In the Congo, Canada puts too much faith in mining companies – by Gerald Caplan (Globe and Mail – October 26, 2012)

Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

While he was attending the recent summit of La Francophonie in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Stephen Harper also met with human rights activists. Here’s what he told them:

“We’re concerned about many things in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including … violations of human rights… unfairness in some of the electoral process, but also we’re particularly concerned about the worsening situation in the eastern part of country. Canada will be supporting additional initiatives to combat the barbarous acts of sexual violence against women that are occurring all too frequently.”

These comments were both reasonable and trite. They’re exactly what all western governments say repeatedly about the Congo, yet little changes. There are far more important things he might have said.

He might, for example, have acknowledged that his government had already funded a campaign against sexual violence against women in eastern Congo that had received a negative assessment by his own government. The campaign was judged to have been poorly thought out and failed to achieve its objectives. This internal evaluation was revealed in The Globe and Mail by Geoffrey York, the Africa correspondent, who also interviewed Congolese civil society activists and found them to be equally critical of the Canadian project. The Harper government, it appears, paid little attention to either its own assessment or what real Congolese in eastern Congo thought.

Mr. Harper might also have recalled that in 2009 his government abruptly cut off all funds to Kairos, a first-rate Canadian international NGO with projects in many countries, including the eastern Congo. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney recklessly accused Kairos of being anti-Semitic and its funding was terminated.

Yet Kairos was working with an eastern Congolese group, Héritiers de la Justice , that was planning to set up a legal clinic to protect women’s rights, including support for Congolese women who had been raped. Thanks to private donations from Canadians, Kairos has been able to offer very modest funding to this important project. But of course the need is huge and dramatically more could have been done had their grant not been cut.

Canada, as the PM announced, will now be providing $18.5-million over the next four years to combat violence against women. But it’s hard to see how these funds can be spent wisely without the collaboration of dedicated Canadian NGOs who have had years of experience in eastern Congo. If Mr. Harper wants Canadian aid money to work effectively, he would immediately seek the active co-operation of Kairos and other Canadian groups such as L’Entraide missionaire in dealing with this terrible tragedy in eastern Congo. There is no time to waste.

Canadians should also have no doubt that our country has a share of the responsibility for some of the ills of the Congo, including the human rights abuses that Mr. Harper deplores. One of the main objectives of his Africa trip was to promote the interests of Canada’s many mining companies. Yet he ignores the massive literature on the actual record of the resource extraction business in many underdeveloped countries, not least in Congo.

For the rest of this column, please go to the Globe and Mail website: