Former prime minister Paul Martin touts re-engagement with Africa – The Globe and Mail

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Former prime minister Paul Martin says a slow global economy, particularly in China and Europe, presents an opportunity for Canada to re-engage with Africa after a decade of distant relations with the continent under the former Conservative government.

Mr. Martin said economic weakness in China and Europe – which are major investors in Africa – has opened the door for a revived Canadian role, especially as the Liberal government looks to renew Canada’s place in the world. The Liberals have indicated a willingness to re-engage with Africa; their party platform committed to refocus Canadian development assistance, noting former prime minister Stephen Harper’s shift away from the world’s poorest countries, particularly in Africa.

“The drop in demand for commodities such as oil and iron ore, coupled with the slowdown in Chinese investment and the chaos in Europe, not to mention domestic drought, has led to a triple whammy in terms of Africa’s economic growth,” Mr. Martin told The Globe and Mail. “When Africa is suffering from a multiple of blows, for Canada to say that we want to re-engage in Africa, I think the timing could not be better and the initiative by Canada could not be more important.”

Mr. Martin will address a global affairs conference in Ottawa on Tuesday.

The Harper government was criticized for distancing Canada from Africa by closing diplomatic missions and cutting development aid in favour of other parts of the world, such as Latin America. Mr. Martin called the Conservative move “incomprehensible,” given Canada’s long-standing relationship with Africa. He said he is encouraged by the new government’s willingness to re-energize Canada’s approach to the continent and suggested two places to start.

First, Mr. Martin said Africa’s need for infrastructure combined with Canada’s expertise in the area present a major opportunity for partnership.

“African countries have a great deal of difficulty trading with each other … and one of the reasons for this is the lack of infrastructure,” Mr. Martin said. “Canada has huge capability with our engineering firms and our understanding of what its like to build infrastructure over what effectively is a continent.”

Jean Gauthier, president and chief executive of the Canadian Council on Africa, agreed, adding that Canada could help African countries build power supply, roads, telecommunication systems and social infrastructure.

Mr. Martin said Canada could also help fund education in Africa, especially for young girls, given China’s somewhat diminished presence in the continent over the past year.

The United Nations estimates that Africa’s population will roughly double to 2.5 billion by 2050. Mr. Martin said Canada stands to benefit from rebuilding relations with the young, growing population.

“An Africa that is doing better economically will benefit Canada because it’ll be a customer,” Mr. Martin said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we can repair the links that have been broken.”

David Hornsby, a Canadian lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa who specializes in Canadian foreign policy in Africa, said that while Canada-Africa relations can be improved, the government is going to have to spend a lot of money and time to do so.

“Leaders on the ground don’t think about Canada any more,” Dr. Hornsby said. “It’s just the consequence of, one could argue, 10 years of Harper foreign policy.”

Dr. Hornsby said the Liberal government needs to be willing to “play the game” with Africans by taking a multipronged approach to engage on public and economic diplomacy, and developmental assistance.

A senior government official said the way Canada views Africa is about to change.

“We see incredible potential in the sense that Africa has an incredibly creative youth for instance. It’s got a booming middle class and we see real partnerships,” the official said. “It’s an exciting time … to be engaged with African partners.”

The source said priority countries for Canadian development aid in Africa have not yet been established, as the government is still reviewing its international assistance policy framework. In last week’s budget, the government allocated $256-million over two years for the International Assistance Envelope. It is not clear how much, if any, of that will go to African countries.

Former prime minister Paul Martin touts re-engagement with Africa – The Globe and Mail