Since March 1, 2019, Maryam Monsef has been the new Minister of International Development, adding to her responsibilities as Minister for Women and Gender Equality. A companion blog outlines the demanding new landscape in which she must operate. The aim of the current blog is to explore what will be her major challenges and (hopefully) opportunities for innovation.
With just a few months left before the federal election, Minister Monsef might focus on selectively tackling some neglected basics to help ensure FIAP implementation. Her goal for programming and operations could focus on restoring Canada’s international credibility as a bold and effective donor. Contextually to be “back” we need to better recognize that the developing world has evolved a lot over recent years. Though not an entirely rosy picture, the world is experiencing diminished poverty and many more engaged and politically inclusive governments.
Canada, a mid-sized donor, should strive for a future built around development partnerships. This would involve important cultural shifts inside Global Affairs Canada (GAC) and related changes in its operational style. Key is to recognize the need for something abandoned back in the late 1980s — decentralization, with a solid, empowered presence on the ground. Decision-making on development programming — both strategic and operational — seems very hierarchical. Decision-making is centred in the senior managerial layers of Assistant Deputy Ministers (ADMs) and Directors-General (D-Gs), many of whom are not development professionals, but rather have experience rooted in trade policy and geopolitics.
What is really needed now are professionals based in the field who could lead the negotiation of multi-year programming strategies like those of the World Bank, UNDP, and many other donor peers. A decentralized country director, suitably empowered, with at least five years of field experience, could serve as Canada’s trusted, easily accessed interlocutor for program strategy and operations relations with a partner developing country’s government.
Such strategies could be developed every few years with the partner government, also consulting local business and civil society. This approach would substantially tackle grumble #1 of developing countries — the lack of predictability in donor support. Canada’s credibility is certainly not improved when present-day country strategies, often thin and unpublished, are a fait accompli document delivered in a binder from Ottawa.
A substantive country strategy could become the core document that the minister, with her senior advisors, reviews for alignment with broad sectoral or thematic policies. This might begin with FIAP, but could potentially add new strategic areas such as climate change or peace-building. This might lead via some Privy Council Office (PCO) inputs to a cabinet-level strategic masterplan for future Canadian global partnerships with developing countries.
Such a master plan would need to internalize the competitive reality of other donors, including new South–South co-operation, such as that just discussed at the UN’s BAPA+40 conference. Not least, it would need a new geopolitical perspective on China — now the biggest donor to Africa — and its Belt and Road program. The same masterplan can become an entry point into tighter program management via multi-year country budgets with so-called Indicative Planning Figures (IPFs).
GAC has already begun with more professionals on the ground in Africa but it needs more progress on the empowerment side. Countries such as Ethiopia or Bangladesh want their dialogue partner to be accessible daily in Addis Ababa or Dhaka, within a block of the president’s office or national planning office. Credibility is not advanced by the phrase “I need to check first with Ottawa.”
While supporting refugees is not a central goal of development co-operation, one possible programming theme, especially given Monsef’s own Afghan background, could be long-term solutions to the many global refugee crises — from Syria and the rest of the Middle East, the mass exodus across the Mediterranean from Africa, and the Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh are but three examples.
One potential regional interest could be a Canadian response to the proposal from the new Mexican president for a “Marshall Plan of the Americas.” Trump uncharacteristically seems to have accepted the Mexican proposal. The whole idea of rebuilding the devastated economies and societies of Central America (and perhaps further south) could potentially reverse the flow of refugees that Trump’s America so “fears” — people driven by endemic poverty, corruption, and violence. Monsef could perhaps transform this proposal into a special post-NAFTA initiative, and encourage support from the Inter-American Development Bank. In this scenario, Trump’s “great wall” would then lose its rationale and could be sold as scrap metal.
Another possibility for a bolder agenda under Minister Monsef can be seen in the upcoming G20 Summit in Japan (June 28–29). This meeting of global leaders had a rough ride in Argentina last November with President Trump impatiently waiting at the table to discuss trade and tariffs with China. With a more people-centred host, Canada will certainly be pressing gender equality issues.
But the summit could also be an opportunity, at least in the corridors and coffee breaks, to press the “inclusiveness” goal of enhancing the G20 by adding a permanent representative of the “left behind” nations. These are the absent voices of fragile countries that Monsef will quickly spot around the G20 table. This was suggested but not advanced as a bold idea a year ago for Canada’s recent G7 summit. Minister Monsef will soon discover that even such a simple inclusive action, one well-aligned with the UN’s Agenda 2030, can be easily neglected by wary development policy-makers.
Tackling the opportunities explored in this blog are definitely demanding, but most are within the capacities of a determined minister. Unless these challenges are taken seriously, Canada will remain a diminished global actor, at the very time when a longer-term goal of more international partnerships makes strong sense.
See the companion blog “A New Face in International Development.”
(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.