The Canadian government is sending a token military force to the west African nation of Mali, and Canadians are asking two questions: Where’s Mali? Why Mali? Lucky for Mr. Trudeau, the CBC has decided to go along as spokesperson for the government. For two nights in a row this week, the National news suggested this UN mission is simply the continuation of Canada’s — and the world’s — long tradition of selflessly aiding Mali.

Heaven knows Mali needs all the help it can get. It’s ranked a feeble 175th of 188 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index. Half of Mali is inhospitable desert, home to bands of Islamist terrorists. This war feels unwinnable.

A large, and largely unsuccessful, UN mission already exists in Mali. There are many other UN missions that would welcome Canada’s help, so why did the Liberals choose Mali? The National suggests that it’s a continuation of earlier Canadian friendship with Mali using different tools. It reports that Canada has “given” Mali $1 billion over the past decade, while the western world overall has “given” it $100 billion in the past half-century.

Yes, we rich white countries sure are generous when it comes to handouts for our black kin in Africa.

Except when we rip them off, of course, which is the real story of Canada and the west in Africa generally and Mali specifically. The really significant record of Canada and the west in Africa is how Africans have helped us become rich while we’ve helped them to remain impoverished. Remember that Human Development Index? 35 of the lowest-ranked 40 countries (out of 188) are in Africa; only five are not.

One reason is that large portions of the “aid” western governments have contributed never actually leaves the donor country; it largely benefits businesses at home. A second is that much of the aid that gets to Africa is never used for the development reasons it’s ostensibly intended. Lots of it is looted for the benefit of the elites of those recipient countries, who nevertheless remain on friendly terms with western governments.

There are many other ways in which the west and Africa interact, in most of which the West overwhelmingly benefits and Africa mostly loses. Trade, a subject on many minds these days, is a good example. Through the World Trade Organization (WTO), rich countries’ rules force a poor country to open its markets to the world. Almost invariably, its imports from us rise far faster than our exports to them. But African producers can’t compete with subsidized western agribusinesses. NGO researchers have estimated that sub-Saharan Africa is hundreds of billions of dollars worse off thanks to free trade policies imposed by the west as a condition of receiving our aid and loans. Often aid just compensates African countries for the losses they sustain in trade.

The cotton economy makes this clear, because the story is so straightforward. One notorious chapter took place a dozen years ago and was widely publicized within the aid community. I also heard the story from a former president of Mali with whom I worked a while back, Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT), later overthrown. Ten to 15 million people throughout West Africa, including Mali, depended for their livelihood on cotton. “Cotton was for us a source of livelihood,” ATT said. “But these days it has become our burden, a cause of poverty.”

ATT attended a WTO meeting, where western-imposed rules were the order of the day. ATT, much respected at the time, told me he “begged” the representatives from the U.S. and Europe not to subsidize their own cotton industry lest it threaten the very livelihood of those millions of Africans. But as always, American interests came first. Toure’s pleas were no match for America’s powerful cotton lobby, so Congress continued to subsidize U.S. cotton growers to the tune of billions of dollars. That was three times the entire budget of the US aid agency. The IMF agreed that African countries directly lost $250 billion.

As for generous old Canada, our best teacher is Joan Baxter, a Canadian journalist who lived in Africa for twenty years. Her powerful book, Dust From Our Eyes, is powerful reading. She told me once that what mostly interested the Canadian government about Mali was its gold and oil, and Canadian officials and diplomats do their most diligent work to pave the way for Canadian mining companies to win extremely generous tax holidays from the Mali government. So just roll your eyes when you hear malarkey from mining executives and their high-priced lobbyists about businesses being socially responsible.

And keep them rolling when the CBC says Canadian mining companies have “invested more than $1 billion in Mali,” as if that investment was to benefit the citizens of Mali. Ask yourself where that money actually went, who really benefited from it, and why Trudeau has chosen an unwinnable war in Mali for his meagre peace mission in Africa.

Image: United Nations Photo/Flickr

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Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...