Rethinking International Assistance


How Canada should rethink international assistance

The Globe and Mail Thursday, May 26, 2016

As the federal government rethinks its international assistance policies, it should heed the call from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for transformative change to global humanitarian relief.

This week’s Istanbul humanitarian conference has put the spotlight on the current state of the global relief system and the effort to reform how the world responds to humanitarian crises.

Disasters, natural or man-made, are increasing. So is the number of conflicts as well as failed and failing states. And the current system of international aid is underfunded and overstretched. The UN estimates that 125 million people need humanitarian relief. The need for smarter relief and development assistance is urgent and immediate. Rethinking our international assistance is timely and sensible.

Officials at the Istanbul conference pointed to the breakdown of international norms on asylum, the need to localize aid and frictions between those who provide relief and those who do not. The conference will provide some much-needed context for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other Group of Seven leaders, who are looking at aid accountability as part of their broader summit discussions this week in Ise-Shima, Japan.

While the UN is often criticized as nothing more than a talk shop, in recent months it has concluded a global climate accord and set new sustainable development goals – all of which will factor into Canada’s assistance review. The review, running from May to July, promises broad consultation with planned events around governance, pluralism, diversity and human rights as well as peace and security.

The future direction of Canadian assistance is clearly stated in the government’s discussion guide. International assistance is to advance the UN 2030 Sustainable Development agenda while applying “a feminist lens” to help “the poorest and most vulnerable people.” But to expect more money would be “unrealistic … in the current fiscal context.”

While the overall direction has yet to be determined, the differences between the previous Conservative government’s approach – an emphasis on environmental sustainability, gender equality and governance – are likely to be more tonal than substantive.

Nor is former prime minister Stephen Harper’s framework – with its emphasis on untied aid and a selective country focus – likely to change. The Liberal government has also decided, wisely, to maintain the consolidation of diplomacy, trade and development.

Much of Mr. Harper’s signature program, to improve maternal, newborn and child health, also fits into the Liberal paradigm. The government will continue supporting this initiative, but with more support for family planning and greater attention to the root causes of maternal and child mortality.

The success of the government’s development review will hinge on a number of factors.

First, investing more money. Canada currently sits in the bottom half of the members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development when it comes to development assistance. While the Liberal government is right to oppose “throwing buckets of money indiscriminately,” more money, well-spent, makes more impact.

As a recent report assessing Canada’s engagement gap put it, we meet the definition of “free riders” when it comes to development and defence. If Britain can devote 0.7 per cent of its gross domestic product to development assistance and 2 per cent to defence (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization standard), shouldn’t we at least aspire to this goal?

Second, Mr. Harper was right when he underlined the importance of accountability in development. But let’s do it with a lighter touch, practise risk management and recognize that civil society organizations (CSOs) need multiyear commitments to demonstrate results. Governments insist that CSOs bring their overhead down, yet they drown them in paperwork.

Third, we can’t boil the ocean so we need to focus. Our projects will always reflect our values, but there is nothing wrong with choosing those that also complement our trade and investment interests. In Africa, for example, our development assistance should work in tandem with our resource industries’ investment to demonstrate best-in-class corporate social responsibility.

Fourth, we need to improve and develop Canadian expertise by investing in Canadian CSOs and in youth exchanges. Programs like Canada World Youth gave generations of Canadians their first international experience while giving their foreign counterparts an appreciation of Canada that has opened doors in diplomacy, trade, education and migration.

Finally, donors – especially in the West – are fatigued and skeptical about aid’s effectiveness. The Liberal government should use these consultations to reassure Canadians about the efficacy of development assistance.

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G7 in Japan

Canada and Japan talk trade in lead up to G7 summit


The Globe and Mail  Sunday, May 22, 2016 10:05PM EDT

Justin Trudeau arrives in Japan on Monday for a week of talks ending in a G7 summit that is darkened by stalled trade agreements, a rising tide of insurgent populism and the possibility that a President Donald J. Trump could attend next year.

The ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement may not make it through the U.S. Congress; both Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump, the likely Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, spout protectionist rhetoric; Britain votes June 23 in a referendum on whether to leave the European Union (called “Brexit”); and political turmoil in Europe threatens the future of the EU itself.

“The returns on trade have not been translated onto the dining room table,” said Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Coupled with the uncertain recovery from the financial crisis of 2008-09, this has led, he believes, to a growing mood in both the United States and Europe that’s “anti-trade, anti-immigration, anti-big business, anti-establishment.”

Despite this, both Canada and Japan would like to reinvigorate their flagging trading relationship. Japan, once Canada’s second-largest trading partner, is now fifth. The two countries began free-trade negotiations in 2012, but put those talks on hold when they joined the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership talks that included the United States and a raft of Pacific nations.

Now all parties are holding their breath to see whether the U.S. Congress will ratify the TPP, as it’s known, since both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump say they oppose it. At the same time, populist politicians in both the United States (Mr. Trump on the right and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on the left) and in Europe threaten the existing order.

In Austria’s presidential election on Sunday, the candidate supported by the Greens and the candidate of the extreme right-wing Freedom Party each took half the vote, with no clear winner apparent. Nativist, nationalist, populist parties are on the rise from Poland to France.

“You’ve got an awful lot of unhappy, angry people out there,” noted John Manley, head of the Business Council of Canada. “All they know is that things haven’t gotten better for them and they’re not sure why, but trade is a pretty convenient target.”

Against this backdrop, Mr. Trudeau will be offering a message of hope at the G7: that sustained government spending, such as the Liberals’ 10-year, $120-billion infrastructure plan, can revive both growth and confidence. It’s a 180-degree turn from what Canada was saying under the austerity-minded leadership of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

“I don’t think anything has changed to make the Canadian voice any more or less powerful today,” said Rohinton Medhora, president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont. “What matters is what the Germans think in Europe, what the Americans think about these issues.”

But if Canada does not have much influence in the global debate over trade, it does have an enormous stake in the outcome. The Canadian economy depends on trade, so any reversal of the decades-old trend toward ever-freer trade puts Canadian jobs and Canadian prosperity at risk.

Mr. Manley said he believes there could also be opportunities. If the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement fails to be ratified, he is urging Mr. Trudeau to renew trade talks with Japan. “Canada has a rather unique opportunity to be a hub, rather than just one of the spokes,” he said, able to market itself as a conduit to both American and European markets.

All the more reason, Mr. Robertson urges, for Mr. Trudeau and International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland to hie themselves to Europe sooner rather than later to nail down ratification of the Canada-EU free-trade agreement.

G7 leaders are painfully aware that, should Donald Trump become U.S. president, the global order would be under enormous strain. Not only is Mr. Trump vehemently opposed to the TPP (and to the North American free-trade agreement), he is threatening to launch a trade war with China and has mooted withdrawing the American security umbrella protecting Japan and South Korea.

But Mr. Medhora remains hopeful. If the British vote to stay in Europe and the Americans elect Hillary Clinton, he observes, then the established order will remain largely intact. “A lot depends on what happens with Brexit and the U.S. elections.”

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