The prime minister’s recent trip to Uganda and Tanzania aside, Africa has not registered high on the government’s agenda. Though economic opportunities are rising, the continent faces continued threats to security and health. As former prime minister Joe Clark explains, Canada’s long history in Africa has garnered it the credibility to offer much more.

Let me begin with three assumptions about Canada’s role in the world. First, foreign policy also has an important domestic function as an instrument of Canadian identity and unity. A reality about this immense and diverse country is that we have to keep proving our worth to our parts – that what we do in the world helps define who we are at home and vice versa. Second, the national interest of this open, diverse, dynamic country is broad, not narrow, reaching beyond borders, not confined by them. Third, when Canada has been most effective internationally, it is because we pursued two often conflicting priorities at the same time – we work hard on our friendship with the United States and we work hard on an independent and innovative role in the wider world. Those are not opposite positions; they are the two sides of the Canadian coin. Our access to Washington adds real clout to the standing we earn by our actions in other countries because we are thought to be able to influence our powerful neighbour. And our reputation in the developing world and the multilateral community is an asset to our neighbour; often where the US may generate envy or fear, Canada has built partnerships and trust, and earned respect.

Canadian society has been characterized by a broad sense of the public interest. That applied beyond our borders, in two world wars, in Korea, in the Colombo Plan, in our creative commitment to international development, in the legions of missionaries, teachers, medical personnel and students who went to work in the developing world. That was our motivation then.

Let me trace the trends of two kinds of Canadian spending in Africa over roughly the last quarter century: public spending on official development assistance (ODA) and private spending through foreign direct investment.

Throughout the 1980s, in constant dollars, CIDA’s total ODA to sub-Saharan Africa increased steadily from $531 million in 1982-83 to a high of $1.21 billion in 1988-89, and it hovered around that level until 1993. There was a substantial drop through the 1990s when CIDA was targeted for spending cuts, but increases followed, up to $1.26 billion in 2004-05. There have been continued increases since then but changes in reporting complicate comparisons. From 1985 to 1993, between 32% and 36% of total Canadian ODA went to sub-Saharan Africa. That share dropped between 1994 and 2001 to as low as 23%, then rose again to 36% in 2004-05.

The Development Assistance Committee of the OECD compares annual net flows of ODA to sub-Saharan Africa decade to decade. Between 1995 and 2005, Canada’s contribution nearly doubled. The United Kingdom’s contribution increased six fold, reflecting the deliberate focus on Africa of the Blair government. It’s fair to assume that Canada’s ODA spending in sub-Saharan Africa increased sharply after the decisions taken in the context of the Kananaskis Summit.

The second set of figures I’ll draw attention to reflects the growing role of the Canadian private sector. In 1987, total foreign direct investment in Africa, including North Africa, amounted to just one quarter of our ODA investment. In 2004-05, foreign direct investment was more than double official development assistance. That is reflected in the growing membership and the vigorous role of the Canadian Council on Africa and others. In many cases, the Canadian companies active in Africa are also leaders in corporate social responsibility, so they have a broader impact than simply economic. It is, however, worth pointing out that in 2006, less than 1% of Canada’s foreign direct investment went to Africa.

These trends in public spending all reflect decisions taken by earlier Canadian governments. The major Africa-related decision of the Harper government was to not abandon the commitments Canada has made before. That perhaps tells us more about a prudent regard for keeping Canada’s word in the G8 than it does about an attitude towards Africa.

So if present policy is rooted in past decisions, the critical question is what is being planned now for future Canadian initiatives in Africa? Canadian governments are usually larger than their leaders. What is the attitude of the Harper government? What does it say? Where does it spend? Where does it travel?

It’s a rule of human nature, even for taciturn governments, that people talk about what interests them. But in all the prime minister’s press releases, statements and speeches posted on the PMO website in the last year, not a single one mentions Africa. Not the statement announcing support for HIV/AIDS research nor the retirement of Kofi Annan, nor the speech from the throne, nor the September speech to the US Council on Foreign Relations – not one word. Other ministers occasionally mention Africa, but the prime minister’s silence is striking. Where does the government stand?

