What Canada is doing in Mali

Canada's decision to send a C-17 transport plane to help France repel Islamist militants in Mali has certainly raised public awareness among Canadians of this desperately poor sub-Saharan country.

Mali hasn't historically generated much in the way of international media coverage. But Canada has been providing development aid assistance to this sprawling West African nation for more than 40 years.

And Canadian-based companies have been actively involved in gold mining and other ventures in Mali for more than 20 years.

In fact, Mali has been designated a "country of focus" for CIDA since 2009. So it comes as no surprise that Canada is one of the biggest foreign aid donors to Mali, ranking fifth in the world according to OECD figures.

The $110 million Canada gave to Mali in 2010-11 (mostly through the Canadian International Development Agency) was enough to rank Mali as the third biggest recipient of Canadian assistance in Africa. Only Mozambique and Ethiopia received more.

While direct aid payments to the government of Mali were suspended following the coup there in March 2012, CIDA's programs that deliver humanitarian assistance directly to the population are still operating.

CIDA operates some 45 assistance programs through a variety of international and local non-governmental aid partners, such as CARE Canada.

Some of these programs — primarily those dealing with governance and democracy issues — were suspended because of the coup. But the ones aimed at reducing Mali's widespread poverty, improving child and maternal health, and boosting access to affordable food are largely continuing.

The humanitarian needs of many of Mali's 15.8 million citizens are huge, as half the population lives on less than $1.25 US a day.

Three-quarters of Malians are illiterate, and maternal and child mortality rates are among the highest in Africa. An announcement late last year that CIDA would be realigning its spending, to make it more compatible with private sector interests, prompted considerable worry from some Canadian aid groups.

But International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino said CIDA wasn't abandoning its traditional humanitarian goals or getting into the mining industry.

In a speech in November, he said CIDA's co-operation with the mining and extractive industry would be "a prime example of how a government agency like ours can partner with the private sector to advance global development objectives."

In addition to aid, Canada has helped build and run the Bamako Peacekeeping School, which provides training for African peacekeepers.

Canadian instructors from the Department of National Defence and the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre have been sent to Bamako, the Malian capital, to provide training alongside instructors from Mali and several other countries.

In recent days, there have been calls for Canada, particularly from France, to get more militarily involved in Mali.

Robert Fowler, the former Canadian ambassador who was kidnapped and held captive by militants in northern Mali for 130 days in 2008, thinks Canada should play a bigger role in any future plan to fight the al-Qaeda-linked extremists there.

"We have lots of very fine friends in that area of the world," he told the CBC's Rick MacInnes-Rae in October. "Friends that we've been working with for 50 to 60 years. We've invested hundreds of millions of dollars in development assistance in those countries, and surely it's in our interest to protect that investment."

But the widespread expectation is that Canada's military involvement in Mali will remain very low key.

"I do think it is important to help this mission," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Wednesday. "At the same time, I think we've been very clear, and I think this reflects Canadian opinion that, while we're prepared to help, we don't want to see a direct Canadian military mission to Mali."

Canadian bilateral trade with Mali doesn't amount to much. In 2011, we exported about $26 million worth of goods to Mali, most of that machinery and equipment. Imports from Mali came to less than $1 million.

But Canadian investment in Mali amounts to considerably more — in the hundreds of millions. And the bulk of that investment can be summed up in one word: gold.

About a dozen Canadian gold miners are actively producing and exploring in Mali. Rich veins of gold were discovered in the country's southwest region in the late 1980s.

The biggest Canadian company there, Toronto-based Iamgold Corp., operates two joint ventures with South Africa-based AngloGold Ashanti and the Malian government.

Those two mines produced a total of about 129,000 ounces last year. While Iamgold's two projects are located far away from Mali's conflict zone in the northeast, the company announced this week that "exploration activity has been reduced as a precaution."

It was estimated in 2008 that resource royalties and taxes from gold mining provided Mali with about 17 per cent of total government revenues.