Finding our Place in the World:

A New Vision For Canadian Development Cooperation

The Guelph Development Forum
ional Development Studies
The University of Guelph

2 March 2016

There is little doubt that the 2015 federal election has infused a new sense of optimism about Canada’s changing place in the world. With the election of the new Liberal government and the creation of “Global Affairs Canada,” increasing attention is now being paid to Canada’s foreign policy commitments on food security, human rights, global health, climate change, poverty reduction and humanitarian affairs. For the first time in a long time, there is a palpable sense of enthusiasm about what Canada can be in the world. That said, critical questions are already being raised about whether the new government can weather the storm that is now brewing domestically and internationally. Alongside the war in Syria, the international refugee crisis, the collapse of the Canadian dollar and the Paris climate agreement are a number of issues and events that will no doubt challenge the government in the coming months and years ahead.

In what will be the first of an ongoing series about the future of Canada’s international development challenges, the International Development Studies program at the University of Guelph – IDS Guelph – recently convened a roundtable that asked a small group of development experts from government, civil society, academia, and the private sector to discuss the implications of the 2015 election on Canada’s international development agenda. The meetings coincided with the University of Guelph’s annual Hopper Lecture in International Development, which is sponsored by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and this year featured Simon Maxwell, the former director of the London-based Overseas Development Institute, Britain’s leading independent think tank on humanitarian and development policy issues.

Framing the discussion were three sets of questions:

  • First, what are the implications of the 2015 election? How does the new Liberal government affect Canada’s foreign policy outlook? What are the most important policy changes and what might we expect to see in the coming years?
  • Second, what are the policy priorities for Canada’s international development strategy? The Paris Climate Agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals, the US presidential election and the possibility of a global economic downturn all create new opportunities, threats and challenges for foreign aid donors. How can Canada best position itself in this changing international context?
  • Finally, how can universities, researchers, foundations and NGOs effectively engage in this new policy environment? Where is the potential for synergy and sustainable collaboration? What are the key research priorities?

The world is changing: Will Canada change with it?

In thinking about the factors that are now shaping Canada’s development policy outlook, participants spoke about the challenges of rethinking aid and development while at the same time engaging government in an open and transparent discussion about the future of Canadian development cooperation. Some very well known concerns were raised about the lack of openness and transparency in the selection of aid recipients, the prioritization of commercial interests and the devaluation of evidence-based policy. Concerns were also raised about the fragile state of Canada’s aid program, including the elimination of CIDA and the tenuous status of Canada’s development think tanks and NGOs.

These are challenges that are well known to Canada’s development community. Where the roundtable aimed to break new ground was in identifying the emerging challenges and trends that are now facing Canada, and comparing these with those facing other donor countries, especially the United Kingdom. In thinking about how Canada might go about meeting this end, ODI’s Simon Maxwell highlighted a number of key priorities that are now shaping British development policy, including especially the new focus on global public goods, support for fragile states and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Britain’s leadership on aid and development offers some interesting insights about how Canada might articulate a new narrative of its own on international development. Prior to the election of the New Labour government in 1997, international development was relatively low on Britain’s foreign policy agenda. Few ambitious politicians aspired to take on the aid portfolio, a relatively obscure file that was then managed under the auspices of the Overseas Development Agency (ODA). After the 1997 election, international development was elevated to cabinet-level status, the ODA became the Department for International Development, and under the leadership of International Development Secretary, Clare Short, Britain became a leader in the field of sustainable livelihoods, social development and the Millennium Development Goals. Fast forward 19 years, neither Clare Short nor New Labour is in power, but international development remains high on the policy agenda, which is reflected in the fact that Britain is now one of the few countries in the world to have achieved the UN target of allocating 0.7% of gross national income to official development assistance.

Britain of course is not Canada, and Canada faces a number of challenges (e.g. federalism, regionalism, indigenous politics, co-existing with the United States) that make it difficult to craft a coherent international development strategy at the federal level. That said, Canada has many attributes that are at times undervalued by our own development community. In his Hopper Lecture, Simon Maxwell highlighted the contributions through which Canada has developed an enviable reputation on the international stage. One was what he called “a long-standing and deep internationalism” that is reflected in Canada’s engagement with the Commonwealth, UN and the OECD. A second was a strong civil society, reflected in a “rich ecology” of universities, think tanks and NGOs working on development issues in Canada and internationally (a point we revisit below). The third was Canada’s intellectual leadership on important international policy issues, such as the Responsibility to Protect, maternal health, the environment, global economic governance, food security, results frameworks for international development, and many other topics. Finally, Maxwell made special reference to the personal leadership of individuals like Lester Pearson, Maurice Strong, Gerry Helleiner, Paul Martin, and, of course, David Hopper.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to notice things we take for granted. Britain’s experience suggests that much can be achieved by acting quickly and coherently in the wake of a landmark election.

