Photo: Ryan Kelpin/Flickr

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The learning curve is awesomely steep and must be carried out in the full glare of media and public attention. What’s worse, you can be 100 per cent certain there are hordes of people who know the issues better than you ever will. And it’s often the international ministries that are most intimidating for new ministers who typically may have little background in their new universe. Some — many — never make the grade. That’s why a wise new international minister will say little publicly until he/she has really mastered the file, and will then be extremely humble and modest. They must remember how much they don’t know.

In July, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Julian Fantino the Minister of International Co-operation. Mr. Fantino’s entire adult life had been spent as a police officer in Ontario. He had, literally, a world to discover before he could master the hugely complex and controversial subject of international development and co-operation.

Nothing is more important, therefore, than the briefings Mr. Fantino has received. It appears they were mostly conducted by the very same ideological political staffers who managed Bev Oda on behalf of the ideologues in the Prime Minister’s Office. It appears he has failed to meet with significant sections of CIDA. He has spent a good deal of time with those few non-governmental organizations that have agreed to co-operate with mining companies, known as “trusted partners,” but he has ignored the vast majority of Canada’s vast NGO sector. How can he even know what he doesn’t know?

So it startled many when, after only a few months in the post, Mr. Fantino began making controversial and categorical pronouncements. The minister wants to reverse the entire purpose of his already demoralized ministry. Instead of it trying to benefit poor countries, he wants CIDA to significantly benefit Canada. Canadian aid, he declares, must involve Canadian self-interest: “Canadian values, Canadian business, the Canadian economy, benefits for Canada.”

Ironically, the minister has stumbled on a profound and unflattering truth: The entire relationship between Canada and poor countries, like that between all rich and poor countries, has always benefited us far more than them. Take foreign aid, for example, the perennial expression of our compassion and their dependence. In reality, one of the aims of such aid has always been the promotion of our own interests. The fact is that substantial amounts of aid have never gotten to the poor who needed it. As with most other rich countries, some one-half to two-thirds of Canada’s so-called aid was historically tied to the purchase of Canadian goods and services. For the U.S., the figure was fully 68 per cent in 2005, according to Oxfam America.

Before going any further, the minister owes it to Canadians to talk to real experts in the field who’ll explain to him the basic truths about international development. He needs to know that every single day for the past 600 years or so, Africa and other poor countries have contributed more to the well-being of the rich world than we have contributed to them.

For Africa, the story runs from the slave trade through the exploitation of the colonial era and then to neocolonialism. Through all these centuries, the continent’s human, natural and financial resources have poured into Europe and North America, substantially enabling much of the development that has made the rich even richer and kept the poor poor.

Mr. Fantino, I am obligated to say, could benefit by reading my little book, The Betrayal of Africa. But that’s just a start. Many of the terrific NGOs that Mr. Fantino has foolishly bad-mouthed would gladly share their hard-earned wisdom with him. He should try the McLeod Group, an umbrella for some of Canada’s most thoughtful and innovative old hands in the development sphere. Inter Pares, a small, excellent Canadian NGO, could make clear the central role of women in development.

Oxfam-Canada could inform him of the many decades in which the World Bank, the IMF and most western government imposed on poor countries an extreme and destructive form of market economics. The CCIC could tell him about the unequal trade deals that rich countries have foisted on Africa. Mining Watch Canada could report both on the Canadian mining companies that have brutally exploited Africa and the recent World Bank report that documents the severe limitations of the resource sector as a development tool.

Any of them could tell him of the literally hundreds of billions of dollars that foreign corporations siphon out of Africa without paying taxes or royalties and of the brain drain that siphons out Africa’s best and brightest.

And any of them could point him to the latest report by the Reality of Aid Network, Aid and the Private Sector, which shows that the increasing role of the private sector in the global aid industry is doing little to benefit the poor. Instead, it’s private businesses, aided by governments in the rich world, that reap profit from their involvement in aid. Of course Mr. Fantino just might find that something to applaud.

But he would be disastrously wrong. In fact the minister has his priorities exactly upside down. Like the rest of the western world, Canada has perennially been the clear benefactor of our relations with Africa. Africa has been the generous aid donor, Canada the lucky aid recipient. Surely one of these centuries it’ll be time to give something back.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

Photo: Ryan Kelpin/Flickr


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,...