Category Archives: canadian foreign policy

The End of the American World: Without Vision there can be no Leadership

America is leaving the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. This is, by scientific consensus, a terrible outcome for the planet. But it is also a disaster for American foreign policy and its role as a global leader.

With this decision I’m left scratching my head. What does America stand for? What does it want the world to look like? I can no longer tell you.

Here, quick test: Name an issue the US Government is taking a leadership position on in the world.

I can think of three. All of which are reactionary, none of which represent of a vision of where we should go. What is easier to tell you is what the US Government — and by this I don’t just mean the president, but also a large number of congresspeople and possible senators—no longer believe is important.

American Priorities.png

US Foreign Policy Priorities

Some of these items — women’s rights and climate change for example — have been contentious domestically for some time. But others formed the bedrock of the American vision for the world. Yes, there are lots of examples of American hypocrisy in its foreign policy (this is true of all countries) but trade, the western alliance (grounded in NATO), human rights and democracy served as general foundations for bringing together key stakeholders around the world in a shared vision of what the world should look like.

That is now all in tatters.

What does America believe in? What is the shared vision around which it will rally allies and unaligned countries? Beats me. Fighting terrorism is important, but it isn’t an organizing principle upon which to build a vision of the future.

China is willing to marshal economic and political capital to fight climate change which it is also leveraging to engage India and others. Its One Belt, One Road infrastructure plan is a vision for re-organizing global trade. Its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank offers an alternative to the World Bank(which it is unclear the current administration even cares about) as a way to fund development and growth.

There is a lot about China’s vision for the world that is unclear and frankly, I’m not comfortable with. It is not hard to imagine a mercantilists’ world where human rights are non-existent. But it at least conveys a vision of shared prosperity, and it has a vision that tries to tackle global shared problems like climate change that require leadership.

And this rot in US leadership is not about Trump. What is clear is that Congresspeople and Senators appear happy to trade American leadership and vision for domestic wins such as repealing the Affordable Care Act and rolling back taxes. When Chancellor Merkel of Germany says the United States can no longer be relied upon, she wasn’t just talking about the president.

It’s the end of the American century, not because America lacks the capacity to lead, but because, at best, it has no identifiable vision for where it wants to take the world. At worst, I’m left inferring its vision is a planet my kids won’t be able to live on and a trade system unconnected to rules but linked to market size and where America must also “win.”

This isn’t to say the alternatives are much better, but those looking for vision and leadership need to hope America wakes from its sleep walk, get very creative in finding partners, or start picking between relatively unpalatable options.

But hoping others change has not been a sound basis for foreign policy in the past, and so I doubt the world will wait long.

Canada’s Opaque Transparency – An Open Data Failure

Yesterday, at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s (PDAC) Canada Minister of Natural Resource, Joe Oliver, announced with great fanfare a new initiative to compel mining companies to disclose payments of over $100,000’s to foreign and domestic governments.

On the surface this looks like a win for transparency, particularly for a sector that is of great importance to Canada: mining.

And this issue matters since not only do extractive industries represent an important part of Canada’s economy, but the sector has been dogged with controversy. Indeed the Toronto Star just uncovered today a report commissioned (and buried) by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) that showed Canadian mining companies have the worst record when it comes to environmental standard and human rights.

Forcing mining companies to account for their payments to foreign and domestic governments won’t solve every problem, but it can help curb corruption. Indeed the issue was seen as so important that at the last G8 summit, the leaders agreed that companies should be compelled to disclose these payments.

Happily, there is a legitimate global movement to make government payments by extractive industry companies more transparent. It is called the Extractive Industries Transparency Iniative (EITI). It has set a series of standards for disclosing such payments so that they are easier to track across borders. In fact EITI is seen as so important it is actually the only organization mentioned by name in the last G8 summit communique. This is the same EITI program about which last year the Minister’s press secretary boasted:

Since 2007 Canada has also been a supporting country of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and is now the second largest financial donor to the initiative, providing $12.65 million to the World Bank’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative Multi-donor Trust Fund…

Which brings us to Minister Oliver’s important announcement.

Did the government announce that it was joining 42 other countries, including its G8 partners the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy to join the standard it has been a major funder of?

No. It did not.

Apparently EITI is good enough to fund so that others can implement it. When it comes to actually doing what is effective… the government balked. Canada, apparently, is going to adhere to its own “unique” approach.