So what has changed as a result of Canada’s 2015 federal election? And what might we expect to see in the coming years?

The 2015 Election

In retrospect, it’s fair to say that international development was not a major topic of discussion during the 2015 federal election campaign. No major parties campaigned explicitly on the status of CIDA, the 0.7% target or the selection of Canada’s aid recipients. That said, the campaign was shaped by a number of images and events that arguably had – and continue to have – strong bearing on Canada’s place in the world. One was the war in Syria, including discussions that are still ongoing about Canada’s commitment to the military campaign against ISIS and the now famous election promise to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada. A second was the Paris climate change conference. Although Canada did not go far beyond the previous Conservative government’s policy of deferring responsibilities to the provinces and cities (and it maintained its support for the Keystone XL pipeline) Canada did send what was reportedly the largest delegation of any international government to Paris, and it has now appointed a recognized leader in the field of climate and environmental policy to the Foreign Affair portfolio. A third and seemingly unrelated factor was the debate about citizenship, religious minorities and the Niqab. Although the Niqab issue arguably didn’t have a lot to do with international development directly, in practice it had an enormous effect on the way in which the new government is now positioning itself domestically and internationally.

This is a government that now frames itself very clearly on questions of multiculturalism, religious diversity, environmental sustainability, indigenous self-determination and human rights. Taken together, the images, interests and intentions that appear to be coalescing around the new Liberal government suggest new opportunities for engagement with government, academia, civil society and the private sector.

But what are these new ideas? And how might they shape a new vision for Canadian development cooperation?

Finding our place in the world

Now more than ever before, there is a need to think carefully and critically about what Canada has done well in the past, and where it can legitimately carve a niche for itself in the years to come. In thinking about these possibilities, participants highlighted a number of areas in which Canada has established an excellent international reputation, including its record on child and maternal health, its work in the field of humanitarian aid, and its support for human rights and democracy. Considerable attention was paid to the challenge of engaging with a changing international context, including the rise of China, the collapse of the Venezuelan and Brazilian economies, the Paris climate agreement, the SDGs, the zika virus, the TPP, the war in Syria and the international refugee crisis, to name just a few.

But how should Canada position itself in relation to these changing global realities?

Two possibilities suggest themselves. One is to support the industries and actors that have traditionally driven Canada’s resource economy. Insofar as it reflects the most powerful sectors in the domestic economy, a foreign aid program that supports the interests of Canada’s traditional economic sectors (e.g. mining) can be rightly criticized for being outdated, provincial and self-serving. A second is to support the sectors that have the potential to reposition Canada as a global leader on sustainable international development. Many around the table highlighted the need to advance a dialogue that better reflects the kinds of knowledge-based and sustainable economic development priorities that Canada can and should be promoting at the international level. Included here are new and emerging fields of research and innovation in renewable energy, microfinance, environmental governance, and global public goods. But there are many more…

In some respects, Canada is now better placed than ever to advance a careful and thoughtful discussion about the future of international development cooperation. Development studies programs are booming in Canada. The number of graduates and undergraduates doing international development degrees has never been higher. Universities across the country are making tenure track and CRC appointments in development studies, indigenous politics, sustainable development and human rights. But more needs to be done, especially in the form of stable and secure funding for basic and applied research and scholarship on development issues and policies.

In making these points, we are acutely aware that there are many individuals and organizations in Canada – including the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (@CCCICCIC) and the Canadian International Development Platform (@CIDPNSI) – that are already engaging in critical discussions about the ways in which Canada might redefine itself on the global stage. Moving forward, the challenge is to turn these and many other ideas into a clear and coherent vision that can capture the attention of Canada’s new federal government, as well as the Canadian public at large.

Whether this conversation happens in Ottawa or Guelph or in Winnipeg or Nunavut is less important than whether it happens collectively and in concert with government, academia, indigenous communities, civil society and the private sector.

So please share your thoughts with us on twitter (@projo_IDS, #newdevelopmentfutures), Facebook (, or at We are especially interested in hearing from IDS students, development professionals and researchers from outside of academia, as well as professors and university administrators.

Craig Johnson
International Development Studies
IDS Guelph