Inaugural Conference: Foreign Policy by Canadians

November 9, 2020 – Ottawa, Ontario (virtual)

Check against delivery. This speech has been translated in accordance with the Government of Canada’s official languages policy and edited for posting and distribution in accordance with its communications policy.

It has been nearly a year since I became minister of international development, and if this year has taught me anything, it is to reinforce how intricately connected our world is—from security to global health, inequality to climate change. Canada is intimately impacted by what is happening around the world.

It says something that the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme this year “for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”

In the past year, COVID-19 has, obviously, dominated the agenda. However, its emergence did not put an end to the other humanitarian crises we face in Venezuela or Yemen, did not put an end to the suffering of the Rohingya and did not make Ebola disappear. Over the past decade, we have seen the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance climb from 69 million to over 250 million today. All these issues and all the people affected by these crises already needed our help, and COVID-19 only served to compound the challenges they face and make the lives of these millions of vulnerable people even more difficult. It has only increased the strain on a global humanitarian system.

In the citation for the World Food Programme, the Norwegian Nobel Committee also wrote that “the need for international solidarity and multilateral cooperation is more conspicuous than ever.” I could not agree more, though I realize there are some who disagree, who see this year as a clear indication that Canada should back away from its multilateral commitments and take a more muscular, self-interested approach to the world.

As minister of international development, I profoundly disagree with both this approach and the claim that Canada will be better off if we go it alone. Where I think we need to be more clear is in why we believe that multilateralism is the right approach. It is not an end in and of itself. Multilateralism for the sake of multilateralism is not the objective. It is how we use that system to shape a world that is better able to confront the collective challenges we, as Canadians but also as world citizens, all face.

In the years after the Second World War, the framers of the current international order grappled with how to prevent the world from having to face the same horrors they had just overcome—twice. To that end they built a system that constrained the ambitions of the great powers, that enshrined the sanctity of state sovereignty and that fostered economic linkages that would make war unfeasible. The current system has, for example, ushered in an era of peace between large powers not seen since the Congress of Vienna; it has delivered a network of economic relationships that have driven poverty down across the world, and it built a foundation for better health outcomes for people everywhere. What is more, Canada has been a prime beneficiary of this system. However, the challenges we face today are different. Whereas their goal was fundamentally preventative, our goal must be proactive.

We must continually seek to renew and strengthen the current rules-based system and to reform specific multilateral institutions so that they can address the challenges of today and tomorrow. Important elements of the current system are under strain and often too slow in addressing intra-state and collective action problems on a global scale. We are seeing more intra-state conflicts and more people displaced than ever before. We are seeing the rules that govern the treatment of those people come under a sustained attack and a growing number of states deciding the rules no longer apply. We are seeing attempts to roll back progress that has been made on gender equality and women’s rights and seeing environmental degradation and climate change become epoch-defining threats to our collective existence.

In the face of these and other challenges, it is all too tempting to throw up our hands and say sauve qui peut [save yourself if you can], to ask, “What is the point of pursuing Pearsonian diplomacy?” Yet it is precisely now that we should be reminding ourselves of what Pearsonian diplomacy is all about. For Pearson, national self-interest and internationalism were 2 sides of the same coin. Because a world that is more peaceful, more prosperous, and more sustainable is ultimately one that is better for Canada. He would often ask that when we ask ourselves, “What kind of Canada do we want?” we also ask ourselves, “What kind of world do we want?”

In our response to COVID-19, we have the answer. In trying to respond to a collective action problem, over 180 countries have come together to ensure that we prioritize vaccinations amongst the world’s most vulnerable through the ACT [Access to COVID-19 Tools]-Accelerator and its COVAX [COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access] Facility. Likewise, Canadian efforts to encourage multilateral solutions to the economic recovery are necessary to support developing countries struggling with the implications of the pandemic. Neither effort is perfect, but they are better than going it alone, because the alternative is a much riskier, much more dangerous, much bleaker and much lonelier road to travel.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to speak with Mary Robinson. And in reflecting on the lessons COVID-19 can teach us, she summed up what I believe we must take away from this experience: that governance matters, that science matters, that compassion matters, that collective action matters and that when individuals change their behaviour they can shape outcomes for a coordinated effect. This has been true across the world, as we have seen how different countries have been able to manage—or not—the COVID-19 outbreak within their borders.

It is this concept of working for the people of the world that is capturing my imagination right now. The challenges we face today are collective threats to humanity: climate change, health, inequality. If nothing else, COVID-19 has shown that no matter how much we may try to insulate ourselves from the world, we are intimately and intricately connected. To meet these collective challenges, I believe we are going to require coordinated multilateral action.

It is against this backdrop that I want to share with you my priorities for Canada’s international development over the next decade, as we drive toward advancing the Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]. I truly believe that we have a real opportunity to reshape the international order to better address issues demanding collective action for the benefit of Canadians and the world’s most vulnerable people.