And it gets worse.

Read the Minister’s statement more closely, particularly this line:

“We want to make it as easy as possible, so we will not create a central database. Instead, we would require that reports be posted to company websites, with the government and public notified.”

So unlike EITI, which offers a centralized repository where records can quickly be downloaded and compared, Canada’s “compliance” will involve each company to maintain their own records “somewhere” and will require anyone interested if actually figuring out what is going on to go and track down each one individually.

We call this secrecy by obscurity. It makes a mockery of the notion of transparency.

We have a global infrastructure designed to make disclosure cheap, easy and effective. Infrastructure our own government has poured $12.7M into it. And we turn around and ignore it all.

Canada claims it wants to be a leader in open data. But if it can’t even get something basic like this right… such claims sounds increasingly silly here at home, among our G8 partners and, well, among the rest of the world.

Addendum: It gets worse still. Few people have noticed yet, but Canada recently (and quietly) stopped reporting the names of corporate directors in the public database of the country’s firms. This is a major step backwards and makes those who benefit from one of the most important benefits society can confer – limited liability – invisible to the public who confers that right. This is a major step backwards. Read this wonderful Economist article on why. More on this to come.

Open Government Consultation, Twitter Townhalls & Doing Advocacy Wrong

Earlier this week the Canadian Federal Government launched its consultation process on Open Government. This is an opportunity for citizens to comment and make suggestions around what data the federal government should make open and what information it should share, and provide feedback on how it can consult more effectively with Canadians. The survey (which, handily, can be saved midway through completion) contains a few straightforward multiple choice questions and about eight open ended questions which I’ve appended to the end of this post so that readers can reflect upon them before starting to fill out the form.

In addition to the online consultations, Tony Clement – the Minister responsible for the Open Government file – will host a Twitter townhall on Open Government this Thursday (December 15). Note! The townhall will be hosted by the treasury board twitter account @TBS_Canada (English) and @SCT_Canada (French) not Minister Clement’s personal (and better known) twitter account. The townhall will first take place in French from 4-4:45pm EST using the hashtags #parlonsgouvert and then in English from 5-5:45 EST using the hashtag #opengovchat.

Some of you may have also noticed that Democracy Watch issued a strongly worded press release last week with the (somewhat long) headline “Federal Conservatives break all of their international Open Government Partnership commitments by failing to consult with Canadians about their draft action plan before meeting in Brazil this week.” This seems to have prompted the CBC to write this article.

Now, to be clear, I’m a strong advocate for Open Government, and there are plenty of things for which one could be critical about this government for not being open about. However, to be credible – especially around issues of transparency and disclosure – one must be factual. And Democracy Watch did more than just stretch the truth. The simple fact is, that while I too wish the government’s consultations had happened sooner, this does not mean it has broken all of its Open Government Partnership commitments. Indeed, it hasn’t broken any of its commitments. A careful read of the Open Government Partnership requirements would reveal that the recent December meeting was to share drafts plans (including the plans by which to consult). The deadline that Democracy Watch is screaming about does not occur until March of 2012.

It would have been fair to say the government has been slow in fulfilling its commitments, but to say it has broken any of them is flatly not true. Indeed the charge feels particularly odd given that in the past two weeks the government signed on greater aid transparency via IATI and released an additional 4000 data sets, including virtually all of StatsCan’s data, giving Canadian citizens, non profits, other levels of governments and companies access to important data sets relevant for social, economic and academic purposes.

Again, there are plenty of things one could talk about when it comes to transparency and the government.  Yes, the consultation could have gotten off the ground faster. And yes, there is much more to done. But this screaming headline is somewhat off base. Publishing it damages both the credibility of the organization making the charge, and risk hurting the credible of open government advocates in general.

 

List of Open Ended Questions in the Open Government Consultation.

1. What could be done to make it easier for you to find and use government data provided online?

2. What types of open data sets would be of interest to you? Please pick up to three categories below and specify what data would be of interest to you.

3. How would you use or manipulate this data?

4. What could be done to make it easier for you to find government information online?

7. Do you have suggestions on how the Government of Canada could improve how it consults with Canadians?

8. Are there approaches used by other governments that you believe the Government of Canada could/should model?

9. Are there any other comments or suggestions you would like to make pertaining to the Government of Canada’s Open Government initiative?

