Diplomats from 17 African countries delivered an unusual mass plea to MPs for Canada to regain its leading role as a friend to the continent, raising concerns that Ottawa has cut them from its list of major aid recipients – and eliciting a testy reaction from Conservatives.
Ambassadors from countries cut from the bilateral aid list said they were never consulted, and told the Commons foreign affairs committee they're concerned that Africa is being downgraded in Canadian policy, and asked whether “our long-time friend has chosen to leave the place to others.”
The African ambassadors presented a report with recommendations for ties on aid, trade, and regular Canada-Africa meetings.
And although they were at pains to stress their respect for Canada's right to make its own aid decisions, and to issue a hopeful call for a future partnerships, their appearance was not popular with Conservative MPs.
Jim Abbott told them pointedly they had their facts wrong. Deepak Obhrai, the parliamentary secretary to foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon, exchanged prickly words with Democratic Republic of the Congo chargé d'affaires Louise Nzanga Ramazani after the meeting, complaining that the African diplomats had criticized the Tory government.
“I'm not happy with you,” he told her within earshot of a reporter.
What piqued them was the message that Canada has ceased to be a leader in aiding Africa.
“We would like to see Canada again take up its leadership role in Africa, as part of a renewed partnership, strategic, global, and aimed at a win-win situation,” said the spokesperson for the African diplomats, Burkina Faso Ambassador Juliette Bonkoungou.
A key flashpoint is the Conservative government's February decision to issue a new list of 20 countries that will be the chief recipients of Canada's bilateral aid.
Nine African countries were dropped from the old list of 25, and only one was added. The new focus is on increasing aid to Latin America and the Caribbean.
Ms. Bonkoungou said the decision would reduce the proportion of Canadian bilateral aid destined for Africa to 35 per cent from 70 per cent.
Mr. Abbott, the parliamentary secretary to International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda, bristled in response.
“I must say that I'm quite disappointed in this report. I think that it has been based on erroneous information that has been provided to you,” he said, insisting that Africans' comments ignored the fact that Canada will this year meet its goal of doubling aid over 2001 levels, to $2.1 billion.
Although the Conservative government argues that aid will still flow, mostly through multi-lateral organizations, knocking a number of African nations off the list of chief bilateral aid recipients could hurt some of Canada's own international ambitions.
Canada is campaigning for one of two regional seats on the United Nations Security Council -- against Portugal and shoo-in Germany -- and the votes of Africa's 53 countries could decide the winner.
Ms. Bonkoungou declined to comment directly on whether African nations will be less likely to vote for Canada at the UN.
“Our friendship will never be lacking toward Canada. And we hope it will be the same from the Canadian side,” she said after the hearing.
Ms. Bonkoungou said Ottawa's attitude is surprising because Canadian companies have interests in Africa, and countries like China are investing large sums.
“We have noted for a certain number of years signals towards Africa which seem less promising than they were before,” she said after the hearing. “We have the duty to speak to Canadians and say, other powers are coming in, you have been with us, you have gone through difficulties with us, don't leave your place to others.”