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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."


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.

"The truth is that all of us are preoccupied with the economy," says Liberal MP Glen Pearson, a member of the Commons committee on foreign affairs and international development. "We're so busy caring about the jobless in Canada that we have forgotten about those without water, food, and now development, in Africa."

Four years ago, when Mr. Martin was still in office and Tony Blair was Britain's prime minister, they led the emotional campaign at the Gleneagles summit that prompted the Group of Eight industrialized nations to vow to double its aid to Africa to $80-billion. But as the 2010 deadline approaches, it's clear the target will not be reached. Meanwhile, the world has provided only a small fraction of the $22-billion in emergency aid it pledged last year to deal with the food crisis in Africa and other developing regions.

Around the world, donations to relief agencies and private charities have plummeted. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a crucial source of support for Africa, is running a shortfall of $4-billion because of cuts by donor nations. In Washington, the Obama administration has warned that it may have to delay its promise to double foreign aid.

At the same time, a posse of provocative new authors is questioning foreign aid. Robert Calderisi, a Canadian who worked for 30 years for the World Bank, proposes in his book, The Trouble With Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn't Working, that all but five African countries should be denied aid unless they accept "political and economic supervision." Dambisa Moyo, a young Harvard-educated economist originally from neighbouring Zambia, has caused a sensation with her slim essay, Dead Aid , which calls for an end to all aid to Africa within a few years.

Yet Canada's aid often works very well, making a crucial difference in the lives of the poor. Its impact can be seen, for example, in the impoverished hills of the Thyolo district in southern Malawi, where hundreds of thousands of ordinary farmers are squeezed into tiny plots of land, barely able to survive, while the choicest land is reserved for massive tea estates, controlled by affluent Europeans and Asians.

Before the Canadians arrived a few years ago, the maize and banana farmers of Njale took their water from a dirty stream below their village. They hauled the buckets up the hillside to their shacks, knowing the dangers of the tainted water, yet having no choice but to drink it. Cholera was the inevitable result, leaving villagers sick if not dead.

Then the Canadian International Development Agency launched a $13-million water-supply project for 243,000 people in more than 500 southern villages. Today, the people of Njale take clean water from a tap, and cholera deaths have stopped.

"It has helped us so much," says Esnat John, a 42-year-old farmer who sells her bananas from a tiny roadside shop. "There were a lot of cholera cases before, but now there are none. This project has allowed us to live. We will always be grateful to Canada. Without it, we would be dead by now."

Ms. John's story is powerful evidence that Canadian aid saves lives among the poorest of the poor - and is deeply appreciated. "I'm getting a lot of heartfelt thank-yous when people hear that I'm from Canada," says Owen Scott, a development worker in southern Malawi for Engineers Without Borders, a Canadian group.

The villagers are hoping that CIDA will expand the water project. Ms. John points to a hill in the distance, where a woman recently died from cholera because her village was too remote to qualify for the Canadian project. "Please assist those people," she begs.

Yet the project - now in its final weeks of completion - is almost certain to be the last of its kind in Malawi. Under the Harper government's new policy, CIDA is unlikely to fund something so ambitious in a "non-priority" country.


The villagers are shocked when they learn that Canada is scaling back its aid. "It makes us sad," Ms. John says. "More people will die."

Geoffrey Boyidi, who grows cabbages and tomatoes on a half-acre plot in a nearby village, is worried by the news of the CIDA cuts. "It's a sad story," he says. "It means the future potential of this project will never be reached. It will affect us so much."

Not far away, in the hilltop village of Didi, more than 1,000 children are studying from Canadian-supplied textbooks. It's part of a CIDA project that has provided more than eight million textbooks, posters and teacher manuals to more than 5,000 schools in Malawi. "Without these books, we could not perform," says McLean Mputeni, head teacher at Didi's school. "These books are very important for us."

Across Malawi, people sing the praises of CIDA - and express bewilderment at the Harper government's decision to axe their country from the priority list. "All of us rejoiced and celebrated when Canada established its high commission here, a fully fledged embassy for the first time," says Mavuto Bamusi, national co-ordinator of the Human Rights Consultative Committee, an independent group in Malawi that relies on CIDA for 20 per cent of its operating budget.

"What concerns us most is the reclassification of Malawi as a non-priority country. It makes little sense - it's ridiculous. Here is a country emerging from political dictatorship, and it has a democracy which needs to be nurtured. This is a time when Malawi needs support."

With funding from CIDA, his human-rights group was working with Malawi's parliament on a program to make politicians more accountable. Now, he fears that he'll have to scrap the program. "We're not just laying people off - we're laying off the whole concept of parliamentary accountability," Mr. Bamusi says. "This is about democracy surviving in Malawi. It sends a wrong signal to other countries - they could do the same as Canada."

Until recently, Canada was the sixth-biggest donor in Malawi, spending $235-million on aid projects here in the past decade alone. One $20-million program made CIDA the biggest source of textbooks to Malawian schools. Another program saved countless lives by providing $15-million to supply antiretroviral medicine to HIV/AIDS patients.