 

Canada’s Foreign Aid Agency signs on to IATI: Aid Data get more transparent

Last night, while speaking at the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan Korea, Minister of International Cooperation Bev Oda announced that Canada would be signing on to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).

So what is IATI and why does this matter?

IATI has developed a common, open and international standard for sharing foreign aid data. By signing on to IATI Canada is agreeing to publish all the data about its projects and who it funds in a form and structure that makes it easy to compare with others who use the IATI standard. This should make it easier to understand where Canadian aid money ends up, in turn allowing analysts to spot efficiencies as well as compare funding and efforts across donor and recipient countries as well as other stakeholders. In short, aid data should become easier to understand, to compare, and to use.

In the medium term it should also make the data available on CIDA’s open data portal (already helpful to non-profits, development groups and students) even more useful.

This is an enormous win for the good people at Engineers Without Borders, as well as the team at Publish What You Fund. Both groups have been working hard for over a year talking Canadian politicians and public servants through the ins and outs – as well as the benefits – of signing onto IATI. I’ve been working with both groups as well, pushing IATI when meeting with Federal Ministers (I recommended we make it part of our Open Government Partnership goals) as well as writing supportive op-eds in newspapers, so needless to say I’m excited about this development.

This really is good news. As governments become increasingly aware of the power data can have in facilitating cooperation and coordination as well as in improving effectiveness and efficiency, it will be critical to push standards around structuring and sharing data so that such coordination can happen easily across and between jurisdictions. IATI is a great example of such an effort and I hope there are more of these, with Canada taking an early lead, in the months and years ahead.

 

 

Weaving Foreign Ministries into the Digital Era: Three ideas

Last week I was in Ottawa giving a talk at the Department of Foreign Affairs talking about how technology, new media and open innovation will impact the department’s it work internally, across Ottawa and around the world.

While there is lots to share, here are three ideas I’ve been stewing on:

Keep more citizens safe when abroad – better danger zone notification

Some people believe that open data isn’t relevant to departments like Foreign Affairs or the State Department. Nothing could be further than the truth.

One challenge the department has is getting Canadians to register with them when they visit or live in a country labeled by the department as problematic for traveling in its travel reports (sample here). As you can suspect, few Canadians register with the embassy as they are likely not aware of the program or travel a lot and simply don’t get around to  it.

There are other ways of tackling this problem that might yield broader participation.

Why not turn the Travel Report system into an open data with an API? I’d tackle this by approaching a company like TripIt. Every time I book an airplane ticket or a hotel I simply forward TripIt the reservation, which they scan and turn into events that then automatically appear my calendar. Since they scan my travel plans they also know which country, city and hotel I’m staying in… they also know where I live and could easily ask me for my citizenship. Working with companies like TripIt (or Travelocity, Expedia, etc…) DFAIT could co-design an API into the departments travel report data that would be useful to them. Specifically, I could imagine that if TripIt could query all my trips against those reports then any time they notice I’m traveling somewhere the Foreign Ministry has labelled “exercise a high-degree of caution” or worse trip TripIt could ask me if I’d be willing to let them forward my itinerary to the department. That way I could registry my travel automatically, making the service more convenient for me, and getting the department more information that it believes to be critical as well.

Of course, it might be wise to work with the State Department so that their travel advisories used a similarly structured API (since I can assume TripIt will be more interested in the larger US market than the Canadian market) But facilitating that conversation would be nothing but wins for the department.

More bang for buck in election monitoring

One question that arose during my talk came from an official interested in elections monitoring. In my mind, one thing the department should be considering is a fund to help local democracy groups spin up installations of Ushahidi in countries with fragile democracies that are gearing up for elections. For those unfamiliar with Ushahidi it is a platform developed after the disputed 2007 presidential election in Kenya that plotted eyewitness reports of violence sent in by email and text-message on a google map.

Today it is used to track a number of issues – but problems with elections remain one of its core purposes. The department should think about grants that would help spin up a Ushahidi install to enable citizens of the country register concerns and allegations around fraud, violence, intimidation, etc… It could then verify and inspect issues that are flagged by the countries citizens. This would allow the department to deploy its resources more effectively and ensure that its work was speaking to concerns raised by citizens.

A Developer version of DART?

