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Canada's failure on Africa front angers experts

The Harper government's disclosure that Canada will fall $700-million short of a two-year-old budget commitment to double its annual aid to Africa by next year has outraged foreign-aid experts. Yet most say it doesn't surprise them either.

"Africa will be taking a hit," said Gerry Barr, president of Canadian Council for International Co-operation, an umbrella group of non-governmental organizations, churches and unions. "And of all the places that ought to be taking a hit, would you put Africa at the front of the line?"

The former Liberal government announced in its 2005 budget that it would double its aid to Africa to $2.8-billion by 2008-09 and laid out a detailed plan to get there. Canada's promise was included as part of a G8 plan to double aid to Africa reached at the group's summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, in July that year.

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But as it turns out, Canada will fall 25 per cent short of that goal, and in the end, Africa will get only $2.1-billion in 2008-09, which prompted anti-poverty activist Bob Geldof to accuse Canada this week of not living up to its commitments.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Monday that this was still a doubling of the Africa budget because Canada spent a lot less on aid to the continent in the base year of 2003-04 than expected.

Jeffrey Sachs, the world-renowned development economist, said the shortfall is typical of Canada's failure to do its share to help the world's poorest nations.

"There is no Canadian leadership on this issue," he said in an interview, noting Canada is spending far less than half of the goal of 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product in foreign aid first devised by former prime minister Lester Pearson. "Canada is nowhere to be found on this commitment at all."

Mr. Sachs said the problem began under the Liberals. "Not only is there no commitment, there is no life in Canada's efforts. It's a huge surprise for us who believe in Canada's role in the world.

"We don't hear Canada's voice on major issues."

It emerged yesterday that former prime minister Paul Martin's government quietly reneged on the original target of $2.8-billion between the budget in February, 2005, and the summit at Gleneagles five months later by using the revised figure for 2003-04 as the basis for calculating the increase. But the new goal of $2.1-billion was never stated explicitly, Mr. Barr said.

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Mr. Sachs was reflecting a similar view held by Mr. Geldof, who excoriated Canada this week for failing to meet its aid commitments and said it is trying to block this year's G8 summit from including firm dollar targets in its final communiqué.

Ian Smillie, research director at Partnership Canada-Africa, said the Harper government has pushed Africa aside in favour of Afghanistan, which has become the largest single recipient of Canadian aid.

Mr. Sachs, who heads Columbia University's Earth Institute, said the money going to Afghanistan and Iraq is really not development aid but "security spending."

The issue came up during yesterday's House of Commons Question Period, with Liberal MPs accusing the government of shortchanging Africa.

International Co-operation Minister Josée Verner responded that the previous government's original promise contained "errors" because Ottawa actually spent only $1.05-billion on aid to Africa in 2003-04 rather than the $1.4-billion that had been projected.

In the Commons, Ms. Verner said the figure for aid to Africa in 2005-06 will end up at $1.7-billion, the first time that number has been revealed.

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