The promise of a federal organization to promote democracy abroad withered under the last government, but we still need such a body. The time is ripe to revisit the idea.

As the Global Affairs department reviews its international assistance policies — the first comprehensive review in over 10 years – now is an opportune moment to consider Canada’s role in promoting democracy around the world. Why does it matter? What makes it effective? And what does Canada bring to the table in this field of international assistance?

The Trudeau government’s recent International Assistance Review highlights assistance goals related to basic needs such as access to food, clean water and education. These are of course incredibly important, but we know that countries with more accountable, democratic forms of government provide these goods better than those that are unaccountable to their citizens.

Many have argued — most recently US presidential candidate Donald Trump — that Western democratic nations have no business imposing their democratic values on other countries. While particular institutions and guarantees of rights like those existing  in Canada may not suit every context, there is ample evidence that democracy is not a culturally specific form of government, and that many basic human needs are best — or only — guaranteed in democratic systems, as Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has argued eloquently. Democratic principles are not in competition with economic development or security. Sen points out that “no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press,” because of a free media’s ability to expose imminent famine situations and the incentive governments have, when they are accountable to the population, to take action to prevent famine. Promoting democratic development is thus an appropriate policy focus for Canada and other Western democratic nations, but it must only be carried out with the consent of host governments and local communities.

The Conservative government of the past decade initially signalled that it was strongly committed to an agenda of supporting democratic institutions around the world. Indeed, that government generally prided itself on a foreign policy approach that emphasized uncompromising values, whether one agreed with them or not. Yet over time, due to a confluence of circumstances, democracy assistance as a priority fell off the government’s agenda.

The Conservatives followed a course initiated by the Liberals in 2005, focusing assistance on poverty alleviation. They reinforced it in 2009 when the Conservative government announced the Aid Effectiveness Action Plan, which aimed to focus 80 percent of Canada’s bilateral aid on a group of 20 select countries, chosen based on needs, capacity to benefit from aid and alignment with Canada’s foreign policy priorities.

Development and democratization are not in tension with each other, and democratic development and poverty reduction should be integrated in assistance programs. Still, the two priorities of poverty alleviation and democratic development would, if taken seriously, lead to targeting slightly different sets of countries. This is because the poorest countries are not usually the most likely candidates for successful democratization, an enduring finding in political science research. The government might fruitfully consider holding both priorities in mind and selecting a subset of countries based on their readiness for democratic progress; that is, where there are constituencies on the ground that are working hard for democratic governance but are in desperate need of resources. An ideal way to implement such a two-priority approach would be to create a coordinated democracy assistance agency, separate from CIDA, which could carry out this agenda.

We know that when governments coordinate their resources on democracy promotion into a single office or umbrella agency, the impact can be more coherent, and it is more likely to be recognized by partners in receiving countries and by democracy promotion organizations around the world. At the time of the Liberals’ 2005 policy statement, there was discussion of a possible “democracy Canada institute” that would echo the successful US-based National Democratic Institute and German political foundations. Historically in Canada, programs have been tucked away in different departments and organizations, such as CIDA, embassies under Foreign Affairs, and the now defunct group Rights and Democracy. The 2005 policy statement suggested forming a “democracy council,” and in 2007 experts testifying before the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development recommended such a move. That led to the promise in the government’s 2008 Speech from the Throne to develop a new government-funded democracy promotion institution. The 2009 Advisory Panel Report on the Creation of a Canadian Democracy Promotion Agency detailed how this could be done, recommending an institution that focused only on political party development around the world. It did not come to fruition.

Today, with a clean institutional slate in Canada’s democracy promotion efforts, the time is ripe to create a new coordinating body that focuses on the full spectrum of democratic development issues, from political parties and elections to civil society, free media and the rule of law.

The government’s Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion within Global Affairs, which renames and redirects the Office of Religious Freedoms created by the last Conservative government, does include “democracy” as one of its three divisions. This is an encouraging development. However, ideally democracy promotion would be housed in a well-funded office with “democracy” in its title mandate. Building a coherent and well-resourced institution for democracy assistance policy, one that is insulated from partisan interference, well integrated with a wide range of stakeholders and informed by rigorous research, would be a key achievement toward restoring Canada as a strong and world-respected voice for democracy.

What should such a coordinating body do? What does global experience tell us about what works best in democracy assistance programs? It would be the task of a democracy promotion institution to investigate these and other questions, but research and experience in this policy area do tell us a few things clearly.

First, and most crucially, we know that policies must be tailored to local circumstances, and must respond to the needs of local populations in partner countries. Research by Thomas Carothers, myself and others, in many locations around the world, tells us that if assistance program content is not developed and evaluated with the input of local stakeholder groups, much money will be wasted on ineffective projects that have little impact on the lives of real people on the ground. Even worse, such projects carry an imperialist whiff that can alienate people in recipient countries.

Canada can play a strong role in the development of federal institutions that allow degrees of regional autonomy, and it can promote democratic and sustainable approaches to multiculturalism.

At the same time, the Canadian government must make some strategic choices about its assistance priorities, since Canada is a small player on the international development scene. These priorities will vary by country to respond to local variations. Yet they should not spread too few resources too thinly, since this can lead to a lack of identifiable improvements from assistance programs in democratic development.

Where specifically can Canada exercise comparative advantage? The recent Global Affairs Canada discussion document points out that “Canadians are a compassionate people. They expect their government to reflect the values they embrace, including inclusive and accountable governance, environmental responsibility, respect for human rights and diversity, and generosity of spirit.” In this vein, Canada can play a strong role in the development of federal institutions of government that allow degrees of regional autonomy. It can promote democratic and sustainable approaches to multiculturalism.

Canada can contribute much experience on social inclusion and deliberative democratic approaches that incorporate the voices and viewpoints of diverse citizens, discussing differences and developing solutions in a respectful and civil manner. The model of the BC Citizens’ Assembly, which gathered a randomly recruited group of regular citizens from around the province to devote significant time to becoming “experts” on electoral systems and debate and agree upon the best choice for a new electoral system to pitch to BC voters in 2005, is a great example. Our citizens have other strengths to share as well, ranging from educational practices that embrace children of all abilities, to groundbreaking approaches to the problem of domestic violence many to list here, but these ideas should be offered in response to expressions of interest on the ground in other countries.

As an assistance partner, Canada has traditionally been at an advantage due to its status as a middle power that does not have major geopolitical interests. Our representatives in the field are thus seen as being honest brokers, less subject to suspicion than “great power” government representatives. The Conservative government’s hard-nosed approach to pursuing its strategic values may have eroded this reputation around the world; now is the time to reclaim it.

Photo: gaborbash /

This article is part of the International Assistance special feature.


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