A New Face in International Development

A New Face in International Development
Maryam Monsef, the new Minister of International Development, must also balance her old portfolio as Minister for Women and Gender Equality.Flare

Maryam Monsef is the new face mandated to set the tone of international co-operation as Minister of International Development. Her arrival on March 1st is the result of the crisis of integrity in the government triggered by the flow of accusations about the bullying of Jody Wilson-Raybould and the ensuing cabinet shuffles.

But readers you can relax! This blog, by a development practitioner, is not more high politics and commercial corruption, but rather about something more concrete. My aim is to explore what will be the challenges and hopefully even some opportunities for innovation for the newly appointed Minister of International Development. Hopefully she is not a mere caretaker until the election. She can move on agendas that may have been somewhat overlooked in designing the Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) and now need attention to allow for effective delivery. She also has a chance to use her mandate to be bold.

Monsef’s political career started modestly in local Ontario politics, as a defeated mayoral candidate. She is now responsible for allocating and managing a department with an annual budget of some $5–6 billion of taxpayer money to be spent either directly via bilateral co-operation or indirectly as multilateral funding through bodies like the World Bank or major UN agencies such as UNICEF.

In the last few days, we have seen a pre-election federal budget that was all about domestic votes and did nothing substantive to advance the interests of the world’s most vulnerable. A static official development assistance (ODA) budget leaves Canada still one of the weakest donors in the OECD.

Canadian aid, especially in today’s FIAP era, is focused on some of the world’s most challenged economies and fragile countries, mostly in Africa. Its goal is to advance the wellbeing of women and girls in dozens of the world’s poorest nations. One of these fragile states happens to be Afghanistan, a still deeply troubled country and the largest individual recipient of Canadian aid at just over $200 million annually.

Coincidentally, Afghanistan is Monsef’s homeland — despite a rather petty “birthism”-politics controversy when some tried to suggest she was really Iranian. This was an important lesson for Monsef — and all Canadians — about the many challenges confronting refugees. It was only as an adult, and after her election, that Monsef learned the circumstances of her birth from her Afghan mother. Somebody who had bravely crossed the open, unmarked border into Iran to escape the Soviet–Afghan War, gave birth to Maryam in Iran, and then took her back to Afghanistan.

Formal birth certificates, then and now, are not accessible for most refugees. A similar birth-place policy challenge exists, for example, for many of the one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who fled last year’s killing, rape, and other brutalities at the hands of Myanmar’s military. Such realities are another challenge for the new minister in delivering Canada’s $300 million pledge towards the multilateral response to that crisis.

Monsef’s development co-operation mandate will certainly involve a steep learning curve. She inherits and must deliver Marie-Claude Bibeau’s well-established Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP). And she has continuing responsibility for her old portfolio as Minister for Women and Gender Equality. For her FIAP mandate, part of the challenge is in working with low-income, fragile states where conservative, male political and civil society leaders need to be brought onside.

She will also inherit a tight Global Affairs Canada (GAC) budgetary situation due to some large multilateral commitments. Not least, GAC’s human capital situation is weak with only a thin pool of gender experts, many with limited operational experience in low-income developing countries.

Monsef is already at work a few weeks into her new role as Minister of International Development. Her other ministerial hat, as Minister for Women and Gender Equality, sees her hosting the global “Women Deliver” 2019 Conference in Vancouver from June 3 to 6, which will welcome some 6000 participants.

After that, she will be ready to be the new public face of Canada on an annual circuit of international meetings. Here she will be busy talking up the importance of FIAP and simultaneously explaining away Canada’s diminished profile as a development actor. At the same time, she will be joining her ministerial colleagues in trying to rustle up a few more of the votes needed to win ourselves a much sought-after seat on the UN Security Council. That search may take her to the G20 Summit in Japan, and then maybe to the United Nations General Assembly in the fall.

Straight from there it could be the annual meeting of the World Bank (WB) in Washington under its new, but distinctly unwanted American president. There she may well be trying to explain to angry developing countries and civil society leaders why Canada, like other board members, seems to have opted out of countering the Trump choice despite the fact that some extremely well-qualified non-American female candidates could have been proposed.

After all this travel she will be wanting to get back to her Ottawa office to see how well her initial ideas for effective development co-operation are maturing. Then to the task of regaining her parliamentary seat…

Some suggestions for her are set out in our companion blog, “New Partnerships for Minister Monsef?

(Editor’s note: See also related posts on GAC reform by Daniel Livermore.)

John Sinclair is a Cambridge-educated economist, formerly with the Canadian International Development Agency and the World Bank. As a Senior Fellow at University of Ottawa’s School of International Development and Global Studies and as a McLeod Group member, he teaches and comments on global issues, international development, and institutional reform.

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