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Canada’s aid to Mali evolved from largely bricks-and-mortar projects toward an emphasis on education, rural development and food production. (Alain Beauregard)
Canada’s aid to Mali evolved from largely bricks-and-mortar projects toward an emphasis on education, rural development and food production. (Alain Beauregard)

What Canada means to Mali, and Mali means to Canada Add to ...

At the time, Quebeckers were carving out a bigger place in the bilingualizing federal civil service. In 1970, Paul Gérin-Lajoie, a former Quebec education minister, began a seven-year tenure as CIDA president.

“Canada’s foreign aid was mostly directed to Commonwealth countries such as India or Kenya,” recalls Mr. Gérin-Lajoie, now 92. “As president, I felt it was my duty to compensate this deficiency and to fill the void in French-speaking Africa.”

Within a few years, Canadian aid to Mali increased 30-fold, surpassing $3-million in 1973-74 and then doubling the following year. During its first 25 years, CIDA’s aid was “tied” – largely limited to products and services procured in Canada.

For example, Hydro-Québec International and four other Canadian companies landed contracts worth $7.7-million out of the $9-million Mali spent building a high-tension power line from Bamako to Ségou.

Other Quebec companies, well equipped to communicate with Malians – including Bell Canada International, Tecsult (now Aecom), SNC-Lavalin and Transelec Common – snagged a great deal of work.

By 2003, international attitudes toward aid had shifted, and the federal government came to the conclusion that bringing goods and services from Canada was more costly and often less efficient than buying locally, so aid was un-“tied.”

Still, since then, Canada has been a top-five donor to Mali, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

But the results have been mixed, Prof. Audet says. Montreal engineering firm SNC Lavalin has done irrigation work in Mali for a decade, but the aid expert calls that kind of contribution a drop in the bucket: “The scale and magnitude of the work done on irrigation and reforestation has not made a significant impact on agricultural production.”

At times, CIDA has drawn similar conclusions. After contributing $40-million to three rail projects from 1977 to 1996, its evaluation concluded that the objectives had been “only partially met,” failing to improve overall service in Mali.

There have been other bumps. In 1999, a contract for work on Mali’s electrical system made headlines with reports that the winning bidder had donated $10,000 to Jean Chrétien’s re-election campaign, and its president had bought land from a debt-plagued golf course with ties to the prime minister.

The Auditor-General concluded that CIDA had not exercised due diligence in awarding the contract.

Over time, Canada’s aid evolved from largely bricks-and-mortar projects toward an emphasis on education, rural development and food production.Mali especially appreciated help in improving its administration, says Yves Boulanger, ambassador there from 1997 to 2001. “They were a bit suspicious of the French, to tell the truth,” he adds, and wanted Canada’s support in “touchy” areas such as fiscal openness and judicial policy.

Canada has helped Mali increase its revenues (tax collection has quadrupled since Longueuil-based CRC Sogema revamped the system seven years ago) and become more accountable. In the process, says Louise Ouimet, a CIDA officer in Mali who later returned as ambassador, it has earned a “voice at the table” in the country’s affairs.

Ms. Ouimet recalls being approached in 2002 by Amadou Toumani Touré as the former general prepared to run for president. He “called me in and said, ‘Okay, Louise, I’m going to put my candidacy up in the coming days, and here are the things I want to do.’ ”

His list included setting up an auditor-general’s office much like Ottawa’s and, after winning, he did. Canada’s then-auditor-general Sheila Fraser visited in 2010, and later said she was impressed by “the way the office became known and supported by the public.” In 2009, the watchdog had so irritated the authorities that he was thrown in jail overnight – and people rallied in the streets for his release.

In a continent known for dictators and conflict, Mali stood out for decades as stable and democratic after its 1991 coup paved the way for a popularly elected president. Ten years later, it made the transition from one elected government to another for the first time ever. By the early 1990s it was making effective democratic reforms, says Huguette Labelle, a former CIDA president and now chair of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.

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