Tag Archives: canadian foreign policy

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.

 

Today in the Toronto Star: End the silence on aid

Sorry for the cross post – I have this piece today on the opinion page of the Toronto Star. They’ve actually done a nice graphic for it so do encourage you to check it out.

End the silence on aid

For the past two weeks, Canadians have slowly watched the minister of international development, Bev Oda, implode. Caught in a slowly escalating scandal, it’s become clear that the minister misled Parliament — and the public — about how the government chooses whom it funds to do international development work.

The scandal around Oda, however, is a metaphor for a much larger problem in Canada’s foreign aid. The world is dividing itself into donors who hold forth an open model of evidence, accountability and, above all, transparency, and those who cling to a model of patronage, ideology and opacity.

So the question is: Where will Canada land on this debate? So far, the answer is not promising.

Internationally, the Kairos decision suggests Canada is on the wrong side of the divide. Indeed, the gap between CIDA and the world’s leading institutions is growing. Consider a recent report by the U.K.-based international advocacy group Publish What You Fund. Of the 30 institutions assessed in its 2010 report on aid transparency, the Canadian International Development Agency ranked 23rd. Among countries, Canada ranked 15th out of 22 (the Netherlands, U.K. and Ireland held the top three spots).

We are, by any metric, near the bottom of the pack. For a country and a government that prides itself on accountability and transparency, it’s a damning assessment.

What’s all the more frustrating is that transparency isn’t just about accountability. It’s about effectiveness and saving taxpayers’ money — something our major allies have already figured out.

So while Canada’s international development minister fights allegations of making the decision-making process more opaque, a coalition of leading countries is moving forward — without Canada — to do the opposite.

Take, for example, the newly founded International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). A coalition of donor governments, developing countries and NGOs, the IATI has a single goal: to improve aid effectiveness by making information about aid spending easier to access, use and understand.

It’s a deeply pragmatic exercise, one far removed from the partisan politics around aid seen in Canada. In one of its first reports, it outlines how setting up systems to make aid data available would involve a one-time cost of between $50,000 and $500,000, but would save taxpayers in countries like Canada several times that amount every year.

Part of these savings would come just from reducing bureaucracy. Making data publicly available would eliminate the need for civil servants to respond to duplicate information requests from international organizations, other governments and Canadian organizations. Instead, the relevant information could just be downloaded. It’s the kind of efficiency we expect from our government.

It’s also the kind of transparency Canadians are starting to see elsewhere. The World Bank — at one time loathed for its opacity — has made transparency a core value of its operations. It recently launched an open data portal where it shares enormous quantities of information on the global economy and aid projects. It has also promised much more and is slowly rolling out a “mapping for results” website where every project the bank funds and how much money it receives can be viewed on a downloadable map.

Canada sits on the sidelines while others move forward implementing proposals that could — ironically — fund several Kairoses every year.

The costs aren’t borne just by taxpayers, but also by Canadian NGOs. They have to provide the same information, but in different forms, to every government and organization that funds them. This means aid workers spend precious time and money filling out CIDA’s unique forms. Repeat this cost over the hundreds of projects that CIDA funds and the collective waste is enormous.

Perhaps more importantly, making our aid more transparent and accessible would close another gap — our inability to measure our effectiveness. One of the reasons countries like the U.K., Denmark and Sweden have signed up to the International Aid Transparency Initiative is so they can more easily compare the projects they fund with one another. These are countries that are serious about getting bang for their buck — they want to compare the evidence, see which projects work, and which ones fail.

It’s a lesson leading Canadian organizations are taking to heart. Engineers Without Borders, for example, regularly publishes a “failure report” in which it outlines which of its projects didn’t work and why. This honest, open and evidence-based approach to development is exactly what we need to demand of our government. Anything less constitutes a waste of our tax dollars.

And yet, the current debate in Parliament suggests we may be mapping a different route — one of opaque, ideologically driven development that is blind to both effectiveness and accountability. This serves neither Canadians nor donor recipients well.

Regardless of whether Oda resigns, Canadians should not lose sight of the larger issue and opportunity. We are in the midst of a global movement for international development aid transparency.

The benefits are clear, our allies are present, and even five of our focus recipient countries have signed up. And yet, Canada is nowhere to be found.

