How to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals: The Trillion (and More) Dollar Question

By Yiagadeesen (Teddy) Samy

The introductory blog for this series makes a compelling case for why Canada and Canadians should pay attention to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Indeed, it would be a shame if these SDGs are not fully embraced (and implemented) here at home, and by the international community writ large.

After all, it took years of consultations and negotiations to get where we are today: 17 SDGs (and 169 targets within them) to replace the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), with a focus not just on the social aspects of development but also other issues such as peace and security, income inequality, and the environment and climate change.

It is also time to stop reminiscing about whether we could have come up with a simpler (shorter!) list of goals. At this point, such discussions can only be counterproductive at best. Let us not forget that even the eight MDGs were once seen as unrealistic and overly-ambitious; so it does not seem that having fewer goals (10 is a number that came up regularly in this debate) for Agenda 2030 would have calmed the critics (and I admit, myself included).

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Globalization, Poverty and Inequality

By: Yiagadeesen (Teddy) Samy

Published by The Institute of Public Administration of Canada in their Magazine: Public Sector Management Volume 25, Issue 2, Public Service Without Borders

Over the last three decades or so, rapid economic growth in China, India and several other countries in East Asia drove the decline in absolute poverty around the world. The achievement of the first Millenium Development Goal, namely the halving of the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day between 1990 and 2015, would not have been possible had it not been for impressive growth rates in these outward-oriented economies, and especially in China and India.

However, a group of so-called fragile states, many of which are located in sub-Saharan Africa, have been left behind as they failed to embrace and/or take advantage of globalization when compared with more successful regions and countries. Consider the following: sub-Saharan Africa’s shares of world trade and foreign direct investment remain very small and despite falling poverty rates, it is also the only region in the world where the number of poor people has increased in absolute terms (from 205 million in 1981 to 414 million in 2010).

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Re-focusing Canadian aid: Much ado about nothing

By Rachael Calleja and Yiagadeesen Samy

As originally posted at Embassy.

The recent Canadian government announcement to boost the number of countries of focus for its bilateral development assistance from 20 to 25 will not make a big difference to its aid program. While the proposed change is laudable and, if implemented, could improve the effectiveness of Canadian aid by reducing fragmentation, we doubt this latest announcement will have any tangible effect.

Many will debate why the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Benin or Burkina Faso have been added to the list of priority countries, or why Bolivia, Pakistan and Sudan are no longer on the list. But such a discussion is at best useless, and at worst counterproductive, because it distracts us from the real issues of aid fragmentation and effectiveness.

In fact, the parameters for choosing priority countries—based on their need, their capacity to benefit from aid, and their alignment with Canadian foreign policy priorities— are so broad that it is easy for anyone to justify why the 25 countries were chosen.

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The dangerous game of diaspora politics

As originally published in The Globe and Mail, Feb. 10 2012.

The term “diaspora” reflects the rise of truly transnational populations occupying a key niche in Canadian politics that allows them to influence both home and host government.

Diasporas can exert pressure on their home government from abroad, free from political threats and fear of retribution. And they can lobby their host country to put pressure on their home government to endorse policies ranging from human rights and governance reform to favourable international trade policies and security guarantees. Diaspora politics is seductive and populist. And governing parties can ride the wave of new immigrant support for generations.

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It’s All About the Money

There is a great deal of optimism surrounding the so-called ‘post-2015’ agenda that will replace the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established back in 2000. Development organizations around the world are energized by the possibility of ending extreme poverty by 2030 thanks to dramatic reductions in global poverty over the last decade. What is getting left out of the discussion is the real lesson of the MDGs: When it comes to highbrow debates about global development goals, at the end of the day, it’s really all about the money.

To put things in perspective, let’s unpack the impact of the MDGs. More than anything else, the MDGs were a millennial branding opportunity. They succeeded in making global development and poverty reduction high profile international issues. To understand this we need to think back to the 1990s when spending on foreign aid had stagnated, as many donors, Canada included, underwent fiscal austerity.

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Foreign Policy Coherence and Aid: More of the Same

In recent years, CIDA has been cited as one of the poorest international performers in fragmentation and policy coherence.  In 2008 Canada ranked as the second worst bilateral donor (following Germany) in terms of fragmentation in aid programming. Similar studies have shown that Canada ranks in the bottom 20th percentile for aid fragmentation amongst the largest 40 bilateral and multilateral donors.

One of the key challenges that historically threatened the coherence of Canadian aid policy was the inability of CIDA to focus on specific priority countries and sectors.  Over the past decade, Canada has shown some improvements towards focusing aid spending, with aid concentration in priority countries (as a percentage of total bilateral aid) trending upward, peaking at 47% in 2010.  However, in 2011, that number fell to 39%, roughly half of what the target was expected to be.  With the remainder of bilateral funding spread between 126 additional bilateral recipients, efforts to reduce fragmentation through channeling more aid to fewer priority recipients appear to have been limited by CIDA’s continued allocation of a large proportion of aid funds beyond the stated priority recipients; it will be interesting to see whether these numbers change over the next few years.

