In West Africa, a Canadian mining company pioneers 'the new humanitarianism'

BURKINA FASO — The Globe and Mail

Teenagers learn to repair a motorcycle at a youth training centre in Korsimoro, a village in Burkina Faso. The centre is over-crowded, with long waiting lists and a severe shortage of equipment, and it is hoping to benefit from the new Canadian training project in Burkina Faso. (Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail/Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail)

Mining company boss Steve Letwin was ecstatic when he struck a precedent-setting deal with the Canadian government to work together on a training project for African youth. “I think it’s the model of the future,” says the president of IAMGOLD Corp., the Toronto gold miner that operates the biggest mine in the West African country of Burkina Faso.

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Many aid experts are less thrilled by the controversial $7.5-million deal between IAMGOLD, the Canadian International Development Agency, and private aid group Plan Canada. They say the miner’s partnership with CIDA amounts to a taxpayer-funded benefit for a highly profitable corporation.

But like it or not, this may be the shape of things to come. The United States has done 900 such deals between its official aid agency and private companies. Now Canada is heading in the same direction, with four similar projects in recent months. “Welcome to the new humanitarianism,” says one of the skeptics, Toronto physician Samantha Nutt, founder of the aid group War Child.

THE NEED

In Burkina Faso, impoverished parents are desperate for training programs for their unemployed children. “Some of our children just get lost,” says Asseta Ouedraogo at a community meeting in Korsimoro, a village where the Canadian project is likely to operate. “They walk around from person to person, doing nasty things,” she says.

A buzz goes through the meeting, and one man speaks up. “People are shy to say it, but the word is ‘prostitution,’ he says. “Our children just go anywhere and get in trouble.”

After her 12-year-old daughter dropped out of school, Ms. Ouedraogo tried to help her to sell peanuts and snacks in the village. “She disappeared, she never brought back the money, she got lost for days,” she says.

The villagers have gathered at a vocational school that could benefit from the Canadian project. The school is so under-equipped that its 37 students must take turns with the sewing machines and motorcycle repair tools on which they are training. Classroom benches are old and broken, some classes must be held outdoors, the school has no running water – and there’s a waiting list of 50 children still hoping to enroll.

Across the country, most children drop out of school at an early age. About 1.2 million children from the ages of 9 to 14 are out of the school system completely. Thousands end up working in informal gold pits, digging for tiny flecks of gold in crude holes that can collapse on them. “They do dangerous work and even die,” says one father, Moumouni Sawadogo.

THE PROJECT

The Canadian project aims to provide job-skills training for 6,400 children between the ages of 13 and 18 over the next five years. It focuses on two regions of Burkina Faso – neither in the immediate vicinity of the IAMGOLD mine.

Most of the funds, about $5.7-million, will come from CIDA. An additional $1.9-million will be contributed by IAMGOLD and Plan Canada. It's one of the first major projects to feature a partnership between CIDA and a private mining company.

The goal is to fill in the gaps in the current training system. It will be shaped by a study of the labour market, assessing which kinds of jobs are most in need of being filled in the country's economy – including the mining sector.

Burkina Faso has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world, with about 70 per cent of its adults unable to read. It's also one of the poorest countries in the world, with an annual per capita income of just $300.

Over the past few months, CIDA has announced similar partnerships with Canadian mining companies in Ghana, Peru, Mali and Senegal. In total, CIDA has approved $31-million in partnerships with mining companies since last September, and at least $50-million since the Conservatives were elected in 2006.

THE CRITICISM

Critics say the projects are a taxpayer-funded benefit to CIDA's corporate partners. With a combined net profit of more than $4.6-billion in 2010, the mining companies could easily afford to cover the full costs themselves, they say.

In effect, CIDA is subsidizing the social programs that mining companies routinely introduce to avoid conflicts with their local communities, the critics say.

“Studies have shown that conflict-free community relations are worth millions to a mining company,” said Catherine Coumans, research co-ordinator at Mining Watch, an independent group in Ottawa.

“Being able to step into government offices not merely as a mining company, but as a ‘development partner' with development NGOs and CIDA in tow, is priceless.”

There could be other benefits too, including labour training for the companies. In Burkina Faso, IAMGOLD insists that only a “minimal” number of the training graduates will end up in mining jobs. But officials at Plan Canada expect IAMGOLD to provide at least 500 internships to those in the training program.

Adama Traore, head of training programs at Burkina Faso's education ministry, says the partnership with IAMGOLD allows the government to “respond to the needs of the mining company.” He added: “A number of graduates are expected to go directly into jobs at the mining company.”

THE AID AGENCIES

Rosemary McCarney, president of Plan Canada, says she is not entirely “comfortable” with her new partnership with a big mining company. “The extractive sector is a high-risk sector,” she says. “Accidents happen, mistakes get made.”

She also acknowledges that the mining company could benefit from the training project “in tangible and intangible ways.” But aid agencies, she argues, should not ignore the potential impact of Canada's mining companies, which can have a huge influence in Africa as employers and as funders of social programs. “If we get it right, it could be a very productive presence,” she said in an interview.

“Let's not shut things down just because they've never been done before,” Ms. McCarney said. “We need to roll up our sleeves and take a risk. Give it a chance, document the lessons and bring it back.”

For its part, CIDA says its partnership with mining companies is based on the federal government's strategy of “improving the competitive advantage of Canadian international extractive sector companies by enhancing their ability to manage social and environmental risks.”

Ms. Coumans, who attended meetings between CIDA and mining companies in 2006, said the companies “asked for unprecedented support from CIDA directly at mine sites where companies often face fierce community opposition.” In effect, she says, CIDA is helping the miners to win local support for their industrial projects.

THE MINERS

With about 2,200 employees, the IAMGOLD mine in Burkina Faso is the biggest private employer in the country. And it is heavily involved in job training programs, since about 95 per cent of its employees are hired from within the country – and many are illiterate or need technical skills.

But this doesn't mean that the partnership with CIDA is aimed at supplying workers for the mine, Mr. Letwin says. The motivation, he says, is purely altruistic. He has seen idle young people in the cities of Burkina Faso, and he wants to help them. And it makes more sense for the company to build links to experienced aid agencies, rather than trying to do the project alone.

“It's very hard to escape the cynicism that comes with programs like this,” Mr. Letwin said in an interview. “People try to look behind it for other motives. They just can't believe that there's a sincere intention by the company to try to help.”

Still, he acknowledges that the training partnership with CIDA could have indirect benefits for his company. “If youth don't have doors or windows to get out, to improve, then we're going to have problems at that mine, and we're going to have problems as a society,” he said.

What problems could the mine suffer if young people remain unemployed? “Over the course of time, they're going to want more of a take,” he said. And that, in turn, would mean “increased taxes and royalties.”

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