On Policy Alpha geeks, network thinking and foreign policy

In the past few weeks the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) and the Canadian International Council (CIC) both launched new visions for Canada’s foreign policy. Reading each, I’m struck by how much overlap both documents have with Middle to Model Power, the Canada25 report written 5 years ago by over 500 young Canadians from across the country and around the world.

With Middle to Model Power, a group of young people largely self-organized to lay out a vision and selection of ideas around how Canada could rethink its foreign policy. Take a look at this selection from its executive summary, including an overview and the first recommendation:

We submit that Canada should cease assessing its influence on the basis of its size or position within an obsolete global hierarchy. Instead, Canada25 calls on Canadians to look at the world as a network, where influence is based on the capacity of an individual, company, non-governmental organization (NGO) or country to innovate and collaborate. Building on this perspective, we propose that Canada become a Model Power—a country whose influence is linked to its ability to innovate, experiment, and partner; a country that, by presenting itself as a model, invites the world to assess, challenge, borrow from, and contribute to, its efforts.
In pursuit of our vision of Canada as a Model Power, we outline three priorities for action. These, accompanied by some of our recommendations, include:

MAKE CANADA A NETWORK NODE. Enhance the ability of Canadians to create, nurture, and tap into international networks:
• Issue five-year work visas to foreign graduates of Canadian universities • Reach out to Canada’s expatriate community by creating an international network of
Canadian leaders…

You can download the full report here, but you get the idea. Remember this is a group of 23-35 year-olds writing in 2005.

Now, quickly compare this to the summary’s of both the LPC and CIC’s new reports.

The LPC report, called a Global Networks Strategy opens by stating:

Networks define how the world works today, as hierarchies did in the past. Influence is gained through connectedness, and by being at the centre of networks. That is good news for Canada, because we have a reputation for being able to work with others, we have shaped many multilateral organizations, and our population today reflects the diversity of the world. The Global Networks Strategy is designed to leverage these assets. It sets priority areas in which the federal government must collaborate with the full range of players who contribute vigorously – and most often in networks – to Canada’s presence in the world: other governments, non-governmental organizations, the private sector, young Canadians, academia, faith- based groups, artists and others.

And in the CIC report, titled Open Canada: A Global Positioning Strategy for a Networked World, has as one of its opening paragraphs:

Canada will never be the most powerful nation on Earth. But we live in a digital age, where might is measured in knowledge rather than muscularity. If we keep building on our openness—attracting the best and the brightest citizens, generating and exchanging new ideas and new ways of doing things and welcoming investment in our economy—Canada can position itself at the centre of the networked world that is emerging in the 21st century.

And, unsurprisingly, the deeper details of the reports offer many similar prescriptions.

So how, on a shoestring budget, can a group of young Canadians many of whom were not foreign policy experts, write a report that identifies an organizing principle that 5 years both a major political party and one of the country’s newest and best funded think tanks would put at the hearts of their own reports?

A few ideas come to mind:

1) The Medium is the Message: Middle to Model Power was not written on a wiki (in 2005 none of us knew what a wiki was!) but it was written over email. The authors were scattered across the country and the process of organizing local events was relatively decentralized. People raised whatever topics that mattered to them, and during the drafting phase they simple sent me their ideas and we batted them around. There was structure, but were were a pretty flat organization and… we were very connected. For Canada25 a network wasn’t just an idea that emerged out of the process, it was the process. It should hardly be surprising that the way we saw the world reflected how we organized ourselves. (When I say that Canada’s digital economy strategy will fail unless written on GCPEDIA this is part of what I’m hinting at). The medium is the message. It’s hard (but not impossible) to write about networks deep in hierarchy.

2) Look for Policy Alpha Geeks in resource poor environments: So why did Canada25 think in terms of networks? How was it that before Wikinomics or GPS or pretty much most other things I’ve seen, did Canada25 organize itself this way?  Well, it wasn’t because we were strategic or young. It was because we had very little money. We couldn’t afford to organize any other way. To get 500 Canadians around the world to think about foreign policy we had to let them self-organize – we didn’t have an org structure or facilitators to do it for them. We had to take the cheapest tools (email) and over use them. Don’t get me wrong, Canada25 was not poor. Our members were generally very well educated, we had access to computers and the internet and access to interesting people to interview and draw ideas from. But the raw infrastructure we had at our disposal was not significant and it forced us to adopt what I now see were disruptive technologies and processes. We became Policy Alpha Geeks because we had to innovate not to be relevant, but to ensure the project survived.

