Reflections from China Re-imagining Canada – Africa Relations, “….because it is 2016”!

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau concluded his fourth, and by far his longest state visits spending 10 days in China. By all accounts, China could not have been a more gracious host, and in return, Trudeau repeatedly spoke about his desire to “strengthen our partnership …in fact, to take that partnership to the next level.” As Canada stands poised to enter a new era of multilateral foreign policy, what lessons can we learn from China vis-à-vis the yet to be defined Canada – Africa relationship?

announced late last month that “Canada is back,” committing Canada to contribute up to 600 soldiers and 150 police officers to an Africa-based UN Peacekeeping operations. Meanwhile, over this past summer, 230 consultations were organized around the world to review Canada’s international assistance policy. This is seen as proof positive that the Liberal Government is delivering on its election platform to put Africa back firmly on the agenda with statements from Marc Garneau that: “There will be a focus on Africa. That is a continent that, back in the Chrétien years, we focused on a lot”. There are many who harken back to the halcyon days of Nobel Peace Prize-winning Lester B. Pearson romantic non-violent approach to peacekeeping, or the short-lived era of the New Partnership for African Development Agreement (NEPAD) or the Canada Fund for Africa which briefly propelled Canada to the position of being the third largest foreign aid donor in Africa. However, the past decade has seen a remarkable turnaround, and not for the better. With the exception of a few niche initiatives, such as on Maternal Newborn and Child Health, of Blended Finance, Canada had virtually disappeared from the international development stage. Canada made significant cuts to its assistance programs to Africa. No less than seven African countries were dropped from Canada’s aid priority list and embassies were shuttered across the continent. The message heard by African nations was that they no longer mattered- as Canada had more attractive Asian Tigers to chase.

But in the interim, time has not stood still and Africa is indeed a very different place than it was over a decade ago. It would be a mistake to think that all that is required is a quick dust-off of tried and true policies, a sprinkling of promising new buzz-words and an infusion of additional funds. If Canada is to develop a forward-looking foreign policy with Africa that strengthens diplomatic, political and economic ties both at home among diaspora, private & public sector partners and abroad with their counterparts, then nothing less than a fundamental rethink is required.

During this past decade, factors as disparate as urbanization, telecommunications, terrorism, climate change, commodity boom and bust, a youth bulge and a swelling middle-class are some of the numerous trends that have changed the face of Africa. However, it can be argued that one of the most significant shifts that has profoundly altered Africa’s growth has been the role of China in Africa.

Most westerners are too willing to write-off China’s role in Africa, preferring instead to subscribe to any number of the common myths. Media reports typically present a dichotomous view in which China’s interest in Africa are portrayed as either “evil” in that they willing to trade natural resources at the expense of efforts to improve governance and environmental sustainability; or they are a “nirvana” because they represent a fast-track to economic and infrastructure development on the cheap. Make no mistake, the role China plays in Africa is complex, far from perfect and frequently falls prey to narrow domestic interests, as is the case with any bilateral relationship.

However, by virtue of the size, scope and scale of China’s presence in Africa, Canada (and the US for that matter) would do well to reflect on some of the reasons behind its apparent success which are worthy of emulation.

1) Think Long Term
Without a doubt, the impact of millions of dollars spent by NGOs in portraying Africa as backward, conflict-ridden, and pity-worthy has had an undeniable effect. Typically most investors return a puzzled stare when presented with an opportunity of investing in Africa- Charity yes but investment? The fact that public perception of Africa has yet to catch-up with reality is no excuse for Canada to continue to limit its ambitions to the extractives sector and a handful of individual development initiatives and media announcements. Africa’s growing middle-class, increasing levels of education and economies are expected to grow twice as fast as developed markets for the foreseeable future means that a long-term commitment is required to invest in its people, opportunities, facilities and infrastructure. China’s one-party government is understandably uniquely positioned to make investments in Africa’s potential. But make no mistake, there are plenty in China who openly question whether investments made abroad would not be better spent at home. However, the stark reality is that as living standards in China increase, 85 million manufacturing jobs will need to be transformed into service sectors jobs. It is in China’s interest to manage this transition. By laying a favorable political and infrastructure framework, Africa and China stand to reap enormous economic benefits. Canada would do well to emulate this long-term approach to Africa as it seeks to maintain its competitive advantage globally.

