Canada’s Path to Sustainable Development Leadership Starts with a Rethink of International Aid

More than 14 months after the WHO declaration of a global pandemic, COVID-19 continues to infect people across the world, with close to 170 million confirmed cases and at least 3.4 million dead worldwide. Mass vaccination campaigns are ongoing, and a return to normalcy is, however blurrily, in sight. With cautious optimism creeping in, the question of recovery is front and centre. And despite being a middle power on the world stage, Canada can, if it takes the right steps, be a leader on this path to recovery.  

The Canadian government recognizes this recovery, officially, as an opportunity to “shift towards a more sustainable, just, inclusive and resilient world.”

But Ottawa has to be more aggressive. Canada can seize this opportunity by leveraging its commitment to fulfill the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); this would guide its contributions to a broader, worldwide pandemic recovery. Engaging in such an international recovery effort would not merely be an altruistic endeavour, it would also serve Canadian interests.

The best way to do this is for the Canadian government to increase its contributions to international SDG efforts through multilateral forums, rather than merely through bilateral international assistance.

In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) unanimously approved the 2030 Agenda, which contained 17 SDGs. These goals prioritize human rights and gender equality as pillars to achieving sustainable development, building on the Millennium Development Goals. Since 2015, the Canadian government has pursued initiatives that have promoted the implementation of these SDGs, both domestically and internationally.

Ottawa focused on “SDG #5,” a goal designed to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of  women and girls. This is because the government argues that “sustainable development cannot be achieved if half of humanity continues to be left behind.”

This focus is also reflected in the government’s engagement with the SDGs through Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP). In the past, Canada has used FIAP as the primary policy vehicle to implement SDGs internationally. The 2030 Agenda served as a framework for FIAP’s primary objectives: eradicating poverty, with a special focus on the empowerment of women and girls.

The government’s progress in accomplishing some of the SDGs was unsatisfactory even before the pandemic. These include increasing food security, preventing biodiversity loss, and reducing inequality, and ending poverty (a very tall order). The delay in seeing through “SDG #5” is mostly due to the disproportionately negative impact of public health restrictions, stemming from the pandemic, and reduced economic activity on women and girls.

The government continues to align its international development policies with the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda with individual recipient countries during the pandemic on a bilateral level.

The far-reaching nature of the 2030 Agenda—and the equally far-reaching impact of COVID-19—requires a bold, collective global response to address the shortcomings in implementing the SDGs internationally.

The response would require more funding to assistance programs, but also diplomatic engagement bilaterally and multilaterally.

Reducing international assistance would not be a viable option because rhetoric alone is not a substitute for funding and assistance. Such a reduction would discredit Canada as a reliable partner in sustainable development, and notably, in the global recovery from the pandemic.

As of 2018-‘19, Canada delivers most of its international assistance on a bilateral basis, rather than multilaterally, at a 2-to-1 ratio.

Global Affairs Canada, the department responsible for international development programs, focuses on innovating the delivery of bilateral aid. Bilateral international assistance allows the Canadian government to be responsive to the needs of recipient countries. This more direct delivery method for assistance is flexible, largely avoiding the bureaucratic frictions associated with multilateral institutions and the delays in aid delivery.

However, Canada has a limited capacity to deliver international assistance to the world as a modest economic power. Multilateral institutions, such as the UN, offer economies of scale that Canada simply cannot provide.

Multilateral initiatives offer the benefit of pooling resources from different donor countries and entities. The resources are (usually) administered by people who have expertise—and experience—on a specific region or issue.

For example, Canada’s helps fund World Bank Group development projects. These projects are administered by an institution within the World Bank that aims to promote poverty eradication, the empowerment of women, and inclusive growth.

What’s more, the World Bank has financial assistance programs for recipient countries that Canada could not administer unilaterally. Canada does not have the resources, notably money and expertise, to administer these large-scale assistance programs. Multilateral institutions, like the World Bank, can administer these large-scale initiatives because they have better access to financial and human resources.

Canada’s engagement in these multilateral efforts, whether financially or diplomatically, capitalizes from the economies of scale of these more comprehensive programs, thus providing better value to Canada’s international assistance contributions. Canada’s institutional knowledge—derived from its experience as a member of groups like the UN and World Bank—puts the country in a strong position to influence the form and implementation of relevant multilateral initiatives.

Given the scale of the 2030 Agenda and the damage left behind by COVID-19, multilateral engagement is imperative for Canada to lead the world to meet the challenge of a sustainable recovery. The significant task of implementing the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs demands a coordinated response, given the pandemic-related delays on SDGs.

These implementation efforts require coordination between governments, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, and civil society. Coordination ensures assistance is appropriate and sufficient, and prevents situations where assistance is duplicated or missing. Increased multilateral engagement also lowers transaction costs in coordinating international assistance responses, with multilateral organizations offering up frameworks where cooperation can occur.

Multilateral settings also ensure that members are working with the same information, which is useful when multilateral action occurs. The UN has noted the challenges of collecting data from lower-income countries to gauge worldwide progress on attaining the SDGs, especially during the pandemic.

Over the past few decades, advances in information and communications technology have reduced the transaction costs associated with bilateral cooperation. However, these advancements also reduce the already low transaction costs for multilateral cooperation.

The considerations behind coordination are especially salient because the success of the international SDG implementation effort serves Canada’s interests and meets policy objectives set out by the government—more specifically, our foreign policy objectives.

The Canadian government recognizes the importance of using international and multilateral events to cooperate with partners in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. While the government incorporates the SDGs within bilateral international assistance, multilateral engagement is a part of Canada’s national strategy in achieving the 2030 Agenda.

Multilaterally, the Canadian government responded to these shortcomings with the Financing for Development in the Era of COVID-19 and Beyond initiative. Canada, Jamaica, and the UN Secretariat co-lead this initiative, which attempts to soothe the world’s economic development needs post-pandemic.

The initiative demonstrates Canada’s capacity to engage effectively through multilateral forums despite being a middle power on the world stage.

Canada’s active participation and deep knowledge within multilateral institutions since 1945 reinforces the country’s capacity to implement its initiatives effectively.

Contributions to multilateral institutions do not consist of a zero-sum loss for Canadian bilateral development assistance.  Multilateral organizations can reinforce and complement existing assistance by broadening Canada’s reach across the world, though indirectly.

Canada’s further investment in multilateral organizations’ programs has the dual purpose of reinforcing the larger international rules-based order through strengthening institutions while promoting sustainable development projects that eradicate poverty and empower women and girls.

The current circumstances highlight the need to further efforts in implementing the SDGs worldwide. Canada has and continues to contribute to the vision of a “sustainable, peaceful, resilient, inclusive and prosperous world,” despite the pandemic.

The Canadian government must take action to materialize this vision.


Steven Camit is an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Steven specializes in International Economic Policy with a research focus on global economic governance.


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