3) It’s not about the youth: People presume that our thinking emerged because we were young. This is not entirely correct. Again, I submit that we got to thinking about networks because we were operating in a resource weak environment and had exposure to new tools (email) and a risk tolerance to try using them in an ambitious way. This isn’t about age, it just happens that generally it is young people who don’t have lots of resources and are willing to experiment with new tools. Older people, who frequently have more senior titles, generally have access to more resources and so can rely on more established, but more resource intensive tools and processes. But again, this is about mindset, not about age. Indeed, it is really about the innovators’ dilemma in policy making. Don’t believe me? Well, as lead author of Middle to Model Power I can tell you that the most influential book on my thinking was Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock which I read in the month preceding the drafting of the report. It was written in 1970 by an author who was, at the time, 42. In sum, young people can be a good guide, but it is environmental factors that you can replicate, not intrinsic qualities of being young, that allow you to innovate.

Both the LPC and the CIC’s documents are good and indeed, more up to date than Middle to Model Power. But in terms of core organizing principles the three documents are similar. So if you are genuinely interested in this take a look at all three documents. I do think they put forward what could become an emerging centrist consensus regarding organizing principles for Canadian foreign policy. Certainly that was the ambition back in 2005.

Open Government interview and panel on TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin

My interview on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin has been uploaded to Youtube (BTW, it is fantastic that The Agenda has a YouTube channel where it posts all its interviews. Kudos!). If you live outside Ontario, or were wrapped up in the Senators-Pens playoff game that was on at the same time (which obviously we destroyed in the ratings), I thought I’d throw it up here as a post in case it is of interest. The first clip is a one on one interview between myself and Paikin. The second clip is the discussion panel that occurred afterward with myself, senior editor of Reason magazine Katherine Mangu-Ward , American Prospect executive editor Mark Schmitt and the Sunlight Foundation’s Policy Director John Wonderlich.

Hope you enjoy!

One on one interview with Paikin:

Panel Discussion:

Competitive Bureaucracies: Why is IDRC a Success?

A long time ago a friend of mine was talking about how some organizations thrive by being under constant threat. His favourite example was the US Navy’s Marine Corp. The Marines are, operationally, the cheapest army corp in the United States forces, among the most mobile and, many would argue, possibly the most effective.Why, he asked, do you think the Marine Corp is considered so excellent? Why does it work so hard to excel in every way?

Well, he claimed, it was because the Marines are always an obvious target for budget cutters and larger rivals. If were looking cut duplicating services it would be easy to look over at the Marine Corp and ask… Why does the Navy need an army? Isn’t the army supposed to be our… army?

And trust me, this is a questions the Army asks regularly. Indeed, reading the Wikipedia page about the Marines – one can quickly see how the Marine Corps dissolution has been sought at various points in history:

The Marine Corps combat capabilities in some ways overlap those of the United States Army, the latter having historically viewed the Corps as encroaching on the Army’s capabilities and competing for funding, missions, and renown. The attitude dates back to the founding of the Continental Marines, when General George Washington refused to allow the initial Marine battalions to be drawn from among his Continental Army. Most significantly, in the aftermath of World War II, Army efforts to restructure the American defense establishment included the dissolution of the Corps and the folding of its capabilities into the other services.

So what does this have to do with International Development Research Centre?

I confess that I am not involved in development issues that much. But every time I do stray into the space and am impressed with a project that is innovative or interesting, it seems the IDRC has had a hand in funding it.

For example, readers of this blog know that I’ve become involved with OpenMRS, a community-developed, open-source, enterprise electronic medical record system platform specifically designed for doctors in the developing world. IDRC is a funder. Or, guess who is helping fund a community driven approach to bring connectivity and the internet to developing countries… IDRC is. There have been others over the years that I’ve seen, but can’t remember.

Some of this relates to part of the IDRC’s mission, which centres around the use of Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) but I also believe that part of it has to do with the fact that the bigger and more amply funded Canadian International Development Agency is just a kilometer away across the Ottawa river the IDRC must always be demonstrating that it is leaner, faster and more effective to justify its existence.