First, we will remain committed to our feminist approach. While this isn’t new, it is fundamental, and as I’ve discovered in many of the conversations I’ve had over the past 9 months, it is apparently revolutionary to stay the course. So perhaps I can explain why I think doggedly pursuing the full implementation of the Feminist International Assistance Policy is so significant.

At the most basic level, the Feminist International Assistance Policy is significant because it changes the way Canada makes decisions about its international development assistance. It places the issue of gender equality at the centre of Canada’s thinking by committing 15% of our development assistance to projects that are focused on advancing equality. By doing this, we are changing the systems that discriminate against half the population, and it is by changing these entrenched structures that we will achieve greater peace, security and prosperity.

However, it isn’t just about gender equality. Yes, that’s an important part, but it goes beyond that. Our feminist approach means that we must identify, address and transform power dynamics. It means taking an intersectional, human rights-based approach. It means concerted and intentional anti-racist action in our programming and processes. It means seeking out the most vulnerable and most marginalized and supporting their voices.

Second, we will carry forward Canada’s long-standing commitment to, and leadership in, global health and continue to build and support an architecture that delivers for everyone. This means driving our achievements all the way to that last mile.

In the context of COVID-19, this means addressing the pandemic as directly as possible by ensuring that there is equitable access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. That is why Canada is playing a leadership role in the ACT-Accelerator and the COVAX Facility. We have contributed $120 million to the ACT-Accelerator and $440 million to COVAX, the latter split equally between its self-financing mechanism and its advanced market commitment.

And it’s worth noting that the COVAX Facility now represents the largest multilateral collaboration since the Paris Climate Accord. There are 186 participants, representing over 85% of the global population and including 94 self-financing participants. This is an example of not only how multilateralism can work but why it matters in the face of global challenges like a pandemic.

However, despite the accomplishment that the mere establishment of these mechanisms represents, we remain at a critical juncture in the area of global health, as systems around the world are under incredible and growing pressure and the weaknesses in existing systems are being revealed. We can clearly see, as a result of COVID-19, the terrible effects not having access to health care can have, so we need to commit ourselves to working toward achieving universal access. We can already see the devastating impacts of the numerous life-saving interventions that have been halted or delayed because of COVID-19. Immunization campaigns, nutrition interventions and community approaches to health care have been tested and refined in recent decades and save millions of lives. It is unconscionable to think that we are losing ground across so many fronts, especially as we enter the UN Decade of Delivery for the SDGs.

As I said earlier, the fundamental challenge of COVID-19 in the developing world is that it is compounding and exacerbating almost every single other health challenge, often in sharply different ways. Additionally, over the course of this pandemic, we have seen just how closely health care and human rights are interconnected. We have seen how some have chosen to exploit this moment to roll back essential health care services in the name of COVID-19 management. Lockdowns may be containing the spread, yet they are also leading to disturbing spikes in sexual and gender-based violence, as well as in violence against and exploitation of children and youth. This is why I have also paid particular attention to continuity of education and working with partner countries to safely reopen schools when it is possible. Schools often represent safe places for girls and boys. We know how vital education is to their current and future well-being.

Additionally, millions of women and girls around the world are now facing acute challenges to their sexual and reproductive health and rights. This is compounded by medical supply chains being redirected in support of personal protective equipment and testing but often at the cost of other essential services and supplies, such as family planning, access to contraception and access to safe and legal abortion, as well as to post-abortion care. As we move forward, we must continue to work toward truly integrating sexual and reproductive health and rights, including in emergencies, into health systems around the world.

Driving our results forward also means shining a spotlight on those SDGs that have not received the same kind of attention that others have. SDG2 is an example of this. We know that, as a result of the pandemic, the number of food-insecure people (690 million people in 2020) may rise by as much as 130 million by the end of 2020. According to the World Food Programme, if current trends continue, the number of hungry people will reach 840 million by 2030. Malnutrition will likely also exacerbate the COVID-19 impacts on mothers and children. We have seen how fragile food systems and supply chains truly are and the devastating effects that can have. We will do more to help end chronic malnutrition.

Third, we will do our part to tackle climate change. Though COVID-19 has rocked the world, its effects—while undeniably terrible—pale in comparison to the existential threat climate change represents, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable, who we know will feel its effects most acutely. I would remind us all that these are also the people who have contributed the least to the problem. This must offend our most basic sense of fairness.

Our goal is nothing less than to build a world that is nature-positive and carbon-neutral. This means we are going to drive more resources to least-developed countries and diversify our implementing partners. It means we are going to integrate climate, nature and biodiversity thinking into our work and ensure that our programming takes an intersectional, feminist approach to fighting climate change.

