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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.

In the corridors of power, Africa is no longer fashionable. The government of Stephen Harper, which feels that Mr. Martin was a naive romantic about Africa, has taken a cold, hard look at Canada's overseas aid. A new list of priorities has been drawn up, with 20 countries or regions on it. Deleted from the list were Malawi and seven other African countries, including Rwanda, still recovering from genocide; Niger, struggling against terrorists who kidnapped two Canadian diplomats last December, and Burkina Faso, whose leaders helped to negotiate the release of the diplomats in late April.

The deleted countries will still receive aid, but on a much smaller level, since 80 per cent of Canada's $1.5-billion in annual bilateral aid will go to Caribbean and Latin American countries and others on the new priority list. The reasons are obscure. There is rhetoric about "effectiveness" and "focus," but nobody from Canada has given an explanation to the people who will feel the brunt of the cuts.

"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.

"I was very shocked. I was more or less jumping out of my chair. In the spirit of accountability and transparency, which the West is always preaching to us, they should be prepared to explain why they are leaving."

LINKING AID AND TRADE

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.

The Harper government is not the only one to lose interest in Africa. With the global recession deepening, the idealistic era of Bono and Bob Geldof seems to be ending. The West is sinking into an inward-looking funk, obsessed with its own domestic problems, and Africa has fallen off its mental map. Africa's supporters worry that we are entering a new era of navel-gazing parochialism, where nobody cares about the plight of the outside world, where sympathy for the poorest nations has become a disposable luxury, like the Rolexes that the formerly wealthy are now pawning.

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