Just like the Marine corp must always justify its existence by being both excellent, effective and cheap. So to must the IDRC. It is the organization in government that – from what I can tell – is more likely to embrace technology, promote an innovative culture and, to be blunt, get the job done. Why? Because it has to.

This is not a defence of duplication of services (and, to be clear, I do not think that IDRC and CIDA’s services directly overlap – but they do operate in similar spaces). But it cannot be denied that competition helps. But I’m not sure it is enough, either. Sometimes, duplications of services simply leads to two poorly performing institutions. I would love to be able to explore what it is about the IDRC and Marine Corp that enable them to channel the threat to their existence into innovation. Is it history? Was it the personality of their founders? Corporate culture? I suspect it is more than the threat of the budgetary axe wielder. But what… I’m not sure.

Perhaps someone will make it a thesis topic some day. I’m going to give it more thought myself.

Canadian Foreign Policy: The War on Independent Thought

Two stories this week highlight Canada’s rapidly decaying capacity to think, engage and act on foreign policy issues. The first was the Globe’s story Canadian Aid Groups Told to Keep Quiet on Policy Issues, the second is Paul Well’s detailed and devastating account of the implosion of Rights and Democracy, an NGO run by the Federal Government which has seen its entire staff revolt in the face of the political efforts by government to reset its policies.

Both stories hint at a common pattern – that through bullying, funding decisions, appointments and any other means at its disposal – the conservative government is seeking to ensure that any voice in Canada that engages international issues aligns itself with the government’s opinion. In short, this Conservative government is seeking to recentralize Canadian foreign policy. It is an effort that cannot succeed, but in which the attempt will devastate Canada’s influence in the world and negatively impact our capacity to act on the global stage.

Why is this?

Because in the 21st century a country’s foreign policy capacity – especially a small country like Canada – does not spring solely from the size of one’s military and the influence of one’s diplomats. Rather, influence springs from the capacity to tackle and address – increasingly complex – problems. Military might and diplomats can be deeply important but they are increasingly a smaller piece of the puzzle. The real question is, how does a state marshal all the resources and talents at its disposal and focus them on a problem.

In the 19th century the answer was easier. Military might and diplomats were the only tools and so control over these tools – the capacity of a single person (the PM) or group (cabinet) to focus the energy of the state on a problem – was the essence of international influence. But today this is no longer the case. Many of the critical relationships, expertise for addressing problems, volunteering capacity and even funding, lie beyond the control of the state. More importantly, public opinion has become an essential part of any effort. In this world, where the state is only one of many actors, and is one that is frequently looked upon with skepticism, how does one marshal this network or foreign policy ecosystem and attempt to focus it on a problem?

This is the great challenge facing government’s everywhere (especially those of smaller countries where resources outside of government are essential).

The conservative response – outlined above by the Globe and Paul Wells – describes an effort to assert control over these non-state actors and opinion shapers. To bully them into line and force them to not only cooperate with but mimic the government’s priorities.

This strategy will not work.

Over the short term the talent in Canada’s foreign policy network will simply balk. The best will leave for other countries which will seek to engage them on policy, not declare war on independent thought. Today we risk the great “hallowing out” of our foreign policy capacity (and thus international influence) not because the quality of our diplomats or military will decline, but because the quality of our NGO sector will decline.

Moreover, this sector’s international influence depends on independence. Other states and public opinion more generally will not respect Canadian organizations that are seen as merely puppets of the Canadian government. Indeed, expect these types of organizations to see their influence wain to a point where they become insignificant on the international stage. In short, there will be fewer Canadian voices and they will all carry less weight.

Finally however, the ecosystem will adjust. Already many Canadian organizations that work and engage in international issues find it cumbersome to work with Government. People I speak with often eschew CIDA grants since the reporting mechanisms they come with are often more expensive to implement than the value of the grant. Now that Government money is linked with political interference and meddling, an increasing number of organizations will avoid engaging the Canadian government altogether. The result? A NGO sector that is actively hostile – or at best indifferent – to the government and a diminished capacity to coordinate action, research and policy across the Canadian foreign policy ecosystem.  In short, the Canadian government will have no more control over internationally focused resources, but it will have shrunk the country’s collective influence.

In a networked world you can’t control the network, you can only seek to influence it. This government’s actions are a case study in how to lose credibility and sacrifice capacity. If, however, they don’t want a Canada that engages in the world, perhaps, in their mind, it is all worth it.