But since 2006, CIDA officials here have been able to plan no new ventures. The high commission was in limbo while the Harper government drafted its new policy. Its projects wound down, with nothing to replace them.

The shift in priorities has been a disaster for Canada's image in Malawi. "Canada closing embassy," blared a headline in The Nation, a leading national newspaper, which told its readers (wrongly) that Canada was terminating all of its aid to Malawi.

Ms. Kaliya, the head of the women's-rights group, is highly critical of the withdrawal. Because CIDA failed to explain its pullout, Malawians will assume that Canada is punishing the country for some kind of wrongdoing, she says.

"Why are they hiding the reasons?" she adds. "We were not even informed about it - I had to read it in the newspaper. Canada is creating a very big gap for Malawi, and it will take a long time to fill it. It will be a huge burden."


With CIDA's help, Ms. Kaliya and her colleagues have been training Malawi's bureaucrats and school officials to become more aware of gender discrimination. They brought more women into the committees that manage water supplies in villages, and they developed a policy to help teenage mothers to go back to school. "I think CIDA has had a lot of impact here," she says. "Canada had a very good reputation in Malawi. But now they're pulling down their flag. It's a very unfortunate situation."

More than three years after taking office, the Harper government is still floundering in its search for an Africa policy. In 2005, Paul Martin and the Liberals promised to double Canada's aid to Africa to $2.8-billion by this year. The Conservative government said it would still meet that goal, but redefined the base year, so that the new target was only $2.1-billion. It also gave no clear goal for what happens after the lower target is reached.

In late February, after years of ruminating, the government unveiled its new aid-priority list. It had 20 countries, versus the Liberals' 25, with the number in Africa chopped in half, from 14 to seven. "The surprise and shock were palpable," reports Embassy magazine, which follows diplomatic issues in Ottawa.

International Co-operation Minister Beverley Oda has said little, telling parliamentarians that "this step recognizes the criticisms directed at CIDA of trying to do everything, for everyone, everywhere."

But a deeper motivation seems to be the government's distaste for the celebrities who promoted the Africa obsessions. "What I will talk about is not something that aims to please Irish rock stars," Ms. Oda sniffed in one speech.

Her announcement triggered an angry reaction around the world. Even CIDA's field workers were upset. Nobody from headquarters had consulted them before the decision, and nobody had consulted the African countries themselves. When the drastic shift was unveiled, African diplomats in Ottawa had to read about it in the newspapers. They calculated that CIDA would be sending only 35 per cent of its bilateral aid to Africa, down from 70 per cent previously.

"Refusing to make a firm commitment to Africa is equivalent to turning Canada's back on millions of people who are fighting every day to climb out of poverty," says Sylvie Perras of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation. "It would mean leaving Africa on the sidelines. It is now clear that Africa is no longer a priority for Canada's development assistance, despite increasing poverty throughout the continent."

Stephen Lewis, the former United Nations special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa, says countries such as Malawi are "right on the knife edge" and will be hurt by Canada's cuts.

"For a country like Canada to desert its commitment in Africa is really destructive," he contends. "Eight very poor African countries become expendable in the quest for trade with Latin America - that's the equation. That's pretty brutal at a time of economic downturn. For Canada to collaborate in the decline of these countries, when they're struggling for survival, is perverse."

Oxfam, which is active in Malawi, worries that Canada is penalizing African countries by pulling out without lining up other donors to fill the gap. "You can't turn good development off and on like a tap," says Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada. "Multiyear commitments are essential for poor countries to hire the teachers or nurses they need for long-term development."

George Roter, co-founder of Engineers Without Borders, visited Malawi last month and was impressed by its progress. "The government has its act together, and you're just starting to see results," he says. "Canada could be a great partner for Malawi, and it's a real disappointment that we aren't. It just doesn't make sense."


Across Malawi, people are assessing the toll of Canada's withdrawal. Victor Mhoni, co-ordinator of a network of agricultural groups, says CIDA's financial support helped him lobby parliament after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease last year. As a result, the outbreak was contained, avoiding a potentially devastating ban on the export of farm products.

"The support from CIDA was vital. It was almost the only program helping us to be a parliamentary watchdog. For me, the CIDA cuts are very bad. It's going to leave a very indelible mark. We don't really understand the reasons. Are we not strategic enough?"

Maxwell Matewere, executive director of a children's-rights group called Eye of the Child, has worked on a CIDA project that trains teachers to help girls stay in school.

"We've been able to see the results - the gap between boys and girls has been reduced," he says, adding that "Canada is pulling out at a time when Malawi needs it most. It was really contributing to our achievements.

"Why did they decide to close the embassy in such a short time? So much is at stake. They should look at it from the eyes of the poor."

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in Africa.

For more about the foreign aid issue, see The Munk Debates on June 1

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