How Canada Can Better Support Democratic Development: International Election Observers

How Canada Can Better Support Democratic Development: International Election Observers

As part of its development, peace and security programming, Global Affairs Canada sends election observers to monitor foreign elections in countries where electoral processes are weak or developing. Its election observation efforts are part of GAC’s programs to support the advancement of democracy around the world.

Canada’s priorities in supporting democratic development around the world include (in no particular order):

  • advancing an inclusive approach, particularly for women, youth, and marginalized groups;
  • diverse, inclusive, and pluralistic legislatures;
  • a resilient and active civil society;
  • independent media and Internet freedom;
  • electoral development; and
  • rule of law.

Although the development of electoral systems is among Canada’s priorities, it has never been a high one.  The Canadian Government generally emphasises other values ahead of developing electoral systems. While these other, higher priority values are worthwhile, they are Canada’s values. They are not necessarily values shared by the countries within which we hope to advance democracy – or at least they would not necessarily be high priority ones for them. In many cases, particularly among the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe, central Asia, Africa, and Latin America, some of our high priority values may seem like luxuries for them or not closely aligned with the traditional local cultures. The priorities for the political process of early emerging democracies are usually more basic to the building of nascent electoral infrastructures, e.g. establishing an independent and professional election commission, obtaining computer hardware to run a national election, or hiring and training independent and professional personnel to conduct regular democratic elections. Focusing Canadian democratic assistance on such things as “a resilient and active civil society” or encouraging a “diverse, inclusive and pluralistic legislature” may therefore seem like an indulgence for emerging democracies with more basic, functional, and immediate needs.

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In order for Canada’s support for global democratic development to be effective, we should be focusing less on the values that are high Canadian priorities and more on supporting the specific needs of the targeted country to develop its own democratic political culture from the ground up, based on its own immediate priorities and functional needs.

Global Affairs Canada’s overall budget in support of development, peace, and security is in the range of $4.5 billion. It is difficult to breakdown this figure to determine how much exactly is being spent on democratic and electoral development since the priorities for budgeting are centred around the values that we seek to advance (e.g. rule of law, women’s inclusion, diversity, and equity) rather than around the democratic mechanism that we seek to promote – which itself highlights those problematic differences between promoting values and supporting needs.  Nonetheless within this large sum there is a very modest $2 million that GAC allocates to send international election observers to participate in international election observation missions run by such organizations as the UN, the Organization of American States (OAS), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the European Union (EU).

International election observers in such multilateral missions, including Canadian observers, are there strictly to observe – they do not interfere or adjudicate. They are invited by the local government to the country to observe the campaign and the vote and to report on what they saw – the good, the bad and the ugly. The final reports of such a mission, in addition to reporting what it observed, usually also provides recommendations on how the local election commission can improve its electoral processes in future elections.

One of the strengths of such international election observation missions is that they are sensitive to local conditions and needs.


Canada has been an active participant in international election observing missions since 2004, and informally for much longer than that through its diplomatic missions abroad. Canada recruits and send long-term and short-term observers through Canadem, an arms-length organization funded by GAC and the UK Foreign and Development Office. Since 2022, Canadem has sent 184 election observers from Canada (myself included) to participate in various international Election Observation Missions around the world.

One of the strengths of such international election observation missions is that they are sensitive to local conditions and needs. They observe electoral processes based on internationally recognized norms for democratic elections and do not seek to advance or promote extraneous values that the local authorities either do not hold or which are not necessary to the immediate, smooth functioning of a democratic election.  In this way, international election observation missions support the development and advancement of democracy based on the priorities and immediate needs of the local community.

When assessing the value that Canada gets for its $2 million for election observers, it is important not to focus on Canada’s high priorities values, but rather to note the incremental changes that occur over time to advance the nascent democratic functions in each of the specific countries.

In essence, then, Canada is using only $2 million out of a $4.5 billion budget in its peace, development, and security (less than 0.5% of the total) budget to promote electoral development in emerging democracies. The rest is being used to advance Canadian priority values, which the targeted emerging democracies may or may not share, but which are certainly luxuries compared to their more basic democratic development needs like creating a professional, neutral electoral commission to run democratic elections, or providing basic technical infrastructure to set up and run democratic elections. Providing Canadian election observers to international election observation missions is a simple, modest, and inexpensive step to doing exactly that.

To truly advance democracy globally, rather than simply to advance Canadian priority values, it would therefore be more worthwhile for Global Affairs Canada to redirect more funding in support of basic global democratic development needs, including by sending more Canadian election observers to participate in multilateral election observation missions which directly, if incrementally, advance democracy around the globe, and less to advance values that do not directly promote democratic practices, structures, or institutions.

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