There has never been a more vital time for Canada to support democracy and human rights in the world. The proliferation of semi-authoritarian states in the global south, the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States, and the drawn-out conflicts in countries around the world threaten global stability and confidence in democratic processes and institutions. Weakened democracy and global political instability seriously endanger Canada’s foreign policy, its security, and its domestic prosperity.

Of the many foreign policy tools at Canada’s disposal, supporting democracy abroad is one of the least costly and most effective contributions the country can make to resisting these forces, upholding global values and protecting national security.

This report combines comparative research with the insights shared during “Canada’s Role in Democracy Promotion,” a workshop organized by a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation scholar and the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS) in June 2016 to provide analysis and recommendations. The report describes Canada’s unique capacity to meet democracy promotion goals in international relations, expounds on four key insights, and makes one principal recommendation:

Democracy promotion faces a gap. Challenges to democracy have become more complex and the 25-year-old international field of practice is experiencing a plateau of innovation and impact. The US, which has been a leader in this field, has undergone a policy shift internationally and is faced with a legitimacy crisis at home, deepening the gap in the field. A fresh, Canadian analysis can meet today’s challenges.

Democracy promotion requires technical expertise. Canadian experience with various models of inclusive governance and Canada’s record in electoral administration are deeply respected around the world. Canadian elections have a unique history of inclusiveness because they are predicated on reducing barriers to access and proactively taking responsibility for registering, informing, and engaging voters. Highly valued by international organizations, Canadian expertise in this field is unique.

Democracy promotion requires experience and introspection. Canadian successes and struggles with multiculturalism, federalism, Indigenous and minority rights, as well as Canada’s engagement with diasporas and international networks like the Francophonie and the Commonwealth, have positioned Canada to constructively engage with the world’s most pressing issues. Learning from past successes in this area, as well as from hard lessons from experiences in countries such as Afghanistan and Haiti and from domestic Indigenous affairs, Canadians understand that that democracy is indissociable from other aspects of development, such as economic growth, equality, security, health, and education. This deep understanding makes it possible for Canada to come to the table as an experienced global partner that recognizes and demonstrates the need to learn and improve alongside the states it supports.

Democracy promotion and Canada’s support of inclusive governance abroad should:

  • Maximize the strengths of existing organizations active in priority areas
  • Fill institutional implementation gaps to meet priority goals
  • Advocate on the international stage for specific elements of inclusive governance

Recommendation. To achieve these goals, the Canadian government should consider creating a dedicated, (semi)-autonomous organization that assembles expertise, experience, and lessons learned under one roof, and applies them intelligently to strategic objectives. The mandate of such a body would be to coordinate, implement, and advocate for the promotion of inclusive governance abroad.

The success of work to promote inclusive governance will depend on several elements: clear objectives; a rights-based mandate; the fostering of diversity; responsive, research-based, innovation-driven programs; a multi-sectoral analysis; and a financially stable long-term approach. Inclusivity should be reflected in program design as well as outcomes, with an emphasis on local leadership and accountability. Areas of focus should both reflect both historically marginalized groups and work constructively with ideological oppositions. Countries should be targeted according to such considerations as regime type, subfield focuses (federalism, parliamentary strengthening, electoral administration, women’s participation, indigenous rights, multiculturalism and inclusive multi-partisanship), and historical or strategic ties.

Uniting expertise and experience in this way will allow for better programmatic targeting, enhanced coordination and stronger specialization. Such a structure would be better able to provide institutional responsiveness and agility, as well as protect political neutrality and build multi-party support. A consolidated organization would establish a platform for advocacy and education on the issue and facilitate multilateral partnerships.

Supporting democracy in the world is a low-cost, high-impact investment in Canadian growth and values. Inclusive democratic governance – and the peace and public welfare it facilitates – generates healthier societies, prosperous trading partners, and a more secure world. Canada has a unique role to play in realizing this objective. The timing has never been more critical for Canada to step forward as a leader in defending democratic values in the world