Development Partnership Part 2: A Canadian Action Agenda

Development Partnership Part 2: A Canadian Action Agenda
Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash

This blog continues from Part 1, The Way of the Future.

A solid agenda exists of desirable institutional changes in Global Affairs Canada (GAC, and other public entities) over the next few years. We need to start building new partnerships — some developmental, others political and commercial, some academic, and some even involving public institutions — to create the geopolitical circumstances where Canada being BACK is no mere dream but a natural consequence. The imperatives below emerge from a development co-operation perspective, but many of the institutional/cultural changes discussed are equally pertinent to our political and trade futures. It is time to step up and recognize the centrality of building a new generation of international partnerships for Canada.

  • Human Capital. Key is recruitment and promotions to rebuild basic skill levels, often losses triggered by the CIDA merger. Such committed development professionals and empowered managers will be especially needed to deliver the FIAP agenda effectively. There seems to be lost morale at the working level linked to some managers having limited empathy towards development co-operation or its professionals. Stronger, more equal internal partnership, one that better respects the importance of mutual trust, could overcome some impediments to more meaningful policy coherence. A presentday traditional, hierarchy-driven culture slows innovation and decision-making, and constrains the smooth delegation of authority to a generation of new professionals better attuned to building partnerships with developing countries.
  • Country Presence. Partnership is recognized as a best practice by the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and in the UN SDGs. However, partnership is just a platitude without the structures to make it real. To deliver coherent development programming, Canada must strengthen credibility with its partners. The key is an empowered resident country director who visibly has the support and confidence of his Ottawa superiors. In providing that trust, GAC often emerges as a mixed performer — good on talk, but often weak on delegating authority. However, there is now growing decentralization experience from Africa. The 2005 Paris Declaration commits donors, Canada included, to the partner countries being “in the driver’s seat” (i.e. recipients in the Global South).
  • Built around a substantive presence of in situ professional staff, decentralization facilitates a programming approach where policy dialogue and implementation become routine elements within a partnership. It opens up synergies between Canadian professionals, both development and political/trade, all resident in the partner country, with the host country government and members of civil society. CIDA carried out a major decentralization pilot in the 1980s only to see it closed down after a couple of years because of cost. For many, especially those officials actually decentralized, the explanation was more basic and discouraging: HQ-based senior management felt they risked losing control. Some were uncomfortable with the idea of delegating leadership to skilled, better informed, decentralized CIDA staff working closely with a partner country. Modern communications — email and video-conferencing — can easily obviate such managerial concern. Unfortunately, the wariness of the Harper era’s managerial “culture” persists today. Swallowing CIDA was an unexpected “gift,” but the promised policy coherence gains are not obvious. Instead, a distinct, well-informed policy voice of development professionals is largely absent from the strategic planning table.
  • Joint Country Strategy. This type of strategic policy document is sometimes criticized as lacking flexibility but is the norm for many successful donors. After decades of fine-tuning, it remains the norm in the World Bank with its country assistance strategies (CASs) endorsed by its Executive Board (including Canada) that set a multi-year programming agenda. Implementation is built around extensive decentralization. A jointly prepared partnership strategy for Canada could similarly set out a customized 3–4-year programming vision. Such a strategy could be crucial for effective implementation of FIAP’s transformational social goals, which will need the fullest engagement of the partner government and local civil society leadership.
  • A minister-endorsed country strategy, not a one-page briefing note, would protect key country programming priorities otherwise vulnerable in an era of tight budgets or opportunistic spending behaviour elsewhere in GAC. In a world of donor competition, such a joint strategy might also extend Canadian influence by engaging other donors in a broader partnership, a so-called SWAp (Sector-Wide-Approach).
  • Predictability. An optimal feature of effective partnership, predictability is often lacking in programming. UN discussions amongst developing countries often flag uncertainties in their relationships with developed country partners as a very basic constraint on implementation. Development professionals and good managers increasingly recognize that quality programming is inevitably risky. In today’s world of policy change by “tweet,” we are seeing a new culture of managerial wariness, yet that very inflexibility is disruptive to effective implementation. An “Ottawa Compact,” between development managers in GAC and officials in the Treasury Board, exceptional as it might be, could make good sense. It could be built around the simple recognition that rules designed for funding a highway upgrade in Toronto can be seriously dysfunctional when applied to a village irrigation project in an Ethiopia.
  • Coherent financial management. Money is a critical component in development co-operation. I’m not talking about more ODA dollars, but rather the perverse costs of an absent disciplined budgeting process. An “out of the blue” commitment to a favoured cause is often not good programming. Predictability is thrown to the wind and any joint country strategy might end up being sacrificed, along with the trust that holds together a successful partnership. One past solution to providing financial coherence — a Pierre Trudeau era innovation — was the use of an Indicative Planning Figure (IPF), a multi-year, funding envelope decision for each major country partnership, set annually in the budget process. The IPF became a chance for a development minister to establish policy markers with her, often nominally more powerful, cabinet colleagues. For a decentralized country director, the IPF disciplined extravagant promises whilst allowing confident predictability in opening a discussion with a partner government on a new joint strategy or sound project proposal.

Worth reviving?

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