Sunday, 12 June 2016

Recap of the Halifax International Assistance Review

It's hard to believe it's almost halfway through June. And perhaps it's even harder to believe that I have been neglecting the blogging world for a few weeks.

Not much has been going on aside form adjusting to work life, catching up with friends, and putting the details together for the next year. Being as I didn't think anyone would be interested to hear* about the job that reminds me on a daily basis that a desk job with the Federal government - while it pays nice - is not where I see myself long term. It is, surprisingly, a little more interesting than I'd thought it would be!

Anyway, I now have something exciting to talk about. I got business cards.

Actually, a week or so ago I received an invitation to attend one of six consultative meetings for Global Affairs Canada's** International Assistance Review. This was a pretty big deal, I thought, given that they are attended by invitation only - an invitation I received through my connection to the Atlantic Council for International Cooperation (the organization that sent me to Uganda). This, of course, became even more of a big deal when I was informed it would broadcast live online for anyone interested to see***. Why this made me nervous, I do not know.

Prior to the meeting we were given a copy of the recently published discussion paper for us to review.  The paper includes six thematic areas ranging from health, security, environment and humanitarianism. Then, as part of the RSVP, we were to select two of these areas that we were most interested in discussing. I initially selected Clean economic growth and climate change and Delivering Results in that order, but eventually switched it up. And I was really glad that I did.

But speaking to the discussion paper, I have to say I was disappointed. It's not that I thought it was going to blow my mind with meaningful, thoughtful or impressive knowledge, but I guess I had hoped it would be a little more than a few short (half empty) pages that barely scratched the surface of these complex topics. Now, I know that point of the paper is to spark discussion while giving a basic overview, but its pages weren't the only thing I thought seemed empty...

Back to the actual topic at hand... the Review. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised to find the room not completely occupied by a bunch of middle-aged, white men, as I've witnessed in past events (the WTO conference, for example!). In fact there was an interesting collage of middle-aged white men, youth - both university students or new entrants of the employment world - and everyone in between. It was also attended by several students of the Coady Institute, which gave insight from a wide range of countries outside of Canada and the West. And for that, I'd say it was a pretty solid gathering, although, there could certainly have been a wider range of participants, particularly from the category of we don't care about development!

If you look REALLY closely, you can see my sweater on the left of the audience picture.
Twitter Credit: @CanadaDev
The event had a pretty basic agenda: opening remarks, a few conversation starters from the panelists, followed by an open Q&A and a lengthy table discussion. The first bit was pretty surface level. Some key points were made - especially about the need to place emphasis on small and medium sized organizations, as opposed to the larger multinationals****.

But there were some other facts, as well, that hurt - such as the beautiful argument that was thrown around frequently concerning the welcoming of 25 000 refugees earlier this year and what sparked the theme of my Masters dissertation. You know, the we spend too much money on 'those people' argument. Well, because of the Review, I now have an even better comeback than the 'ol we're all humans rebuttal. In turns out, some European country spends about $60 per person per year on international development. The UK sits at around $18, and the US at $9 something. Where does Canada lie, you ask? Each year, Canada spends a measly $7.79 per person per year on foreign assistance. SO next time you decide to make some snarky, unsubstantiated comment about how we're taking too much money from other important initiatives*****, just think, you're only giving the equivalent of the cost of a meal at McDonalds each year... without the eventual risk of heart disease or weight gain.

Based on the recaps at the end of the event, the table discussions were fairly productive. I sat at the delivering results table, which focused on the how of Global Affairs action plan going forward. While there was some meaningful discussion, it was surface-level, at best. I mean, you can't really get into it when you only have 60 minutes to answer some pretty heavy questions. That being said, we touched on a range of topics, from the discrepancy of aid worker salaries compared to that of locals, the idea of pooling funding to avoid duplication of like projects, and the need for transparency and accountability from both sides (meaning Canada and the host/recipient country).

For me, however, the most important topic that came up, was in regards to the who (and no, I don't mean the famous '60s band!). Our facilitator made note of the infamous US$1.25 a day baseline measure for poverty. The use of this dollar figure (or whatever it is now at) has always bothered me for many reasons (mostly the rationale that money is the basis and only purpose of everything!). It was at this point that I remarked the need to redefine the end goal - is it merely to get the more than 3 billion people living in poverty today to a state of achieving an income greater than US$1.25 a day, but allow them to remain vulnerable, or to achieve something better?!

This has been one of the great debates of the last many decades in the development world, and yet, here we are, 2016, and still trying to decide what the plan is. I remarked that the conversations surrounding this and development as a whole are superficial at best, and never actually tackle the topic at hand - the need to build capacity and to remove the vulnerability, instead of the bandaid approach we continue to default to. This of course received mixed feedback, with one commenter suggesting I was correct, although perhaps a bit crude in my wording. But that was exactly the point - we need to stop sugar coating everything and start making people uncomfortable. Another of my fellow table discussers brought up the idea of needing to start a wave of Canadians seeking change... in the right way. And while I completely agree, I have to think -  how will that ever be accomplished if we're too afraid to upset anyone******?!

These consultations are part of a process that the current Government has been rolling out across many different departments. They are a means for Canadians to have their say in the future direction of our country. Sadly, these are the first consultations that have taken place related to Canada's international development program in 20 years*******!!

But aside from the closed doors, invite-only sessions in Canada and abroad, everyone else willing to give a few minutes of their time can also have their say! All you have to do is head to the International Assistance Review's webpage, and go to the online questionnaire. The questions found here are the same we worked with during the table discussions. You can also participate via electronic and snail mail - you just have to do so before July 31st! So please, just as I urged all of my fellow Canadians to get out and vote, I also encourage you to have your voice heard in any and all of these consultative processes - even if you're not an expert in that field!

Sorry if this all seemed a bit choppy - passion tends to do that to me from time to time, as you may have also come to learn! It was an incredible experience to have been a part of, and I'm really grateful for it.  I will also contribute further through the online questionnaire, as I think this is a unique and important opportunity - even if it doesn't make any significant impact! The ability to share my knowledge and experience, with the potential of influencing a positive path for a country I love and am proud to be from. Okay, now I'm getting sappy... I better end this!

-the Orange Canadian

*If trying to fill in things to update a blog with is this difficult, how do people maintain Twitter accounts? Clearly my life is not that exciting! This is also how I know I'm getting old... I just don't get Twitter. What's the point of it? I digress...
**Formerly CIDA and more recently DFATD. 
***That was until my wonderful brother reminded me that no one would be tuning in - turns out he was wrong!
****Which could arguably be seen as creating a lot of the mess we're in today...
*****In no way am I suggesting that many of those initiatives that have been thrown into the discussion are less important, but neither are they necessarily more so, either.
******This one subject could easily be the topic of an entire series of posts, or a full length paper or book, for that matter (and believe me - there are already plenty available!!). But I would encourage anyone reading this to have a think about that.
*******That means that the last time this sector was looked at in any detail, I was daydreaming about my pending marriage to Brian from the Backstreet Boys! 

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