There are three departments with explicit international vocations. Ranked according to the government’s published forecasts of spending for 2006-07, they are National Defence, which accounts for 8.7% of federal program spending; CIDA, which accounts for 1.64%, and finally DFAIT, which accounts for 1.62% of federal program spending. DFAIT and CIDA have a significant role in Africa. National Defence does not. In terms of published planned expenditures for 2007-08, DND anticipates a spending increase over the preceding year of 12.16%; CIDA spending will drop by 0.1%; DFAIT will drop by 8.73%.

Sometimes who you see and where you go is a good indication of priorities. The travel patterns to Europe and the US were very similar for the Harper and Martin ministries. The differences were in Africa and in Pakistan/Afghanistan. In 2004-05, Martin ministers made three visits to Afghanistan or Pakistan. Since the 2006 election, Harper and his ministers have been there 12 times and counting. In 2004-05, Martin ministers were in sub-Saharan Africa 12 times; in the Harper government, there have been three brief ministerial visits, all to conferences. Both these governments, I note, were operating under the travel constraints of a minority Parliament.

Of course, it’s the government’s right to set policy, and public policy should not be followed simply because it is tradition. There have been significant changes, some of which may have broad public support and real merit, such as the recognition that we can’t have an effective military without investing in it. But there has been virtually no public debate about what motivates the changes or what their consequences might be. Moreover, there is no evidence that those changes are the result of advice from the foreign ministry or other customary sources. Quite the contrary.

Mr. Harper has been remarkably successful so far in setting the public agenda. He has been focused and sure-footed in controlling debate and managing the media. On issues like China and the Middle East, he persists in pursuing his own course. So, significant departures from Canada’s traditional international priorities should not be considered as rookie mistakes but as deliberate policy.

There is evident distain in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office for the foreign service. Tension between the Langevin Block and the Pearson Building is not new. It was one of the facts of life that I learned shortly after being sworn in as foreign minister. But at that time, it was a respectful tension, often productive, able to be managed by the public servants, the political staff and the minister or prime minister. The centre was primus but we were always pares.

What is salient in the context of future policy respecting Africa is precisely that there appears to be so little interest in Africa at the centre of the government and, indeed, little interest in development issues generally. There are certain core functions that a nation’s foreign policy must address – our security, our ordinary relations with neighbours, our multilateral obligations, our services to citizens abroad. That is maintenance-level foreign policy. It keeps a country in the game. But what has distinguished Canadian policy is when we have moved from the necessary to the innovative. That is where our reputation has been won.

Where are we now? How is Canada applying that 60-year tradition of active internationalism? Our citizens are as active as ever – church groups, non-governmental organizations, businesses serious about their social responsibility. Canadian diasporas are active, helping their countries of origin. But in terms of official policy, we are essentially prominent in two places: in Washington and in Afghanistan.

There are three questions to ask about where this leaves Africa. First, what other countries will engage in Africa if Canada won’t? Second, what special attributes does Canada bring to sub-Saharan Africa? The first is our public sector. We have earned respect as a partner in Africa – we are the only member of the G8 that carries neither an imperial nor colonial taint, and in that and other for a are a natural and practiced bridge.

Diplomacy is becoming more relevant. In a world of deepening religious and cultural divides, multilateral skills will be very relevant: the ability to draw differences together, to form alliances, to find common ground, to manage diversity, to generate trust – the traditional signature qualities of Canada. For all our growth and innovation, Canada has relatively less influence in trade and economics than we have in politics and diplomacy. Economic power reflects size; diplomacy depends more on imagination and agility and reputation.

And third, if there is not much immediate prospect of the government acting, what more might interested Canadians do to make a more compelling case for engagement in Africa? The BBC recently released an international survey conducted by a Canadian firm, which listed 12 countries and asked a broadly based sample of 28,000 respondents in other countries if each of those 12 names had a mostly positive or mostly negative impact in the world. The best ratings in the poll went to Canada – 14% negative, 54% positive. The US ratings, by contrast, were 18% positive, 51% negative.

That is not a contest result; that is a description of an asset. The question is, what will we do with that asset?

The Right Honourable Joe Clark served as Canada’s 16th Prime Minister and as Minister of External Affairs between 1984 and 1991. A member of the Canadian Council on Africa, he led the Carter Center Election Observation team in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006. He is co-founder and executive chairman of Clark Sustainable Resource Developments. This article is adapted from a presentation to the Canadian Institute of International Affairs in November.