Learning from the Evaluation of Canada’s Engagement in Afghanistan: Challenges and Opportunities

In March 2015, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development released the Synthesis Report: Summative Evaluation of Canada’s Afghanistan Development Program. On April 14, CIPS and its Fragile States Research Network (FSRN) held a panel to discuss the evaluation’s methods, findings and recommendations. This series of blog posts by Nipa Banerjee, Stephen Baranyi, Sarah Tuckey and Christoph Zuercher summarizes key issues discussed at the event, with the aim of fostering informed debate and learning about Canada’s involvement in fragile and conflict-affected states.

The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) deserves credit for publishing the synthesis report of the evaluation of Canada’s aid to Afghanistan during the difficult years from 2004 to 2013. This was Canada’s largest and most ambitious aid and whole-of-government effort (WOG) in a fragile and conflict-affected state (FCAS). It is essential for stakeholders to learn from that evaluation and its mixed assessment of Canada’s experience in a complex environment.

Also to its credit, DFATD picked up on the evaluation’s recommendation that the government “[e]stablish an institutional mechanism to capture lessons from the implementation of the Whole of Government approach in Afghanistan and elsewhere, to better inform Canadian engagement in fragile states.” After agreeing with that recommendation, DFATD management suggested that it would be best to “use established channels to achieve this objective”. That means better utilizing the following mechanisms:

  • DFATD’s Program Committee and its missions in the field.
  • The Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force (START), which, as the department’s “focal point”, “facilitates dialogue on fragile states policy and applies lessons learned to future engagements in situations requiring extraordinary Canadian response”.
  • The Assistant Deputy Minister for International Security and Political Affairs, in charge of “coordinating whole-of-DFATD and whole-of-government integrated responses to major crises … and building on lessons learned.”

Public discussion is essential to ensure that lessons drawn from those evaluations are actually learned and applied in future Canadian undertakings in extremely difficult contexts.

The idea of using existing channels rather than reinventing the wheel is sensible. Each body noted in management’s response can contribute to learning. Yet even together, those DFATD mechanisms cannot ensure that lessons drawn from this and other evaluations are fully learned and applied in comparable Canadian undertakings. For example, START has been weakened by on-and-off authorizations and staff losses in recent years. Given that its future beyond March 2016 is unclear, it may be wise to keep it focused on delivering its current programs—and supporting the efforts of DFATD Corporate Evaluation to produce rigorous summative evaluations of START programming since 2006. The fundamental problem, however, is that a DFATD-centred approach might exclude other institutions that could also contribute greatly to learning from evaluations of Canada’s engagement in FCAS.

Management’s DFATD-centred response is also out of synch with the approach to learning that Canada signed onto by endorsing the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States in 2011. Under that agreement between donors and the g7+ grouping of FCAS, both sides agreed to engage in joint monitoring and evaluation of their contributions to peacebuilding and statebuilding goals. In the New Deal, “joint” means FCAS governments, key international partners and civil society organizations in FCAS. The aim of such joint evaluation is to foster truly national ownership of, and learning from, collective efforts, and ultimately to ensure that those efforts are sustained over time rather than dying after the exit of international actors.

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So what could DFATD and other Canadian institutions do to promote such broader learning about the enormous efforts that involved so much more than one department or even one government? Here are five things that Canadians could do to promote the collective learning that must take place if FCAS and their partners are ever to escape their/our “fragility traps”:

  • DFATD could release the synthesis reports from the other summative evaluations of Canadian aid to major FCAS partners — such as Haiti as well as West Bank and Gaza.
  • The Canadian government could share those reports with its counterparts in each partner country. It could do so publicly, to contribute to the joint learning envisaged in the New Deal. Those exchanges could inform the finalization of new country cooperation strategies in FCAS.
  • DFATD could evaluate its other programming in priority FCAS, particularly the substantial security, justice and governance funding managed by START and the Global Peace and Security Fund over the past decade. If properly carried out, such summative evaluations could yield insights that could complement those on the development side.
  • The government could share reports from the Lessons Learned exercise that the Privy Council Office led in 2011-2012, on WOG engagement in Afghanistan. That exercise could be revisited to inform the design of broader and more transparent whole-of-Canada assessments in the future.
  • The government emerging from the next federal election could encourage constructive and frank discussion of the development evaluations in Canada’s priority FCAS, of summative evaluations of START/GPSF programming in FCAS, and of other lessons-learned exercises. Public discussion is essential to ensure that lessons drawn from those evaluations are actually learned and applied in future Canadian undertakings in extremely difficult contexts.

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