Spreading the Vote: Canada and International Democracy Assistance

Spreading the Vote: Canada and International Democracy Assistance
Voters lined up to cast their ballots in the Burundi elections in 2010. Canadian conflict-resolution and democracy specialists were pivotal in assisting democratic opening in Burundi following the civil war. Recently, Burundi has experienced a significant democratic backslide.Photo by Gabrielle Bardall

Part one, and the introduction, to a series of blogs about Canadian democracy assistance around the world.

by Gabrielle Bardall

The commitment to democracy and human rights is at the core of Canadian values. The institutions and processes of Canadian democracy are respected by established democracies and developing states alike and Canadian experts providing technical leadership in strengthening democratic processes is unparalleled — from electoral and legislative strengthening to capacity building for political parties, media capacity, and civil society.

Yet Canada’s engagement in the field of democracy promotion has been a contentious topic over the years. Country-specific setbacks and substantial policy re-orientation have brought the future of Canada’s engagement in democracy promotion to a crossroads.

If Canada is to meet its foreign policy and international development objectives, we must revisit our position on democracy assistance. By capitalizing on Canadian expertise, we can respond to the urgent need for governance support in post-conflict, transitional, and semi-authoritarian states around the world, thus forwarding the causes of human, civil, and political rights.

A seminal 1986 parliamentary foreign policy review led to the creation of an arm’s-length body, the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (“Rights & Democracy”), in 1988. Four years later, CIDA identified democratic governance as a cornerstone of Canadian international assistance, focusing on four areas: political freedom, human rights, the rule of law, and accountable public institutions.

From the outset, Canada consciously anchored its policy within the framework of the International Bill of Rights, explicitly “eschewing the notion of promoting some ‘Canadian model’ of Western political ideology and institutions” and distancing itself from interventionist, neo-liberal, strategic-interest models. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the sector developed gradually within CIDA, Rights & Democracy, and several other arm’s-length organizations, all working with modest budgets.

By 2005, momentum had gathered for a substantially enhanced role for Canada. Prominent advocates, including Thomas Axworthy and Les Campbell, put forward a proposal for a new Canadian institution dedicated to international democracy assistance. CIDA brought together its governance programming in a new Office for Democratic Governance in 2006. In 2007, the Harper minority government produced an ambitious report, Advancing Canada’s Role in International Support for Democratic Development, recommending several new arm’s-length agencies, notably a Canadian foundation for democracy support with a focus on multiparty democracy and research on effective democracy development assistance.

During this time, Rights & Democracy and the Parliamentary Centre submitted proposals to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development (SCFAID) for larger roles for themselves in the area of democracy assistance. In 2009, the government-appointed advisory panel recommended the implementation of a centre for multiparty and parliamentary democracy, with a parliamentary mandate.

Even as momentum appeared to be building, the tide was shifting. In 2009, CIDA’s democracy office was closed and DFAIT’s was folded into the Francophonie and Commonwealth division. The Democracy Council — a forum for discussion and collaboration among Canadian democracy promotion agencies — was abandoned. There was no follow-up to the advisory panel’s recommendations on the creation of a Canadian democracy promotion agency. Rights & Democracy was dissolved and the Parliamentary Centre, the Forum of Federations, and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) all saw radical cuts to their funding. Many Canadian experts left Canada to seek employment with American or international organizations. Academic and political analysts identified an ideological shift in Canadian policy, noting increasing integration with the US.

Until these reversals in the democracy assistance infrastructure, Canada was on a path to constructing a unique and valuable model for supporting democracy abroad, reflected in several areas:

The rights-based approach: Distinguishing it from American counterparts, the Canadian approach was based on the belief that respect for individual human rights is the foundation for any civil, political, social, or economic agenda. This approach underpins an inherently holistic vision of democracy objectives and outcomes, and enables sustainable and locally driven engagement in outcomes.

Autonomy of agencies: In ensuring true autonomy of its agencies, Canada defended the rights-based ideology and built trust and respect in the countries where it engaged. Organizational autonomy also allows democracy promotion programs to enjoy multi-party support in Parliament.

Local leadership, accountability to local beneficiaries: Although the recommendations were never implemented, the 2009 Advisory Panel’s findings on the “absolute necessity for local ownership or authorship of democratic programming” set Canada on a valuable course.

Research-based: Recognizing that democracy assistance is an emerging and often conflicted policy-field, Canada placed unique emphasis on actively integrating research into democracy assistance, both in designing programs and in contributing to global improvement of the field of democracy assistance as a whole.

Multi-sectoral: Drawing on the rights-based approach, Canada has consistently viewed democracy from a systemic perspective, rather than focusing on its component parts. The emphasis on governance and long-term support to select countries is a notable advantage.

Cost effectiveness: Canada achieved important successes and gained international recognition for programs that represented “barely more than a rounding error in the international assistance envelope.”

Inclusiveness: Canada’s experience in engaging with issues of inclusivity is critical to responding to current challenges, specifically promoting women’s political participation, critical thinking around working with indigenous peoples, and building multicultural societies .

The timing is ripe to revisit the framework for Canadian democracy assistance and renew the extensive progress made a decade ago.

As a first step, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation (PETF) and CIPS organized a day-long workshop, bringing together nearly two-dozen  experts from government, academia, INGOs, and NGOs, to reignite discussion in this area.

Recognizing the critical importance of re-engaging to support democracy abroad, we agreed that any progress must be informed by diverse views and experience, and must consider the successes, obstacles, and shortcomings of the past. New engagement must adapt to the realities of the entrenched semi-authoritarianism of the world’s non-democracies today (including backlash against democracy promotion), as well as the unique security and human rights challenges of global politics.

Over the coming weeks, this blog will feature the voices of a number of workshop panelists as they present their ideas, debate the core questions, examine our history, and propose next steps.


Gabrielle Bardall is an expert in electoral assistance, working with UNDP, UN Women, IFES, the Carter Center, and others in over 3 dozen countries worldwide. She is a doctoral candidate at the Université de Montréal and a 2012 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Scholar. An alumnus of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale, she holds an APSA Congressional Fellowship for 2016–2017.

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