Earlier this year, Prime Minister Trudeau addressed the United Nations’ General Assembly with a call to lay the foundations of a better world. Importantly, he suggested that, “Instead of crossing our fingers and hoping the big powers will figure this out, let’s figure what we can do, to make a difference, together. […] Let’s not wait for someone else to act. Let’s do it ourselves.”

Excluding the big powers ab initio, he must be addressing middle powers and developing countries. The US foreign policy has drifted away from Canada in recent years. Europe is redefining itself in a post-Brexit regional unity and through the current COVID crisis. The opportunity may lie in the direction of developing countries; but they need an incentive. That incentive is Canada’s Official Development Assistance (ODA). At 0.27% of its gross national income, Canada is representative of the Development Assistance Committee’s average level of commitment for 2019. That can be improved upon, pandemic notwithstanding, to answer our Prime Minister’s call for action.

Now is the time

As a middle power championing multilateralism, Canada has a unique opportunity. We have inherited some credibility and still retain soft power from our years of peacekeeping and foreign aid leadership at the end of the last century. Lloyd Axworthy warns that:

“We have some extraordinary assets outside the developed world. There is a real risk that we will not take advantage of those assets. Africa is a case in point.”

We can ill afford to waste our hard-earned relationships and investments with developing countries. An example of our remaining partnerships is Ghana, where the government is the partner-recipient of a Canadian aid grant of $135,000,000 for 2017-2021, which focuses on supporting climate-smart agriculture as an engine for inclusive and sustainable economic growth, reducing barriers to doing business, and the empowerment of women and girls.

A great power competition is taking place right now. The United States has been flirting with fascism, taking a protectionist stance and disrupting multilateral international organizations. President-elect Biden may not be able, or willing, to reinstate the United State’s reputation as “Leader of the Free World.” Across the Pacific, China is extending its influence both diplomatically and through its Belt and Roads Initiative. The liberal order is coming undone, the world is in crisis indeed.

It is the opportunity to step out from under the foot of the great powers and reconnect with more certain allies. Canada’s place is in the middle – in the middle of multilateral cooperation, of innovative methods for the delivery of ODA, answering the concerns of civil societies at home and abroad.

Politely holding the door open

Our feminist international assistance policy is relevant and innovative. As champions of multiculturalism, Canadians know that we cannot impose cultural norms upon others. The will must rise from within. We can participate in the change and ensure its longevity by reinforcing long-term relationships with the communities we strive to help. We simply must hold the door open until our partners choose to cross the doorstep.

Global Affairs Canada is at the core of the Global Partnership Initiative on Effective Triangular Co-operation. In the role of facilitator or pivotal partner, Canada has a lot of expertise and experience to offer- and it is willing to provide! Engaging fully in multilateral dialogues is the opportunity to act and make a difference now, to demonstrate our value as leaders in the development field. Thus, we can seed our vision of a cooperative world: gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; human dignity; growth that works for everyone; environment and climate action; inclusive governance; peace and security. In return, Canada extends its soft power by partnering with local actors; bypassing the broken system that Prime Minister Trudeau described. This is economically and politically beneficial for all parties.

The current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, by confining us to our own cities, has demonstrated that we do not need to be physically present to be effective. That, also, can be an opportunity for both donors and beneficiaries. To build capacity inclusive of women and girls, to support sustainable initiatives, to generate accountability and support good governance; we do not need to be on the ground. We need to be able to reach the people on the ground through our networks of embassies and development partners.

The confidence needed to open our purse

We can help to develop the communication infrastructure that will connect disenfranchised communities with us, other partners and the resources in the global community. Canada spends 38% of its 3.5 billion US dollar ODA budget in Africa, 40% of the total is in the social infrastructure and services sector. Our Feminist International Assistance Policy has pledged to increase this investment, and ensure that no less than 50% of its bilateral international development assistance is directed to sub-Saharan African countries by 2021-2022. An investment of this size, to be effective, requires having a deep reach into civil societies and in the communities where they have the power to act. While we do have individuals in our civil society, non-governmental organizations and public servants who know local leaders intimately, we must work to strengthen our network.

By ensuring that we provide the organizational and program management skills directly to recipients of ODA, we do not need Canadians to travel at great costs. We can support local leadership, offer training and guidance towards the principles of the Grand Bargain remotely. By being transparent and trustworthy in our development strategies, we will support true cooperation and the recipients will be interested in our own well-being in return.

Empowering civil societies and community leaders by entrusting them to directly administer the ODA programs will lead to better governance and accountability. As relationships strengthen, Canadians will gain more confidence to open their purse: disburse at Lester B. Pearson’s 0.7% target for the ODA and beyond. It will be an investment in ourselves. The balance of power, in the resulting economic relations, will be fairer, more inclusive, and reliable.

A sidestep in the right direction

It may have been a blessing for Canada to have lost its bid for a seat at the United Nations Security Council. We do not need to get closer to the great powers at the moment. Partnering with middle powers and developing nations is safer, providing Canadians the time needed to renew lasting relationships. Our focal point can shift away from the international institutions where great powers compete, promoting our ODA vision and policies directly on the ground.

De facto, Canada and its development partners will have created a new world order based on cooperative values. This is how Canadians can act now. Not only can we do it ourselves, but we can do it our way, too.



Philippe Leroux is an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Philippe’s research interests focus on international development localization, capacity-building, gender equality, governance, civil society empowerment and quantitative research.



Banner image by Mat Reding, courtesy of Unsplash.

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