“A billion Africans depend on countries like ours to work with them to change their all too bleak and desperate circumstances. They know we cannot do it for them, but they expect we will help.”
That was the opening salvo of the third day of the Canada at 150 from one of Canada’s great diplomats, Robert Fowler, who set the stage for a day of impassioned conversation.
I had the great honour of following that as a panelist later in the day, sharing some thoughts on Canada’s role in the world generally, and in development more specifically.
My opening remarks actually challenged the premise of the panel, implied in the title “Canadians Making a Difference in the World” – that conversations of what Canada contributes to the world are very Canada-focused, what influence do we have, what’s our presence, what power do we have, are we a middle power or model power, does the US like us and are we their best friend or is that Britain, and so on. “Let’s stop” I pleaded.
Instead, I suggested that we start talking about the ideas we want to implement, the difference we want to see in the world, and then pour our passions into bringing that about. We’ll discover our role in the process. But we should be bold in what we want to see brought about.
And then I proposed two principles that should guide these ideas, and one way of operating that we need to embrace:
- That we have an unwavering and unequivocal commitment to universal dignity in our world, and that anything less is simply unacceptable.
- That we have a dedication to critical friendships among diverse people based on trust.
One way of operating
- Viking Leadership: That we need to embrace the fact that we live in a complex world. We know the changes we want to see, but we can’t pretend to know the path before setting out on our journey of change. We must embrace the uncertainty, realizing that success depends on our ability to adapt and understand in the face of changing circumstances. But we can’t be meek – we need to be bold in the face of this uncertainty, like the Vikings were!
I also shared some specific policy recommendations, mostly on development:
Development and CIDA
We need to make a decision as a country: Do we see our development contributions as critical to the world we want to see? If the answer is yes, which I believe it is, then we need to get serious about development as a country.
The status quo is not acceptable: our most talented young people graduating today and who are interested in development don’t want to go near CIDA and instead aim for DFAIT or the Department of Finance. That should be a flag. So should indicators of CIDA’s entrenched bureaucracy outlined in the recent Auditor General’s report.
I believe we need to get serious by creating a Development Ministry, like DFID in the UK, with a senior Minister and an independent voice in foreign policy that is focused exclusively on poverty reduction. We need to get serious by making Canada’s development about ideas and innovations, perhaps by creating more IDRC-like entities (Crown Corporations that are quasi-independent of government) that can test out new approaches with fewer constraints and more room for failure. We need to get serious by reforming Treasury Board regulations that inhibit smart funding and establishing a world-class arms-length evaluation body for Canada’s development assistance. And we need to get serious about development by putting more resources, human and financial, against it.
Some other ideas I put forward or wanted to but couldn’t fit in:
- A “pause button” on student loan payments (or even some forgiveness) for young people doing international or domestic volunteer placements within 5 years of graduation.
- A set of government funded think-tanks (and special tax incentives for privately funded ones) that would create an ongoing intellectual capacity around international issues in Canada, particularly development. These would be similar to the FFRDCs and FACAs in the United States.
- See Canada’s unique development contribution as potentially around knowledge and information systems – leveraging new technologies, organizing information and knowledge, and ensuring that all the new information being generated is used responsibly.
- Creating a National Secondment Program with the goal of involving 30,000 people (or 10% of the federal workforce) that would see 1-3 year secondment opportunities between the federal government, provincial governments, private sector, NGOs and perhaps other governments or multilateral organizations. This would create the cross-learning and understanding that will be necessary for the “Viking approach” to the challenges of the coming decades.
- Time to lose the Whole of Government thinking –> future challenges and solutions are going to come from a Whole of Canada approach.