In the same decade that saw the most dramatic global decline in democratic values since the Second World War, Canada all but abandoned aid for international democracy support. So says the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, in its first report in over 10 years on Canada’s international support for democratic development. The June 2019 report finds that Canadian funding for democracy support is only 2 to 4 percent of international development assistance (IDA) today — down from as much as 14 percent a decade ago — and that the institutions and structures that provided vision, leadership and human capacity for this endeavour have been gutted or dissolved.

This decimation of Canadian engagement in democratic IDA could not have come at a worse time. The world has been in the throes of a brutal “democratic recession,” with over 13 years of recorded declines in political rights and civil liberties. In unconsolidated democracies and states undergoing political transitions from conflict or dictatorship, autocratic influencers are actively targeting gender equality, tolerance and diversity as a strategy to undermine the international human rights system; Russian President Vladimir Putin has gloated that liberalism has “outlived its purpose” and is “obsolete.” Resurging authoritarianism and populism are sweeping all parts of the globe, and support for democracy is at a historic low.

That’s the bad news. The good news? As the report acknowledges, there has never been a better moment to reengage — now is the time. With the right approach, strategy and partners, Canada could breathe new life into the global democracy movement. Specifically, Canada needs to contribute a clear-eyed vision of democracy rooted in gender equality and a strategic, incremental approach that puts civil society and local context first.

Why should democracy be specifically rooted in gender equality? Gender equality is critical to democratic development; without ensuring its primacy, democratic institutions and processes reproduce old systems of exclusion and conflict, and the cycle of instability continues. Canada gets this. While Canada’s international assistance policy has only recently become officially feminist, gender equality and women’s empowerment are bedrocks of Canadian values and have been at the heart of Canadian foreign policy for decades. A rights-based approach to democracy starts with taking feminism seriously.

An incremental, locally driven approach is an equally critical Canadian contribution to international democracy assistance. The democracy deficit in the world today reflects a growing alienation of citizens from the state that cannot be solved solely through top-down approaches and institutional fixes. Canadian experience in peace building, in promoting dialogue and consultation across communities and in building trust are vital assets.

The latest report is part of a long-running policy dialogue on defining Canada’s role in international democracy assistance. Starting in 1988 — at another critical juncture for global democracy development — and continuing for over two decades, Canada’s first dedicated agency, the International Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, became a substantial player in the field. Rights and Democracy was dissolved in 2012 following deep internal strife. Some of its work was transferred to the Office of Religious Freedom within Global Affairs, which closed in its turn in 2016.

Gender equality is critical to democratic development; without it, democratic institutions and processes reproduce systems of exclusion and conflict, and the cycle of instability continues.

Meanwhile, the peak of the momentum for deepening Canadian leadership on international democracy support came in 2007, when the Foreign Affairs Committee last issued a report on this topic. Based on extensive research and positioned to address and move beyond the quagmire at Rights and Democracy at the time, the report nonetheless marked the zenith of Canada’s ambitions rather than a new dawn. Yet both the 2007 and 2019 reports recommend Canada build its democracy support infrastructure, both within the foreign service and through the creation of another independent agency. While the 2019 report rightly leaves the parameters of such an agency to be defined through multiparty dialogue, the need is clear.

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Canada needs a home for its distinct feminist, incremental, locally driven approach to democracy support. A new dedicated agency would articulate and advance Canada’s vision and amplify its voice. As the report asserts, the success of the American and European democracy support organizations make evident the need for a Canadian counterpart. As part of a comprehensive national strategy for international democratic development, these organizations embody national values and contribute policy innovation, address politically sensitive issues and harness talent. And as the image of the US as a beacon of democracy fades — and the world even begins to think of America as a threat to democracy — the need for Canada to take up the mantle of democratic leadership grows.

Furthermore, as one witness told the committee, Canada needs a hub “to assess, pull together, coordinate and evaluate the totality of Canada’s democratic development efforts, [to bring] coherence and stability to the field.” This agency would serve to strengthen (not supplant) Canada’s surviving organizations that continue to work in connected fields and Canada’s ongoing partnerships with international democracy assistance organizations.

The report’s call to action is clear, and next steps should be undertaken immediately:

  • The messages of the Foreign Affairs Committee report should be championed by every party and candidate during this fall’s elections. Party platforms must promote democratic development as an integral part of their policies on IDA and foreign affairs. Such declarations will lay the groundwork for the multipartisan approach that will underpin any successful long-term strategy once Parliament returns. While the parliamentary committee report recommends the creation of new bodies to lead this initiative, the door is left wide open for defining what these will look like, thereby offering space for consensus to emerge.
  • Anticipating a reprioritization of democracy assistance, Global Affairs should consult with leading practitioners to assess what is working and what’s needed. The current “structural and conceptual void” around Canadian democracy assistance can be filled with an innovative and precise plan, if parties articulate their visions ahead of the election, the public service is prepared for the call to action and implementing partners are consulted early and often.
  • Decision-makers should ensure that a feminist democracy assistance strategy is not designed and led only by men. While the report correctly identifies the importance of gender equality, the committee largely failed to incorporate this value when developing the document. Only 4 of the 18 witnesses who appeared before the committee were women. Of the three women cited in the report, only one — the outstanding Pearl Eliadis — was referenced on a topic not related specifically to women’s issues. Men’s voices overwhelm the report’s substance and recommendations, with over 85 percent of citations being of male witnesses and authors. International democracy assistance has long been led by men, but Canada has an opportunity to start afresh by incorporating diverse voices when defining its vision and approach.

Of the many foreign policy tools at Canada’s disposal, supporting democracy abroad is one of the least costly and most effective contributions the country can make to resist bad actors, uphold global values, protect national security and invest in a more peaceful, prosperous world. With these steps — the most important of which is championing the critical link between democracy and gender equality — Canada can again take its rightful place as a global defender of democratic values.

Photo: Women line up to enter a polling station in parliamentary elections in the old city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, October 20, 2018. AP Photo, by Massoud Hossaini.

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Gabrielle Bardall
Gabrielle Bardall, a democracy and elections specialist, is a research associate at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies and a senior consultant with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. All opinions are her own.

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