One of the most popular programs the Canadian government has around international issues is the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART). In particular, Canadians have often been big fans of DART’s work in purifying water after the boxing day tsunami in Asia as well as its work in Haiti. Maybe the department could have a digital DART team, a group of developers that, in an emergency could help spin up Ushahidi, Fixmystreet, or OpenMRS installations to provide some quick but critical shared infrastructure for Canadians, other countries’ response teams and for non-profits. During periods of non-crisis the team could work on these projects or supporting groups like CrisisCommons or OpenStreetMaps, helping contribute to open source projects that can be instrumental in a humanitarian crisis.

 

The Geopolitics of the Open Government Partnership: the beginning of Open vs. Closed

Aside from one or two notable exceptions, there hasn’t been a ton of press about the Open Government Partnership (OGP). This is hardly surprising. The press likes to talk about corruption and bad government, people getting together to talk about actually address these things in far less sexy.

But even where good coverage exists analysts and journalists are, I think, misunderstanding the nature of the partnership and its broader implications should it take hold. Presently it is generally seen as a do good project, one that will help fight corruption and hopefully lead to some better governance (both of which I hope will be true). However, the Open Government Partnership isn’t just about doing good, it has real strategic and geopolitical purposes.

In fact, the OGP is, in part, about a 21st century containment strategy.

For those unfamiliar with 20th century containment, a brief refresher. Containment refers to a strategy outlined by a US diplomat – George Kennan – who while posted in Moscow wrote the famous The Long Telegram in which he outlined the need for a more aggressive policy to deal with an expansionist post-WWII Soviet Union. He argued that such a policy would need to seek to isolate the USSR politically and strategically, in part by positioning the United States as a example in the world that other countries would want to work with. While discussions of “containment” often focus on its military aspects and the eventual arms race, it was equally influential in prompting the ideological battle between the USA and USSR as they sought to demonstrate whose “system” was superior.

So I repeat. The OGP is part of a 21st century containment policy. And I’d go further, it is a effort to forge a new axis around which America specifically, and a broader democratic camp more generally, may seek to organize allies and rally its camp. It abandons the now outdated free-market/democratic vs. state-controlled/communist axis in favour of a more subtle, but more appropriate, open vs. closed.

The former axis makes little sense in a world where authoritarian governments often embrace (quasi) free-market to reign, and even have some of the basic the trappings of a democracy. The Open Government Partnership is part of an effort to redefine and shift the goal posts around what makes for a free-market democracy. Elections and a market place clearly no longer suffice and the OGP essentially sets a new bar in which a state must (in theory) allow itself to be transparent enough to provide its citizens with information (and thus power), in short: it is a state can’t simple have some of the trappings of a democracy, it must be democratic and open.

But that also leaves the larger question. Who is being contained? To find out that answer take a look at the list of OGP participants. And then consider who isn’t, and likely never could be, invited to the party.

OGP members Notably Absent
Albania
Azerbaijan
Brazil
Bulgaria
Canada
Chile
Colombia
Croatia
Czech Republic
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Estonia
Georgia
Ghana
Guatemala
Honduras
Indonesia
Israel
Italy
Jordon
Kenya
Korea
Latvia
Liberia
Lithuania
Macedonia
Malta
Mexico
Moldova
Mongolia
Montenegro
Netherlands
Norway
Peru
Philippines
Romania
Slovak Republic
South Africa
Spain
Sweden
Tanzania
Turkey
Ukraine
United Kingdom
United States
Uruguay
ChinaIran

Russia

Saudi Arabia

(Indeed much of the middle East)

Pakistan

*India is not part of the OGP but was involved in much of initial work and while it has withdrawn (for domestic political reasons) I suspect it will stay involved tangentially.

So first, what you have here is a group of countries that are broadly democratic. Indeed, if you were going to have a democratic caucus in the United Nations, it might look something like this (there are some players in that list that are struggling, but for them the OGP is another opportunity to consolidate and reinforce the gains they’ve made as well as push for new ones).

In this regards, the OGP should be seen as an effort by the United States and some allies to find some common ground as well as a philosophical touch point that not only separates them from rivals, but that makes their camp more attractive to deal with. It’s no trivial coincidence that on the day of the OGP launch the President announced the United States first fulfilled commitment would be its decision to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The EITI commits the American oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments made to foreign governments, which would make corruption much more difficult.

