Stephen Harper used his first full day of a bilateral visit to Senegal to spotlight Canada's foreign aid projects in the West African democracy.

A trio of international assistance announcements – nearly $5 million over five years to fund a vocational school in Dakar, nearly $7 million for collaborative geomatics projects and $20 million over three years for a food security and nutrition project – illustrated Senegal's status as a "country of focus" for Canada's international assistance efforts.

In 2009, the Harper government changed its foreign aid strategy, narrowing the list of countries funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in order to better concentrate its efforts on identified priorities. Senegal's relatively strong democracy helps make its case for assistance in comparison with other West African countries, as seen earlier this year when fair and credible presidential elections were held.

Harper's tour began at the Centre d’Entreprenariat et de Dévelopment Technique vocational school in Dakar, where he met with students studying geomatics. Students Bénilde Oudiane and Adja Sene as well as the school's principal Abdoul Bâ showed Harper maps representing different applications of the technology they were learning.

Harper congratulated them on their work, saying their presentations suggested they may have a future in politics.

This school along with ones in four other regions of Senegal have received Canadian assistance to train teachers, develop curriculum and prepare students to enter the work force or start their own businesses.

"Canada is helping Senegal to develop exciting new industries that will foster sustainable economic development, as well as help understand and mitigate natural disasters," said Harper in a news release about the visit. "A well-trained local workforce is essential to making this work."

Canada's five-year educational assistance program is being implemented by la Fondation Paul Gérin-Lajoie, a Canadian non-governmental organization with 30 years of experience specializing in education and international development, the news release said.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper greets students outside the Centre d’Entreprenariat et de Dévelopment Technique vocational school in Dakar. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

In 2011-2012, CIDA allocated more than $31 million towards education and training in Senegal.

Natural Resources Canada has also partnered with the Senegalese government to develop training and other tools for its national geomatics plan. Satellite technology launched in June now assists surveyors and other scientists in sustainable land management.

International Cooperation Minister Julian Fantino as well as French-speaking Conservative MP Shelly Glover joined Harper for the school tour. Canada's ambassador, Perry Calderwood, Conservative MP Royal Galipeau and Senators Raynell Andreychuk and Claude Carignan are also participating in the bilateral visit.

Food security an aid priority

The food and nutrition funding complements Canada's recent humanitarian assistance to the Sahel region of Africa by addressing chronic food insecurity in Senegal. The World Food Programme (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) will be involved in delivering Canada's aid.

The government's news release says the funding will:

  • increase agricultural production in areas at risk.
  • provide access to basic food commodities by the local populations in vulnerable areas.
  • provide increased access to chronic malnutrition prevention and therapeutic services in vulnerable areas.
  • increase access to quality seeds.
  • enhance current agricultural practices.

Food insecurity in this part of Africa is so acute, Harper heard Wednesday, that even in good years 230,000 children may die.

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Said Djnnit, head of the United Nations office for West Africa (left), led a briefing for Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Dakar, Senegal on Thursday. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The prime minister was briefed by United Nations officials on not only the unfolding food crisis across Africa's Sahel region, but also the security situation in neighbouring Mali, which has been destabilized by fighters returning from the earlier conflict in Libya.

Porous borders across West Africa make it difficult to monitor and crack down on known Islamist terrorist groups in the region, while transnational drug trafficking and organized crime are equally destabilizing, officials told Harper.

Business roundtable

Later, Harper met with local business leaders including the CEO of Teranga Gold, a Toronto-based mining company that's responsible for the largest Canadian investment in Senegal, totalling over $500 million. 

Senegal business roundtable participants

  • Alan Hill, chairman & CEO, Teranga Gold

  • Serge Kena-Cohen, vice-president, Fujitsu Canada

  • Abdoul Aziz Sy, vice-president, Oromin Explorations Ltd.

  • Benjamin Little, vice-president, IAMGOLD

  • Paule Drouin, director, Développement International Desjardins

  • Pierre Boivin, Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum

Teranga Gold is one of Senegal's top employers and its mine is an important source of revenue ($10 million annually) for the Senegalese government.

Other mining companies make up the bulk of Canada's foreign investment in the region.

In general, Canada's exports to Senegal are meagre – worth less than $28 million in 2011, compared to the millions allocated for development assistance. Canadian imports from Senegal were valued at only $1 million in 2011. 

Harper's day will conclude with a visit to the presidential palace to call on Senegalese President Macky Sall.

Harper's Senegalese visit continues tomorrow before moving on to Kinshasha, Congo for the Summit of la Francophonie countries this weekend.

Terry Milewski reported that the Senegalese portion of Harper's tour is a "good news trip" before moving on to a "much more complicated visit" to Congo.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect figure for Canadian exports to Senegal. In 2011, Canadian exports totalled $28 million.
    Oct 12, 2012 9:08 AM ET