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Marie-Claude Bibeau, the Minister of International Development, says she is worried that a cancellation of Canadian aid could “punish” innocent people in Tanzania.

PATRICK DOYLE/The Canadian Press

Canada’s foreign-aid minister says she is facing a “dilemma” over whether to join the growing movement to suspend millions of dollars in aid to Tanzania for its jailing of opposition MPs and its threats to arrest people who are gay.

Marie-Claude Bibeau, the Minister of International Development, says she is evaluating her options in Tanzania but is worried that a cancellation of Canadian aid could “punish” innocent people in the country.

Canada is one of the biggest donors to the East African country, providing almost $90-million in aid to Tanzania last year and about $2.3-billion in total since the 1960s. But only about a quarter of the assistance last year went directly to the government. The rest went largely to non-governmental groups or multilateral organizations.

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Tanzania’s human-rights abuses have sparked a sharp reaction this month. One of its major donors, Denmark, suspended about US$10-million in aid last week because of its concerns, and the European Union announced that it is reviewing US$88-million in annual aid to the country.

Hundreds of gays and lesbians have gone into hiding in Tanzania after threats were issued by Paul Makonda, the administrative chief of the country’s biggest city, Dar es Salaam. Last month, he urged citizens to report any suspected homosexuals to the authorities, and soon afterward, he said he had received 5,000 tips from the public, naming more than 100 people suspected of being gay. Homosexuality is illegal in the country.

At the same time, police arrested 10 men in Zanzibar who were accused of attending a same-sex marriage ceremony. Police have also arrested journalists, opposition MPs, mining executives and bloggers in recent months, while shutting down newspapers and radio stations.

Much of the government crackdown has targeted programs that Canada supports, including projects to promote family planning and to keep girls in school. President John Magufuli has banned family planning advertisements, alleged that women who use contraception are “lazy,” and ordered the expulsion of any female high-school student who becomes pregnant.

“We’re having conversations with the government, and we’re also having conversations with our friends and allies to see the different options,” Ms. Bibeau told The Globe and Mail in a telephone interview from Ethiopia at the end of a two-country African visit.

Suspending the Canadian aid to Tanzania “to make a political statement” would be a difficult decision, Ms. Bibeau said.

“If we have to change our position, we will do so,” she said. “But we are so involved in the health and education sectors, and we wouldn’t want to punish the students or women who need our support on reproductive health services, for example. We’re using our influence in the field to change cultural norms positively, to help girls to stay in school … We know we are making a difference in the field. So I think you can understand my dilemma.”

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Meanwhile, Ms. Bibeau was offering praise and support for the government of Ethiopia, where she held meetings with the new 42-year-old Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, and other top officials.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has confirmed that he will be visiting Ethiopia to meet Mr. Abiy, according to a statement on Twitter by Mr. Abiy’s office on the weekend. The visit would be a strong signal of support from Mr. Trudeau, who has made few visits to Africa since becoming Prime Minister in 2015.

After winning office seven months ago, Mr. Abiy has launched far-reaching changes. He has ended a state of emergency, freed thousands of political prisoners, released journalists from jail, allowed opposition groups to work freely, and ended a long-standing conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.

Mr. Abiy has also appointed Ethiopia’s first gender-balanced cabinet, with women getting half of the cabinet positions. It is one of only two gender-parity cabinets in Africa. He also appointed women to other top posts, including the top job in Ethiopia’s Supreme Court.

Meaza Ashenafi, the new president of the Ethiopian Supreme Court, was the founder of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, which has received several financial grants from the Canadian government for its human rights work.

In past elections, opposition parties were largely excluded from Ethiopia’s parliament, but Ms. Bibeau said the new Prime Minister promised her that the next election in 2020 would be fairer. He asked for Canadian support for that election, including logistical and technical support and election observers, she said.

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“I really feel that the Prime Minister is committed to open and democratic elections,” Ms. Bibeau said.

Mr. Trudeau spoke with Mr. Abiy by telephone on Nov. 5 to express support for his political changes, including his “leadership on gender equality,” according to a statement by his office.

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