This is America essentially signalling to African people and their leaders – do business with us, and we will help prevent corruption in your country. We will let you know if officials get paid off by our corporations. The obvious counter point to this is… the Chinese won’t.

It’s also why Brazil is a co-chair, and the idea was prompted during a meeting with India. This is an effort to bring the most important BRIC countries into the fold.

But even outside the BRICs, the second thing you’ll notice about the list is the number of Latin American, and in particular African countries included. Between the OGP, the fact that the UK is making government transparency a criteria for its foreign aid, and that World Bank is increasingly moving in the same direction, the forces for “open” are laying out one path for development and aid in Africa. One that rewards governance and – ideally – creates opportunities for African citizens. Again, the obvious counter point is… the Chinese won’t.

It may sounds hard to believe but the OGP is much more than a simple pact designed to make heads of state look good. I believe it has real geopolitical aims and may be the first overt, ideological salvo in the what I believe will be the geopolitical axis of Open versus Closed. This is about finding ways to compete for the hearts and minds of the world in a way that China, Russia, Iran and others simple cannot. And, while I agree we can debate the “openness” of the various the signing countries, I like the idea of world in which states compete to be more open. We could do worse.

Lots of Open Data Action in Canada

A lot of movement on the open data (and not so open data) front in Canada.

Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) Open Data Portal Launched

IATI-imagesSome readers may remember that last week I wrote a post about the imminent launch of CIDA’s open data portal. The site is now live and has a healthy amount of data on it. It is a solid start to what I hope will become a robust site. I’m a big believer – and supporter of the excellent advocacy efforts of the good people at Engineers Without Borders – that the open data portal would be greatly enhanced if CIDA started publishing its data in compliance with the emerging international standard of the International Aid Transparency Initiative as these 20 leading countries and organizations have.

If anyone creates anything using this data, I’d love to see it. One simple start might be to try using the Open Knowledge Foundation’s open source Where Does my Money Go code, to visualize some of the spending data. I’d be happy to chat with anyone interested in doing this, you can also check out the email group to find some people experienced in playing with the code base.

Improved License on the CIDA open data portal and data.gc.ca

One thing I’ve noticed with the launch of the CIDA open data portal was how the license was remarkably better than the license at data.gc.ca – which struck me as odd, since I know the feds like to be consistent about these types of things. Turns out that the data.gc.ca license has been updated as well and the two are identical. This is good news as some of the issues that were broken with the previous license have been fixed. But not all. The best license out there remains the license at data.gov (that’s a trick question, because data.gov has no license, it is all public domain! Tricky eh…? Nice!) but if you are going to have a license, the UK Open Government License used by at data.gov.uk is more elegant, freer and satisfies a number of the concerns I cite above and have heard people raise.

So this new data.gc.ca license is a step in the right direction, but still behind the open gov leaders (teaching lawyers new tricks sadly takes a long time, especially in government).

Great site, but not so open data: WellBeing Toronto

Interestingly, the City of Toronto has launched a fabulous new website called Well Being Toronto. It is definitely worth checking out. The main problem of course is that while it is interesting to look at, the underlying data is, sadly, not open. You can’t play with the data, such as mash it up with your own (or another jurisdiction’s) data. This is disappointing as I believe a number of non-profits in Toronto would likely find the underlying data quite helpful/important. I have, however, been told that the underlying data will be made open. It is something I hope to check in on again in a few months as I fear that it may never get prioritized, so it may be up to Torontonians to whold the Mayor and council’s feet to the fire to ensure it gets done.

Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) launches (non-open) data website

It seems the PBO is also getting in on the data action with the launch of a beta site that allows you to “see” budgets from the last few years. I know that the Parliamentary Budget Office has been starved of resources, so they deserve to be congratulated for taking this first, important step. Also interesting is that the data has no license on the website, which could make it the most liberally licensed open data portal in the country. The site does have big downsides. First, the data can only be “looked” at, there is no obvious (simple) way to download it and start playing with it. More oddly still the PBO requires that users register with their email address to view the data. This seems beyond odd and actually, down right creepy, to me. First, parliament’s budget should be free and open and one should not need to hand over an email address to access it. Second, the email addresses collected appear to serve no purpose (unless the PBO intends to start spamming us), other than to tempt bad people to hack their site so they can steal a list of email addresses.