Seeking Traction in Africa

David Black responds to David J. Hornsby's proposal for a new Canada-Africa engagement strategy and asks whether anyone is prepared to listen to calls to prioritize Africa.
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December 4, 2013
Director, Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, Dalhousie University.

David Hornsby has done a great service to foreign policy conversation in this country by making a case for why we need a more consistent, coherent, and comprehensive approach towards Africa. The question is: is anybody listening? And, if they’re not, how can they be persuaded to?

Hornsby’s case is rooted, broadly speaking, in the “Africa rising” narrative – the idea that whatever its ongoing trials, there is now a huge and perhaps unparalleled potential upside to engaging with the continent and its various countries. Canada, through its shallow and ad hoc pattern of engagement thus far, is in danger of being left on the sidelines as new and old partners alike jostle to benefit from African renewal. Indeed, as many commentators have noted, Canadian political indifference towards the continent has been accentuated under the Harper government – precisely at the moment when optimism concerning its prospects has surged. Hornsby’s balanced assessment of trade and investment prospects as well as Canada’s not inconsequential but underperforming aid program highlight the degree to which these relational sinews need to be accompanied by more consistent and substantial politico-diplomatic engagement if they are to develop to their full potential. 

Perhaps most interesting is Hornsby’s emphasis on the trans-societal possibilities of diasporic groups – both the rapidly growing African diaspora in Canada and, strikingly, the small but significant Canadian diaspora in Africa. Hornsby’s optimistic portrayal of the positive potential of these groups is welcome, though he pays less attention to the potentially negative ramifications than the subject warrants (in sustaining illicit networks or polarized politics, for example), and does not consider the degree to which members of these groups are interested in becoming ‘strategic assets’ for Canadian foreign policy towards Africa.

Hornsby readily acknowledges that his “three bonding pillars” – economic, development assistance, and human – offer but one interpretation of the necessary foundation for policy renewal. He notes, for example, the potential salience of a renewed emphasis on human security and peace operations, which used to be Canadian hallmarks and remain important to many African countries and peoples. There are also a couple of noteworthy silences. Although he highlights the need for a focus on values and principles, there is no mention of justice – the degree to which Canada and Canadians should be motivated by a concern with the deeply unjust national and international conditions facing many on the continent in such diverse policy realms as trade and human rights. Also striking by its absence is any discussion of Canada’s role and stake in the multilateral institutions that used to serve as key anchors for this country’s continental role – for example, the UN, the Commonwealth, la francophonie, and engagements with African regional organizations.

To be sure, these erstwhile foci of Canadian discourse and (to a lesser degree) practice on the continent always tended towards what Edward Akuffo, in his response to Hornsby, characterizes as an “anachronistic” and paternalistic motif of humanitarianism. Still, it is striking that in the current context of a foreign policy fixation on “jobs, growth, and long-term prosperity” our increasingly narrow and self-centered approach to international policy has habituated us to a situation in which talk of ethics, justice, and collective purpose seems increasingly passé. Surely an appropriately comprehensive Africa policy would combine these preoccupations with the more self-interested priorities of trade, investment, and security, rather than be supplanted by them.

The bigger challenge, however, lies in persuading Canadians – both political and economic elites and the broader attentive public – that Africa needs to be made a focus and priority in Canadian international relations. Hornsby argues that “Canadian academics, policymakers, and civil society members need to step up and stir up a nation-wide debate over how to advance African development, build capacity, reduce poverty, and achieve our national interests all at the same time.” There are two particularly acute challenges with this prescription. First, it assumes that a broad harmony of interests between these different segments of Canadian society is achievable. More importantly however, it assumes that the Canadian political elite, presumably buttressed by an engaged citizenry, will feel moved to action by this appeal. Yet this is far from certain. Many of us have heard Canadian experts on Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, etc issue similar calls to overcome chronic Canadian inconstancy and forge more coherent and strategic relationships with their region of interest. In this cacophonous competition for policy priority, how does one gain and hold the attention of political elites and Canadians at large long enough not only to convince them of the need for a more comprehensive and strategic Africa policy, but also to follow through on formulating and implementing one?

In the end, we should temper our expectations of an African awakening in the Canadian political imagination. Still, there are grounds for sustained and sustainable renewal. They lie in two distinct but complementary processes. The first, as Hornsby suggests, is to begin with a clear-eyed assessment of “where our (Canadian) strengths lie, to look beyond the hard power aspects of Canadian foreign policy and step in with more soft power type initiatives such as education links, NGO and civil society engagement, and diaspora mobilization” (to which we might add gender, children and youth, some critical health challenges, and the like).  Just as important, however, is to be attentive to the priorities and objectives of Africans themselves. At their best, Canadians have gained considerable goodwill from a reputation for empathetic understanding – a willingness to be attentive to the views of African (and other international) partners and to eschew imposing our vision of the relationship upon them. This is not to say that we should be indifferent to our real interests in relationship building with African partners. Rather, it is to suggest that our interests are, in fact, well served by fostering a reputation for responsiveness and respect in our interactions with African interlocutors, both state and non-state.