In part, this means doing more to help those who are already being affected by climate change. For instance, we know that changing weather patterns are placing increased strain on an already stressed food system in the form of less productive land, crops that are no longer suited to the conditions and an increased burden on those who are responsible for food production. In sub-Saharan Africa, 70% of the smallholder farmers who support the food system are women. For them, climate change isn’t an impending tidal wave. For them, it has already swept up the beach.

We also know that as humanity encroaches on the natural world at an alarming rate, we are putting both our lives and our livelihoods at greater risk. Zoonotic diseases, like COVID-19, are thought to be related to our continuous expansion into wild spaces. We need to make serious, sustained investments in sustainable agriculture, in conservation, in disaster risk mitigation measures and, of course, in clean energy.

And we have started to make those investments. In 2016, Canada committed $2.65 billion to reducing greenhouse gases internationally. And we are already starting to see returns on these investments. To date, we estimate that Canada’s investments are expected to result in 176 megatons in greenhouse gas reductions. What is more, our projects are making a difference on the ground. For instance, earlier this year the Government of Canada partnered with the Caribbean Development Bank to establish the Canada-CARICOM Climate Adaptation Fund, which will help promote resilience in the region by helping to pay the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility insurance premiums for 9 countries in the region. In the current context, this will help free up fiscal space to help finance their response to COVID-19 but will also help make sure they are able to rebuild after the next catastrophic hurricane season.

Building on the conversations I’ve had with stakeholders here in Canada and around the world, we have learned important lessons from this first wave of programming. We know that women and farmers are on the front line of the battle to fight climate change. Ensuring our programming responds to their needs, both in terms of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and in terms of adapting to the realities of a changing climate, will be a guiding principle as we move forward. Additionally, we recognize the important role that nature plays in absorbing carbon, and I am excited about incorporating nature-based solutions into our future work. Working with local communities, Indigenous people and women’s activists will help ensure that we build lasting solutions to the climate crisis.

While the world is rightly concerned with the impact of the pandemic on development gains, the impact that climate change will have is even more worrisome. We will work in partnership with and led by local communities to ensure that they not only benefit from our climate investments but also are key agents in the solution.

Fourth, to achieve this, we also need to focus our efforts on shoring up democratic governance. It is becoming clear that there is a direct relationship between citizens’ trust in their governing institutions and their willingness to follow those institutions’ advice peacefully. Furthermore, transparency and accountability in the provision of health data are paramount for national governments and the world community to effectively respond to the current pandemic. We must remain steadfast in our commitment to upholding human rights; it is in times of crisis that civil liberties, freedom of expression and a free press are most important.

We know how much functioning public institutions matter to sustainable development. Canada has a lot to offer the world when it comes to cooperation on governance—on the rule of law, on tax administration and wealth redistribution and on a professional and competent public service. This is maybe not 1 of the sexier topics in international development, but it is certainly 1 of the most important. Often, governance work can have 1 of the most meaningful impacts in fostering a governance environment that creates the conditions for rights, democratic participation, economic growth and sustainable practices to flourish. Effective governance is also necessary for developing countries to attract private capital investment, which is important for enabling inclusive and sustainable economic growth.

Now, listening to this, I realize it seems ambitious: health, nutrition, climate and the environment, food security, gender equality and governance. It’s definitely a lot. But what we know is, you can’t do any of these things in isolation. They are all intimately connected, so to try to address 1 without addressing the others won’t lead to success.

When I think back to Mary Robinson’s lessons from our response to COVID-19—governance matters, compassion matters, science matters and collective action matters—I reflect on how well each of those insights applies to each of the areas I mention above. It gives me tremendous hope for the future because it also says to me that we know what we need to do. And knowing is half the battle. Now we have to act and respond. Certainly, Canada cannot achieve this all on our own. But we can build coalitions, and we can work with existing and new partners, allies and friends the world over, through our multilateral institutions and outside them, to keep advancing our shared priorities, because our collective health, security, prosperity and, quite frankly, survival depend on it.

Now, I know it can be uncomfortable within the development community to suggest that development is part of our foreign policy. Canadian foreign policy is focused on creating opportunities for Canada and Canadians to shape the world we want to live in, our development work is doing this in action. And the Feminist International Assistance Policy, grounded in feminism—grounded in inclusivity, grounded in human rights and sustainability—is an incredible achievement in building a better, more compassionate and resilient world.

I think, more than anything, right now—with the twin crises of COVID-19 and climate, which in many places are worsened by conflict—we all need a little hope. And the objectives and priorities we seek to advance in the world should come from the basic premise that a better world is possible. It is not naively idealistic to pursue an agenda that tries to make life healthier and more just, equitable and sustainable for people around the globe. It is grounded in the realities and the constraints we face as actors in the global system. But just because the world is a harsh place, doesn’t mean we should abandon the pursuit of trying to make it a little better. That’s why multilateralism is still relevant today. It is why Pearsonian diplomacy is still relevant today. And certainly, that is what Canada’s international assistance is all about.

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Author: Editor
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