The federal government’s recent international assistance review forms an essential first step in defining Canada’s response to the complex global challenges laid out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the broader 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted last year by all UN member states. These interconnected challenges range from gender inequality to education and health, to climate change and oceans management, to food and energy security, to economic livelihoods and good governance. The government’s policy review helped to inspire a new wave of national deliberation on many crucial global issues.

At the same time, the international assistance review needs to be understood as part of a longer-term process for enhancing Canadians’ engagement on the challenges of global sustainable development. The issues at stake are of such importance and complexity that we need a sustained and society-wide approach to addressing them.

Four issues stand out in particular.

  • Global outcomes are a matter of vital national interests and values. Canadians have long supported action on poverty, hunger and oppression. Now we also need to focus on how global sustainable development affects our national security, prosperity and quality of life. For example, increasingly our safety depends on reliable health care systems, access to food, and government accountability in far-off countries. Sustained and inclusive economic growth in emerging economies leads to shifts in the global marketplace that have an impact on Canada. Our physical well-being — our fisheries, our farms, our clean and air and water — increasingly depends upon climate action and environmental sustainability, both here and abroad. Canada’s success in tackling global sustainable development cuts across stakeholders, disciplines and ministries.
  • The boundaries between domestic and international issues have become blurred – the foremost challenges are now universal. Actions abroad affect our decisions at home. Increasingly the major issues each society faces affect all societies, even if the local forms of each problem are different. Whether they are priorities like economic inequality, gender equality, marginalized populations, health and well-being, quality education, water quality or sustainable infrastructure, each country’s strategy will be connected to other countries’ strategies.
  •  Public finance remains crucial, including international assistance, but private investment and other financing instruments are also essential. It is estimated that the universal SDG challenges will require US$5-7 trillion additional investment per year, with the largest share required for sustainable infrastructure in projects for low-carbon energy and transportation. Much of this will need to be mobilized through private finance, including banks, pension funds, insurance companies and other major institutional investors. Aligning such “sustainable finance” channels with the SDGs will require coordinated action by policy-makers, market regulators, financial managers and companies.
  • Success in Canada hinges on proactive leadership by academia, business, civil society, philanthropy and all levels of government. The global challenges are too complex to be addressed by any single actor. They require insights, entrepreneurialism and partnerships — among scientists, companies, Indigenous communities and public leaders and others — people from all walks of life. However, our businesses are inadequately engaged on the frontiers of the global economy; our applied research and think tank systems are weak; civil society’s ability to lead and innovate has been stymied by outdated policies and debates; and our philanthropic sector is not providing enough risk capital to support innovation. And while there are many examples of individual Canadians making significant contributions, too often they are operating in splendid isolation. Each actor’s knowledge and resources can be made vastly more effective when leveraged alongside those of others.

Toward a pan-Canadian action plan on Agenda 2030

Taken together, these dynamic issues underscore the importance of a pan-Canadian approach to implementing the SDGs at home and globally. What would the building blocks look like?

First, the Canadian government could build on its recent successes and develop a first ever, whole-of-government strategy for advancing Agenda 2030 and global sustainable development. This would require a concerted emphasis on policy coherence — broadening the aperture to look beyond aid and consider multiple policy domains, such as trade, finance, health and the environment. The OECD has provided guidance on how to build cross-government coherence and undertake integrated approaches to SDG implementation.

Countries such as Denmark and Sweden have taken policy coherence seriously and, as a result, are rated the best in the class. However, the idea has never gained much traction in Canada. The amalgamated department of Global Affairs Canada is a starting point for an integrated government-wide approach. Global Affairs could partner with the Privy Council Office to develop a strategy that considers relevant domestic and international issues all across Canada.

Second, a thriving network of Canadian efforts in this domain will be essential for tackling the opportunities and challenges ahead — a network in which the various stakeholders are motivated, engaged, and interact to tackle the emerging economic, social and environmental challenges. The Canadian Network for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health provides lessons for how connectivity and capacity can be built across researchers, practitioners, policy-makers and the private sector. It exemplifies how pan-Canadian approaches can maximize impact and bolster global leadership.

Third, a pan-Canadian sustainable development implementation strategy is needed to apply the 17 sustainable development goals across our vast country’s communities and jurisdictions. In Alberta, a group of leading business, government and civil society actors is already working to see how the SDGs can become a common framework for measuring economic, social and environmental progress across the province. Germany has already presented impressive early steps on how a complex federal structure can craft a national SDG implementation plan.

For Canada, a strategy could be conceived of as an open-source exercise, with provinces, communities, universities, businesses and organizations of all types developing implementation plans in a collaborative, public manner. To be sure, care is required to ensure such an undertaking does not become a pro-forma exercise to meet reporting obligations to the United Nations or a grinding intergovernmental exercise.

Government as “systems architect”

To bring such building blocks to life, the Canadian government needs to see itself as a “systems architect” that is responsible for facilitating an overall societal approach to implementing the SDGs. This would entail coordinating open, strategic debates around potential solutions, bringing knowledge and know-how to bear, and creating the conditions in which nongovernmental actors and networks could thrive.

At a practical level, this would require a focus on the six “Cs” for success:

  • Communications: public leaders need to discuss the stake Canadians have in global sustainable development, articulating national priorities and engaging in open dialogue.
  • Capacity: over the long run, much of the nation’s success in navigating complex societal challenges will hinge on fostering world-class expertise on a range of global sustainable development issues, within the government and across Canada. This will in turn stimulate rigorous, evidence-based debate across the country, enhance collaboration with partners from multiple sectors, and position Canada as an agenda-setter on the global stage.
  • Convening: the government can help pull together Canadians from across the country and around the world to facilitate problem solving and help to identify how diverse actors can collaborate on practical solutions.
  • Connectivity: the public goods of fostering, sharing, and jointly developing knowledge can be stimulated across Canada’s diverse ecosystem.
  • Conditions: the public sector has special responsibilities to establish the enabling conditions for other actors to mobilize, partner and innovate. For example, regulatory, legal and administrative constraints inhibit Canadian charities and foundations from going global and limit civil society and private companies’ incentives for joint ventures.
  • Catalysts: The best ideas and policy decisions will ultimately need to be backed — even jump-started — by adequate and targeted resources. As indicated above, private resources will be essential, but public investments will be crucial for the problems that market forces cannot solve on their own.

An imminent timeline: 2019

The Agenda 2030 deadline is 14 years away — a horizon that is far enough for envisioning major shifts in trajectories, but also close enough to require time-sensitive policy action. All countries have agreed to reconvene in 2019 at the United Nations for a major stocktaking summit on the SDGs. That will be a crucial medium-term deadline for Canadians to update our strategy and implementation efforts in line with sustainable development success. To get started, the federal government needs to envisage itself as a facilitating and stimulating system architect right away.

This commentary draws on Towards 2030: Building Canada’s Engagement with Global Sustainable Development (2015), a Centre for International Policy Studies working group report the authors co-chaired. The other members of the working group were Kate Higgins, David Moloney, Julia Sanchez and Eric Werker.

Photo: Shanti Hesse

This article is part of the International Assistance special feature.


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John W. McArthur
John W. McArthur is a senior fellow in the Global Economic and Development Program at the Brookings Institution and senior adviser on sustainable development to the United Nations Foundation. He was CEO of Millennium Promise and manager and deputy director of the UN Millennium Project.
Margaret Biggs
Margaret Biggs is the Matthews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen’s University. She served as deputy minister in the Government of Canada. She was deputy secretary in the Privy Council Office and president of the Canadian International Development Agency.

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