Between Past and Future: Canada’s Next Role in International Democracy Assistance

Between Past and Future: Canada’s Next Role in International Democracy Assistance
Afghan women lining up to vote.USAID

by Gerald J. Schmitz

Where can Canada go from here in re-establishing its role as a partner in promoting democracy? Let us focus on four main areas: Parliament’s role, research capacity, stable funding, and healthy democracy at home.

  1. Parliament’s Role as an Incubator of Ideas

As a matter of historical record, Parliament and its committees have been instrumental in bringing forward issues regarding Canada’s role in international democratic development. In June 1986, the Special Joint House–Senate Committee on International Relations made its first proposals for an agency such as Rights & Democracy. These proposals overcame considerable resistance and skepticism, both from the bureaucracy and from some NGOs, when they were accepted by Foreign Minister Joe Clark. Ministerial leadership was crucial in implementing this cross-party parliamentary initiative.

Two decades later, a parliamentary committee again set the agenda, this time the House Foreign Affairs Standing Committee. Its ambitious 2007 recommendations — Advancing Canada’s Role in International Support for Democratic Developmentcarried all-party support. A major increase in Canada’s role seemed imminent, but then came the 2010 troubles at Rights & Democracy and its closure in 2012, resulting in a diminished role.

However, we do not have to begin again at square one; the House committee could revisit its 2007 report. Whatever the approach, parliamentarians must be involved in the deliberation on Canadian policy options. Surely the discussion of Canada’s role in democracy promotion must follow a democratic process.

Secondly, the strengthening of parliamentary legislative institutions is an important component of democratic development. Canadian parliamentarians have considerable expertise to draw on here. One of the recommendations in the 2007 committee report was for a specific multi-party initiative similar to that of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy.

  1. Strengthening Critical Research Capacity

Regarding research, we must also draw on past lessons to inform future policy. The 2007 House committee devoted special attention to the “hard cases” of Afghanistan, Haiti, and other fragile states. For almost a decade, Afghanistan was the largest recipient of Canadian aid, including programs for democratization and good governance. Haiti remains a leading aid recipient. What have we learned from democratic development funding in such countries? We need honest assessments in order to move forward.

The 2007 House report repeatedly underlined the importance of independent research and evaluation. Recommendation 2 was very explicit: “Canada should invest more in practical knowledge generation and research on effective democratic development assistance.” Targeted areas for “policy-relevant research” included the following:

  • The need for local leadership of the democratization process and attention to the local dimensions of democratic development;
  • The need to ensure that democratic development is affirmed as a universal right and value consistent with the International Bill of Human Rights;
  • The need to integrate democratic development assistance within the larger processes of social and economic development in other countries, and to a poverty reduction agenda in those countries receiving ODA;
  • The need to benefit from the experience and expertise of non-governmental organizations active in the field of democratic development assistance;
  • The need to improve the coherence and coordination of democratic development assistance both within donor countries and on a multilateral basis;
  • The need for more regular, and realistic, evaluations of the effectiveness of democracy assistance funding and the need to evaluate in a more regular and realistic manner the effectiveness of the democratic development assistance strategies being pursued.

Recommendation 3 called for a comprehensive independent evaluation of assistance to date to be conducted and presented for parliamentary review. Recommendation 4 was that “Increased Canadian public-sector support for independent research and knowledge generation on effective democratic development assistance … should encompass staying abreast of the activities of other donor countries, including of their NGOs and experts in this field, and continuous learning from their experiences.”

Note that research was considered a primary, not secondary issue. Without the application of critical knowledge, we cannot expect improved outcomes. This is more important than ever given serious questioning about the effectiveness of democracy assistance.

  1. Long-Term Commitments and Funding

On 17 May 2016, the government announced the creation of an Office for Human Rights, Freedoms, and Inclusion within Global Affairs Canada, with a $15 million annual budget. One of its three divisions will be “Democracy.” There are no details yet about what that will entail. Obviously, its work will be tied directly to government foreign policy. This is a promising step forward, but cannot replace the arms-length research and oversight that democracy promotion requires.

The funding package for a new non-government agency must be large enough and stable enough to make a significant, sustained impact. My own preference would be an arms-length “Canada fund” for democracy assistance initiatives — including research — governed by a board drawn from government, Parliament, NGOs, INGOs, and other democratic assistance donors and partners, as was the case with Rights & Democracy.

What is large enough? Before it closed, Rights & Democracy was receiving approximately $10 million annually. So minimally, I would say $50 million over five years, ideally more. What is stable enough? It must be long-term core funding, not project-by-project, with a minimum commitment of five years.

  1. Linking Healthy Democracy at Home with Credibility Abroad

Democracy promoters need to “look homeward” if they are to be credible exponents of democratic development abroad. The goals of strengthening democratic institutions and processes apply to all countries, including rich donors, not just to those considered to be in need of external democracy assistance.

As with human rights records, how we measure up domestically will be important in sustaining a persuasive international position in the field of democracy assistance. As always, vigorous all-party parliamentary engagement will be integral to how Canada moves forward democratically to address the democratic development challenges beyond our borders.

Gerald Schmitz worked for the Parliamentary Information and Research Service (PIRS) for over 30 years, serving as principal analyst for international affairs. He was the longest-serving research director for the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade/Development, drafting the committee’s 2007 report Advancing Canada’s Role in International Support for Democratic Development. He is also the author of The Challenge of Democratic Development: Sustaining Democratization in Developing Societies (1992) and Canada and International Democracy Assistance: What Direction for the Harper Government’s Foreign Policy? (2013).

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