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Ottawa Forum 2016: Implications for International Development

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by Jyotsna Venkatesh

Published: February 29, 2016

On January 28 and January 29, 2016, Canada2020 and the Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS) at the University of Ottawa partnered to host this year’s Ottawa Forum 2016. The event focused on factors that will shape or are already shaping Canada’s foreign policy in light of the current government’s approach to engaging the international community. Although it has been some time since the event, the themes of Canada’s approach to foreign policy discussed are important to review in a global development context.

None of the panel discussions explicitly discussed international development issues, but several common threads of discussion signal the approach the Canadian government, the private sector and other global actors are shifting towards. Below are three important implications for international development from the Ottawa Forum’s discussion on foreign policy:

  1. The role of non-state actors and a networked international community will be more important than ever.

The notion of global governance through a decentralized network of global actors is certainly not new. The policy network model of global governance ties government officials, non-state actors like NGO’s and CSO’s, and the private sector together to put issues on the policy agenda, and ideally work to solve those issues through cooperation and collaboration of resources. Much of the discussion in the first panel on International Institutions in 2016, and the last panel on The Changing Nature of Global Power focused on how the emergence of new institutions, and new state influences in the world are changing the dynamics of global governance.

Members of the first panel recognized this issue and proposed that Canada focus on sustained strategic engagement in navigating through the global policy process.

There was some debate on whether the Bretton Woods institutions are as relevant today as they were in the decades following World War II, and if the diffused power amongst non-state actors is more influential in driving global policy issues. David Petrasek from the University of Ottawa emphasized the importance of the Bretton Woods legacy institutions and their legitimacy through development outcomes that have been achieved so far. More than a dismissal of these club institutions, they should be seen as anchors in global governance, driving attention to certain issues as they need attention.

For Canada, the current government has already signaled its interest in involving stakeholder consultations beyond the public service on a variety of issues, specifically in international development and foreign policy. While involving the larger pubic in these issues makes sense and in many ways is already the way much of international development is organized, the problem that arises with this model of governance is the increased noise and chaos in decision-making on important policy issues that require authoritative action. Members of the first panel recognized this issue and proposed that Canada focus on sustained strategic engagement in navigating through the global policy process. This means that Canada would be better off choosing what it can realistically achieve and show leadership in those areas. On that, members of the first panel leaned towards Canada’s role in the empowerment of women and girls around the world.

  1. Canada’s focus will continue to be aimed towards a commercial relationship with Asia and a re-engagement with NAFTA members

A large portion of the forum was dedicated to Canadian trade and investment relationships, which is not surprising as for the foreseeable future, our trade agenda will be of high priority. Panel two, Getting North American Relationships Right and panel three, Building Blocks for a Canada-Asia Strategy, discussed issues around re-engaging Mexican investment into Canada and showing more leadership in building a successful relationship with China and ASEAN.

Dr. Hampson from CIGI’s Global Security & Politics Program presented a special report drafted for the North American Forum, making a case for why Canada should seek deeper integration with Mexico within the NAFTA framework. One particular issue that arose is the asymmetrical investment relationship between Canada and Mexico. Mexican direct investment has remained fairly stagnant post-NAFTA in stark contrast to the almost exponential growth of direct investment from Canada into Mexico. As Prime Minister Trudeau has motioned for lifting visa requirements at the G20 summit in Turkey last year, a major stumbling block to Canada-Mexican relations has been addressed and will hopefully jumpstart a better relationship between the two countries. From a development perspective, a more integrated relationship with Mexico will position Canada as a more important ally in addressing security issues regarding violence migration in Central America.

With regards to the Canada-Asia relationship, Stewart Beck from the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada presented a special report on four key objectives a Canada-Asia strategy should achieve: position Canada as a relevant and important partner to Asia, ensure that Canada benefits from Asia’s development and growth through improving market access and trade opportunities in competitive sectors, leverage Canada’s strengths to support a secure and sustainable Asia region, and build Canada’s Asia competence by improving Canadians’ related skills and knowledge. As countries across the Asia Pacific grow economically, it is in Canada’s best interest to position itself as an important partner to benefit from that growth and in turn offer Canadian resources for further capacity building in Asia regarding climate change, food and water security and health related challenges.

Canada’s trade strategy with emerging economies is important to diversify its economy and improve the competitiveness of its domestic firms. However, this focus on trade and investment also implies that development strategies in these regions should be in sync with trade relationships that evolve between Canada and developing economies. A trade directed development strategy to compliment business relationships that are already being made will make more sense for countries that growing fast and building economic strength on their own.

A theme that was repeated throughout the conference was Canada’s role as an honest broker, both in the humanitarian sense and as a national strategy in foreign policy.

  1. Canada’s role as an honest broker in humanitarian assistance

A theme that was repeated throughout the conference was Canada’s role as an honest broker, both in the humanitarian sense and as a national strategy in foreign policy. In the fourth panel, Nowhere to Go – Displaced Persons and their Effect on Global Stability, Hon. Antonio Guterres suggested that Canada should embrace the role as an honest broker as the international community scrambles to find solutions to the Syrian refugee crisis. This means that Canada should play a bigger role in addressing the development issues in the Middle East that are triggering large scale migration and conflict. This also means that Canada may be in a better position to engage in peaceful diplomacy and mediate a peace agreement between international actors involved in the Syrian conflict.

The idea of an honest broker goes back to the recommendation of the first panel – that of sustained strategic engagement. Historically, Canada has built an image of the peacekeeper and the harmonizer. Perhaps it makes sense to engage in activities that Canada is already good at and has built capacity to execute.

The themes discussed at the Ottawa Forum this year point to some clear recommendations for Canada’s role on the world stage. It will be important for the current government to be decisive on what international issues Canada gets involved in, engage emerging economies quickly and effectively to grow alongside them, and focus on activities that Canada is already experienced in accomplishing.

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