Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has downgraded its long-delayed plan for relations with Africa from a strategy to a framework, saying this better reflects the original intent of the policy – despite criticism the Liberals are not taking the region seriously.
For at least a year, the Liberals have promised an Africa strategy that would outline Canada’s relationship with dozens of countries and seize on opportunities to engage with a new intercontinental trade bloc.
Rob Oliphant, the parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly, said in interviews last summer and fall that he was working on an “emerging Africa strategy” and “a strategy document for our engagement diplomatically.”
Yet in an interview with The Canadian Press earlier this month, Joly said the plan is not a full-blown strategy.
“Regarding the Africa strategy, well, this is a term that was used by my colleague, Rob Oliphant. I would say it’s an Africa framework,” Joly said in a phone interview from Nairobi, Kenya.
“The goal is to make sure that we answer the call that many of the African countries are making, to have access to more of Canada.”
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In an interview, Oliphant said that Joly had asked him in a mandate letter sometime after fall 2021 “to develop a strategy for Africa, and particularly for our foreign policy when it comes to Africa.”
The idea was to assess Canada’s diplomatic presence across the continent, what groups it should participate in and what goals it should present to African leaders. This would fill a gap, since Canada’s trade and aid policies were clearer than its foreign-policy aims.
“That to me has been our weakest area of our Africa engagement,” Oliphant said.
Last November, the Liberals released their Indo-Pacific strategy, a five-year $2.3 billion plan that touches on agencies ranging from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
“At that point, it was my suggestion that we rename this a framework, rather than a strategy,” Oliphant said of his Africa policy work.
He said he is working on a framework “that promotes investment by ensuring that we de-risk,” such as by supporting aid projects that make countries more stable.
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Oliphant said he expects to present the policy to cabinet by this fall, and that it will be publicly released this calendar year.
He added that he’s focused on making sure African governments are engaged, instead of getting hung up on the terminology _ despite others saying the wording makes a real difference.
Lori Turnbull, director of Dalhousie University’s school of public administration, said a strategy indicates a road map with deliberate outcomes. But a framework is looser by definition.
“The specificity is the important part. A strategy is, ‘This is what we’re doing. This is what we’re going do to achieve our goals,”’ she said, whereas a framework “is more of a sort of overall picture, and an overall set of parameters.”
Turnbull said Joly’s comments might give civil servants the impression that Africa ranks lower than other regions that attract more attention from voters.
“It would indicate that she is trying to make a distinction between the two _ and there is a distinction,” Turnbull said. “There could be a kind of message sent to the department, subtly.”
The shift in language has been noticed by senators on the foreign-affairs committee, who warned Trade Minister Mary Ng last December that Canada seemed to be falling behind the United States and other peers in establishing deeper trade ties with Africa.
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Sen. Amina Gerba said in a French-language interview that the shift bodes ill for Canada taking advantage of a new trade bloc that spans most of the continent.
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The African Continental Free Trade Area is an ongoing project to eliminate most tariffs and harmonize some regulations across roughly 45 countries.
“Of course, the term ‘strategy’ is much more comprehensive. It is a more dynamic term, more engaging for Canada, and it gives the impression that it is definitive,” said Gerba, who was born in Cameroon.
“A frame has limits. It means that we have constrained the limits of this framework, which limits the action.”
The Quebec senator said the government had not clarified to her why it made the change.
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At a meeting of the House of Commons foreign-affairs committee earlier this month, NDP MP Heather McPherson asked International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan to confirm whether the Africa strategy had been downgraded to an African framework.
Sajjan responded: “I’m sorry. What do you mean by Africa strategy?”
The minister said Africa “is an area of focus that we’ve had for a very long time” and “an area where we have actually increased and integrated our work.”
But he did not clarify the shift in terminology.
Gerba argued Africa needs the same amount of attention and resources as the Indo-Pacific strategy, since the continent is experiencing its own drastic political shifts and an economic boom driven by its young population. She said various diasporas in Canada are eager to help.
“Honestly, everything has to do with this continent,” she said. “We are talking about 2.4 billion inhabitants by the middle of the century. It’s the countries of the continent that will be key players in international politics.”
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