In two week's time, my wife heads to South Sudan to assist in overseeing projects Canadians have been investing in for years -- water salvage, education, women's micro-enterprise initiatives, scholarship programs, and the final phase of construction for a secondary school.
It won't be easy. It's never been simple. But for over 15 years a large number of Canadians have been investing in such initiatives, even during some of the worst years of the now-concluded civil war. During those early occasions, Canada's reputation had been sullied by the presence of a Canadian oil firm that, in Southern Sudanese eyes, was making a fortune out of their misery. Eventually the firm pulled out and we sensed a warming to Canada as our government invested more deeply in peace initiatives and relief efforts, and as it became clear that we weren't just interested in financial gain.
Some very capable Canadian diplomats were of key assistance in constructing and funding some of the key efforts required to end the war between north and south Sudan following so many decades. And Canadian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which had provided such stellar service during the war years, assisted in helping the Southern Sudanese move forward as they peacefully achieved independence and became the world's newest nation. For years, the Sudanese conflict had remained high on the radar for successive Canadian governments, who worked in conjunction with many of their international partners in that deeply troubled part of the world.
But being a new nation with limited resources doesn't make for an easy transition into good governance. Tribes that had held together to fend off the incursions of north Sudan during the lengthy war have started to come apart over the problems of administering the peace. The recent troubles in the south that sprung up only a month ago, and the instability that has resulted, has pressed that African region to the precipice. Western nations that had so greatly assisted in early years but who had moved on to other regions are quickly returning with new initiatives to assist the south in holding itself together as it journeys towards adulthood as a nation.
Sadly, one of those countries will not be Canada. For well over a decade, Sudan had been a Canadian priority. But just this week, the Harper government, through its Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), has recommended, "that Canada consider downgrading its development program (in Sudan), or exiting entirely."
CIDA correctly figured that it was going to prove difficult to administer aid in the south. But that's the way it has been for decades. Some of Canada's most effective investments occurred during the civil war's costliest years. This country, along with the U.S., Britain, the European Union, and others, kept their eye on the ball, slowly but progressively nursing that troubled country into an era where peace became a possibility.
What's the reason for Canada's change of heart and focus? According to an internal report acquired by the Globe and Mail, Sudan is no longer an area of "strategic importance" to this government. Both Foreign Affairs and CIDA have been instructed to implement a new era in international intervention, primarily focused on what's best for Canadian business. At the moment, little such opportunity seems apparent in Sudan and downgrading this country's historic investment has been recommended.
All this is transpiring just as Sudan requires not only Canada's ongoing partnership, but its influential diplomatic expertise. The Globe and Mail's release of the internal report reveals that all this couldn't have come at a worse time. In preparation for our trip to South Sudan in a few days, we learned that numerous contacts at various levels have been taken aback by what for them is even more fulsome evidence that Canada has lost its way in recent years.
While the United Nations has put out an emergency appeal for one billion dollars from donor countries to assist the Sudanese effort, tongues have already begun to wag in capitals throughout the West about how Canada appears to have gone AWOL. As one American government official told me today, "It's now difficult to know how to involve your country in these important security and development issues anymore."
All this will be embarrassing and not a tad sad to speak about with the Southern Sudanese. But, as with those earlier times, we will remind them that the people of Canada will continue in their interest and investment in a troubled country even as our own government loses interest. But hanging over all of us will be the understanding that Canada is leaving the southern Sudanese to their own fate, in this, their adolescent years as a new nation. Some investment will continue, but our government's imagination is gone. This is not our finest hour.