2) Get your hands dirty
When the West typically engages with Africa it inevitably requires business class airplane tickets, per diems to satisfy the costs of imported foods, accommodation at 4-5 star hotels, drivers and four-wheel drive vehicles. This role involves at least 3-4 visits per year by so-called helicopter consultant over-seeers who know little of local realities and are there to undertake due diligence assessments, design projects, evaluate environmental impacts and progress made. This work typically follows prescribed templates, are sufficiently complex to ensure that only a small number of qualified practitioners “from home” can complete them, but offer little insight and are rarely read by anyone who does not have the word audit, compliance, or evaluation in their title. China in comparison gets its project managers on the ground where they live, breathe and are entrenched in their work- so when problems inevitably arise there is someone at hand to fix it there and then. The difference in these two approaches is plain to see, the Chinese project gets the work done far faster and for at least 20% less cost than their western counterpart. It is not possible to deploy Canadian staff to live under the very modest employment conditions required by Chinese companies, and state-owned companies benefit from official levels of aid which do not exist in most other countries. Furthermore most emerging economies are increasingly placing limits on the numbers of expatriate staff. What are Canadian companies to do? There is enormous scope for Canadian companies to innovate by sourcing skills from the African diaspora who bring Canadian know-how with an awareness of local realities. The African-Canadian community is the fastest growing ethnic minority in Canada, and currently, it stands as the third largest minority group behind Chinese and South Asian communities. But leveraging this resource does not happen by accident, and requires the right mix of planning, training, and skill-transfer.

3) Setting up a one-stop-shop
Speak to any African political leader who has been to China, and when asked why Chinese projects are so appealing they say it is because they offer a package deal, be it military, investment, trade, aid, foreign affairs all wrapped into one tidy bundle. More importantly, accessing the resources does not require a years’ worth of consultants writing reports. The merger of Foreign Affairs, Trade and development aid into a common ministry now known as collectively Global Affairs Canada is a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen whether this kind of joined-up thinking is possible at a continental level. Critical to an Africa One-stop shop is avoiding the danger of engaging Africa as if it is a single homogenous entity. Yet as Canada maintains only 15 foreign missions in Africa to cover 54 countries it is not well prepared to respond to its dynamic and interconnected growth. [ed note. As an example- Turkey by way of comparison has 38 Embassies across Africa, more than half of which were opened over the past decade as part of its efforts to increase trade and investments particularly targeting SMEs.]

The extractives sector and a few development initiatives may well have maintained Canada’s modest presence on the continent. If Canada wishes to re-engage with Africa and be considered once again as a major player it must broaden the range and scope of its engagements. This will inevitably require that the Canadian Governments invests in long-term cooperation mechanisms and incentives for Canadian business, diaspora and the development community to meaningfully take our cooperation with Africa “to the next level.” Otherwise Canada risks being “back”, long after the train has left the station.


Footnote on the outcome from China
Canadian Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland announced that Chinese and Canadian firms signed 56 deals worth more than $1.2 billion. Among the agreements signed included seven new Canadian visa offices across China to serve the ever growing business and tourism links with twelve Chinese cities having a direct flight to Canada this summer. Other highlights included; Prime Minister Trudeau meeting with women entrepreneurs about the need for inclusive growth, Alibaba founder Jack Ma to discuss the future of online retailing and fin-tech, Bill Morneau announcement of Canada’s decision to become the first North American member of the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, and there was also time to talk about human rights conditions in China while recognizing that Canada’s own record is from blameless. In short, it was the type of robust agenda that one would expect from a two-way foreign direct investment (FDI) relationship with China which has reached $33 billion at the end of 2015 Canada’s and includes a 15 Trade Commissioner Service Offices, staffed by a team of over 100 trade commissioners. Trudeau frequently referred to the contribution of Chineses Canadian diaspora. Conservative MP Alice Siu-Ping Won who is the first Chinese-Canadian woman to serve in Cabinet was part of the delegation and he made mention of Philip Lee the current Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba. Canadians of Chinese descent make up approximately 4.5 percent of Canada’s population.

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