06/22/2011 11:27 EDT | Updated 08/22/2011 05:12 EDT

The Scramble for Africa... Again


The Globe and Mail's Lysiane Gagnon took to ruminating this week about how Stephen Harper is an intelligent man but that his global awareness has lacked background and experience.

She quotes a sentence from his speech at the recent Conservative convention: "We know where our interests lie and who our friends are."

Historically, he has shown little interest for Africa because he has few friends on that continent, despite Canada's rich and lengthy involvement in numerous African countries.

When the Conservative government cut long-term development funding from a number of key African partners a few years ago, it was a strong signal that they were in the process of forging a new direction.

Even up until this most recent election, the Conservatives seemed bent on pursuing their opportunities elsewhere -- primarily in Latin America. African embassies continued to be shut down in what appeared to be a lack of imagination or interest in a continent that our other G8/G20 partners were recommitting themselves toward.

Suddenly this week Africa was back in the spotlight. An internally prepared report from the Foreign Affairs department called "Report on Plans and Priorities" revealed, "An engagement strategy with Africa will be developed and implemented to reinforce relations with key states."

For some, this is a reason for optimism, as the Canadian government appears at last to be interested in getting back on track with this country's historic relations with the African continent. But for the majority of us, this is the moment many of us feared. It has been maintained for years by former prime ministers like Paul Martin and Joe Clark that Africa is a continent brimming with opportunity and trade potential. They're right, and with many African economies now taking off the time seems right to re-engage in order to take advantage of the numerous investment opportunities now emerging.

This is where Stephen Harper's comment that "we know where our interests lie" carries new significance. Africa hardly held the Conservative interest before and had been largely ignored during the last few years, but now that growing trade and investment opportunities are apparent, there is suddenly an economic curiosity. Everyone else has been there for years and reaped the economic benefit while Canada preferred to apply its interests elsewhere. No more. Africa it is, and this country appears ready to at least make certain moves in that direction.

The problem with this development is that it reintroduces the old "trade" versus "aid" argument that has been going on for decades. Like other nations, Canada is looking for those achieving countries within the African continent that make for the soundest investment. That makes good business sense and no doubt will also profit those nations on the continent. But if it comes at the expense of the poorer regions, then Africa as a whole will flounder.

We've seen this before in Western dealings with Africa and it never ends well. The initial "scramble for Africa" that saw European colonial powers siphoning off huge quantities of resources merely to benefit the colonial homelands was the absolute opposite of sound trading practices or international development, for it eventually ruined the long-term potential of the investments and left Africa plundered in the process, incapable of picking itself up off the ground.

The issues is never that trade is bad while aid is good, and vice-versa; it is that both are required in healthy doses. Now is not the time for Canada to maintain its frozen levels of aid to Africa while it at the same time greases the wheels for Canadian companies to ply the lucrative fields of Africa's resources. If Africa is to reach its full economic might it will only be able to do so as a continent.

A few star countries that receive all the international economic investment will only impoverish their neighbours unless long-term development becomes part of the financial investment. Africa is in huge need of infrastructure investment so that Africans themselves can produce their own products and successfully ship them to markets, airports, train networks, and seaports.

The Conservative government has never displayed much of an interest in this longer-term form of financial investment in Africa, forgetting that this how both Europe and Canada themselves developed over decades. Stephen Harper has now developed "interests" in Africa -- that's great. But until he successfully merges the powerful forces of trade and development, he'll get neither the full return on the Canadian investment or the human resources Africa must develop if it is to become the empowering partner Canada requires.