continent.  In this context, the narrative that has emerged concerning Canada and Africa—of ethically oriented leadership representing our best selves—has both relied on a flat, de-contextualized image of Africa and sustained an inflated, idealized image of our record. Drawing on highly stylized, simplified and moralistic accounts of the continent that (in Julia Gallagher’s phrase) “evacuate ambiguity”,  ‘Africa’ has become the basis for a story we tell ourselves about Canada, with little concern for the results of Canadian policy on the ground.

How, then, has the Harper government changed course on Africa? Despite the continuities in practice, Africa has clearly been de-prioritized. In part, this is a result of the current government’s apparent disdain for the multilateral and civil society organizations that created both motive and opportunity for Canadian involvement in Africa in the past. In part, it is a result of the government’s diminished view of the influence that Canada can—and should—exercise in relation to global challenges. The idea of Canada having an international order-building vocation (however limited) has been sharply truncated.

That said, the change is also of course a reflection of the Harper government’s inclination to use policy towards Africa to construct a new narrative of Canada in the world. This new Canada is a post-Liberal one, to be sure, but also one more hard-headed in its pursuit of ‘jobs, growth, and long-term prosperity’ for Canadians—as opposed to the purportedly woolly-minded ideals of human security.

Ironically, then, Canada’s Africa policy has continued to function as the basis for a story we tell about ourselves, regardless of the consequences for African governments or people. The government’s new emphasis (in the company of other prominent international voices) on ‘Africa rising’ provides a welcome corrective to the negative portrayals of the past. Yet it also relies on a comparably flat and decontextualized image that is indifferent to the highly diverse and complex challenges and opportunities this continent embodies.

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How could the pattern of consistent inconsistency in both portrayals of and policies toward Africa be overcome? The starting point is a realistic appraisal of the modest influence that Canada could attain—mainly through collaboration in multilateral contexts and a more consistent (albeit limited) investment in analytical and material capabilities. Attaining such influence would require building relationships and staying the course on country, regional and thematic priorities, even when unexpected challenges arise.

More concretely, it would begin with a balanced assessment of the challenges associated with the extractive sector (where Canadian interests are strongly engaged), along with a commitment to finding ways of ensuring that these developments bring maximal benefits and minimize costs and risks. It also would involve building on traditional and emerging areas in which Canada could contribute specialized expertise (for example, gender as well as children and youth).

Finally, a sounder approach would include a more comprehensive understanding of the interplay between the various dimensions of Canadian involvement in Africa (developmental, diplomatic, commercial, security and human) so as to recognize both the complementarities and contradictions among these dimensions. The shaping of a newly integrated Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development represents an important strategic conjuncture in determining how—or indeed whether—these challenges are met.

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