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Although International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda says the government's recently announced foreign-aid realignment will continue to support people in greatest need, finite development resources are being shifted to better-off countries with a bigger trading potential to reinforce Ottawa's preferred focus on Latin America.

This new policy abandons Canada's traditional emphasis on reducing poverty in the world's poorest countries, notably in Africa. It will hurt some of the world's most needy people and diminish Canada's stature in the developing world.

According to the announcement, eight African countries have been removed from the list of priority recipients of Canadian aid: The losers are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi, Niger, Rwanda and Zambia. They have been replaced by Colombia, Peru and the Caribbean, middle-income countries with whom Canada has entered into or is negotiating free-trade agreements.

The new policy has understandably dismayed representatives of the countries diminished by the new thrust. They had been given no hint by Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon when he met the heads of African missions in Canada a month before Ms. Oda's announcement. His commitment to the group that Canada would continue to be an active development partner with Africa now has a hollow ring.

Canada is close to meeting the Group of Eight's undertaking made some years ago to double aid to Africa by 2010, but one wonders what Mr. Cannon intends for the future, given that the policy shift means Canada is abandoning its poverty reduction commitments to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and reducing its contribution to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Under the circumstances, how does Mr. Cannon expect to obtain African support for Canada's bid for a seat on the Security Council?

This policy shift has been undertaken by fiat with no public debate. Such an arbitrary approach to a key element of foreign policy is inimical to a commitment to open government, and it ignores the long history of Canadian engagement in civil society in Africa. The shift in priorities also undermines a long-standing principle of Canadian international development policy. To reinforce national unity, Canadian governments, whatever their stripe, have played a major role in la Francophonie. As a corollary, development assistance has been equitably allocated between anglophone and francophone Africa. Yet, of the countries cut, five of the eight are francophone.

According to a spokesperson for Ms. Oda, the new list is based on three criteria: need, capacity to deliver aid effectively, and support for foreign policy objectives. The latter criterion is clear: Colombia and Peru are recent signatories of bilateral free-trade agreements with Canada. Although no one would deny the need for improvement in delivering development aid, Ms. Oda's effectiveness criterion is undefined. And when it comes to need, the government's approach is subject to question, given that Africa, with the greatest need, faced the greatest cuts.

Canada's broader long-term interest is also jeopardized by the shift. Sub-Saharan Africa countries will remain among the most vulnerable to political and economic instability, disease, environmental degradation and civil conflict. If development remains insufficient to provide employment for the increasingly young, urban populations, the pressure of large-scale illegal migration and recruitment of disaffected youth into radical, potentially terrorist, organizations, is raised.

Development is a process that requires decades to show results and predictable commitments between donors and their partners. Our traditional values dictate we remain engaged with Africa. The new Canadian International Development Agency policy should be subject to public debate and parliamentary scrutiny, and adjustments should be made to reinstate some of our poorest African development partners and to redress the francophone imbalance. In seeking to enhance trade and other links with the Americas, Canada should not turn its back on Africa.

Anthony Halliday is acting chairman of the Canadian International Council's African Study Group, established in 2007 to promote Canadian engagement with Africa.

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