Bringing Canada “Back” for the Long Haul

Bringing Canada “Back” for the Long Haul
Image by 12019 from Pixabay

By Margaret Biggs and John McArthur

This week Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will lead a delegation to Washington with great fanfare. Like many of our fellow Canadians, we are excited to see the outcomes of the country’s first White House state dinner and accompanying high-level visit since 1997. The events mark a high-profile embodiment of the new government’s statement that “Canada is back” on the global stage.

Over the coming days, President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau will likely make important announcements on shared priorities like climate, security, and trade. But the prime minister’s visit also prompts some big questions about Canada’s “return” to international prominence: Is the country’s leadership building something forward-looking to align with the global frontiers of tomorrow, or is it resurrecting ideas aligned with the contours of the past? Are they updating their outlook to address the world’s emergent economic, social, and environmental imperatives — what we dub the challenge of “global sustainable development?” And will Canada be able to deliver on its high ambition through concrete long-term actions, commensurate with its abilities and interests? Meanwhile, are Canadians themselves in it for the long haul? Are they ready and equipped to reverse a generational decline in the nation’s global engagement?

Canada’s need for a new generational approach was a central conclusion of an independent working group report we recently co-chaired over the course of 2014 and 2015, “Towards 2030: Building Canada’s Engagement with Global Sustainable Development.” Our findings were consistent with the thrust of other analysts who have lamented the long-term decline of Canada’s global investments. Last year, for example, The Economist dubbed the country “Strong, Proud and Free-Riding” after a study documented the country’s multi-decade decline in global defense spending and official development assistance (ODA). The issues extend well beyond the tenure and political stripes of any individual government.

So as Prime Minister Trudeau and his team visit Washington under the spotlight, observers will be well served to keep in mind that Canadians’ global engagement challenges remain deep. There are certainly many specific examples of Canadians making outstanding global contributions, but they tend to blossom “in splendid isolation,” as one of our colleagues aptly summarized. Canada’s academic and think tank systems lag on matters of applied global policy and research. Our businesses are inadequately engaged on the frontiers of the global economy. Civil society’s ability to lead and innovate has been stymied by outdated policies and debates. And our philanthropic sector is providing too little risk capital to instigate the required innovations. Altogether, the global leadership conversations bridging public, private, and civil society sectors remain tepid.

The flipside to this diagnosis is that Canadian citizens convey robust ongoing interest in global issues, according to countless polls. Young people show ever-greater interest to study and directly engage on global issues too. Canadians themselves want to play an active and constructive role in helping to shape the global future.

How can this interest be translated into practical action? Our country needs to leapfrog forward, in a manner commensurate with the fast-shifting contours of the world. To that end, our recent report offered eight recommendations to effect a step change in Canadians’ global engagement and underpin the country’s long-term success.

1. Create a norm of global education: Canada could build a globally connected generation by ensuring that, as of 2030, all university undergraduates study or work overseas prior to graduation, with an emphasis on emerging economies.

2. Invest in applied research: One of Canada’s greatest assets is its ability to create and convene around high-quality ideas. A series of university-based centers could scale up the applied research expertise needed to contribute essential ideas and innovation for the world’s foremost global sustainable development challenges.

3. Organize a business vanguard: Business coalitions in Sweden and the United States have partnered with scientists and policy leaders to tackle challenges like global health and environmental sustainability. Canadian business leaders can create their own business alliance for global sustainable development.

4. Foster civil society innovations: Over the years, many Canadian civil society organizations (CSOs) have pioneered breakthrough approaches to long-standing global problems. The role of CSOs as innovators and thought leaders, rather than service delivery units, can be amplified through institutional attention and capital.

5. Mobilize philanthropic risk capital: There are 39 Canadian billionaires, according to Forbes. If only a handful of them commit a Giving Pledge to create three new global foundations, they could provide all-important risk capital needed to tackle key international challenges.

6. Chart a global investment strategy: There is no overarching strategic rationale guiding Canada’s current levels and mix of global investments across public and private sectors. For example, no insight-driven analysis motivates the current ODA budgets worth 0.24 percent of national income. An independent, multigenerational body of public and private sector experts needs to identify scenarios and strategic options over the next five, 10, and 15 years.

7. Conceive a new role for government:  Canada’s public sector bodies need to be mobilized across federal, provincial, and municipal levels in order to facilitate global contributions across academic, business, and civil society sectors. This implies a new “systems architect” role for the Ottawa-based Government of Canada.

8. Start with a substance summit for the SDGs. Around the world, leaders from government, business, academia and civil society are grappling to figure out how best to trigger progress towards the new Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), affirmed last September by all countries at the UN. Canada has an aptitude for convening diverse perspectives and building cross-sectoral coalitions. It also has unique geographic and geopolitical advantages for assembling substantive problem-solving conversations around the new global goals. A Canadian “substance summit” for the SDGs would provide a vital and regular global forum en route to the more diplomacy-focused sessions taking place in the UN General Assembly.

These recommendations outline a broad vision for building Canadians’ deep connectivity with the world. The society-wide approach aligns well with Prime Minister Trudeau’s apparent team-oriented attitude to policymaking and his open-door mindset for public problem solving. He seems comfortable counting on all forms of public leadership, both inside and outside Ottawa. If our academic, business, civil society, and government leaders all do their parts, Canada will indeed be back — for the long haul.

Margaret Biggs is the Skelton-Clark Fellow at Queen’s University and a former President of the Canadian International Development Agency.

John W. McArthur is a senior fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution. He is also a senior fellow with the UN Foundation.

This piece first appeared on the Blog of the Brookings Institution.

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