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Dangerous game of ‘diaspora politics’ is here to stay

As originally posted on columnist Natalie Brender recently argued that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka this November is because of that country’s deteriorating human rights and governance record. Harper’s purpose, she claims, is “to convey principled condemnation of what’s happening to human rights and democracy in Sri Lanka” in a challenge to our claim that this is more obviously pandering to the Tamil diaspora in order to win votes.

She then went on to state that sometimes “Ottawa’s foreign policy decision-making is logically inexplicable except by reference to a diaspora community’s pressure and votes” and that “those cases of egregious pandering to diaspora communities are not the rule in Canada’s foreign policy-making – neither with the Harper government nor with previous ones.”

We could not disagree more. Whether one calls it “pandering to specific groups,” “diaspora politics” or “creative statecraft,” it is much more frequent than Brender thinks and it is also not going away anytime soon because of the political incentive structures shaped by Canada’s demographic trends.

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The New Deal’s fragility trap

As originally published on March 6, 2013 at

The so-called New Deal for international engagement in fragile states is intended to be an innovative model of partnership between fragile and conflict-affected countries and their development partners from the Development Assistance Committee at the OECD.

Signed by 40 countries, including Canada, the deal sets out five peacebuilding and statebuilding goals for rescuing failed and fragile states: legitimate politics; justice; security; economic foundations; and revenues and services. These are all based on principles of country leadership rather than the dictates of the donor community.

The key distinguishing feature of the New Deal is country ownership of the policy process. This change is perhaps a reflection of donor desperation and geo-strategic realities.

Handing over some of the responsibility for decision making to the leaders of failed and fragile states may be smart politics, but is it smart development policy? Perhaps the decision reflects greater confidence in these failed and fragile states. After all, a number of them such as Sierra Leone and Liberia have managed to achieve economic and political gains over the last five years.

But for places that are still lacking in effective authority, legitimacy, and capacity, will the New Deal work as planned, or is it destined to take its place alongside other notable policy disappointments such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, and the Millenium Development Goals?

Our 10-year research initiative evaluating changes in fragile states performance over time is well-suited to provide some preliminary answers to that question. For those countries mired at the bottom of the fragility spectrum, we argue there are few reasons to be optimistic about their likelihood of significant improvement in the short run.

But if a focused effective outcome is to be met, it will be important that an independent evidenced-based capability be implemented to monitor their progress over time.

There are several reasons for that conclusion. First, among the worst-performing countries in our rankings are those that have signed up for the New Deal, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Afghanistan, Burundi, and Somalia. The fact that none of these countries are on target to meet any of their MDGs by 2015 is telling. In evaluating our data over a 10-year period we have found that many of these New Deal partners are part of a group of failed and fragile states that are perpetually stuck in a fragility trap.

These are countries that show little indication of lifting themselves out of their political, economic and social malaise, are some of the biggest recipients of our aid dollars, and—despite being resource rich—in some cases have the lowest GDP-per-capita scores in the world.

Among those caught in the trap are heavily aid-dependent states. As a group, the International Network on Conflict and Fragility reports that official development assistace to fragile states was 50 billion (38 per cent) in 2010. Continue reading

We must be careful as a nation donating to fragile states

As originally published in The Ottawa Citizen, August 19, 2012

In the last decade, Afghanistan and Haiti have been the two largest recipients of Canadian official development assistance (ODA), receiving more than the traditionally large recipients of Canadian aid of the 1990s such as Bangladesh and China. Key reasons for this transformation in Canadian priorities were the 9/11 attacks and perceived need to remove the Taliban regime from power in the case of Afghanistan, and the forced exit of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, as well as the more recent earthquake in the case of Haiti.

Canada is certainly not alone in throwing large sums of money at these countries. Globally, Haiti has received $8.1 billion (U.S.) in aid from 2001 to 2010 while Afghanistan has received a staggering $36.5 billion, not to mention the billions more spent on security and diplomacy initiatives in Afghanistan and to a lesser extent Haiti. Nor are Afghanistan and Haiti alone in the category of countries classified as fragile. In its assessment on resource flows to fragile states, the OECD reported that approximately $47 billion (37 per cent) in ODA went to 45 fragile states in 2009.

Based on a 2012 fragile states report that we have just completed for the Canadian government, we question whether aid is having an impact in fragile situations such as Afghanistan and Haiti. In our report, Afghanistan ranked second only to Somalia — a failed state — in 2012 and has been in our top five for almost a decade. In fact, since 2001 there has been deterioration in key measures of Afghanistan’s governance, security and crime, economic performance, human development and even the environment.

In the case of Haiti, the situation was improving in the two years prior to the 2010 earthquake. In particular, improvements in the state’s capacity to provide a safe environment to its citizens and in the political sphere were, to a certain extent, offsetting the country’s poor economic performance.

However, the earthquake’s devastating effects mean that the situation in the country is beginning to deteriorate again. Specifically, our report shows increasing problems in governance, security and crime, human development, gender and the environment, and only a very minor improvement in Haiti’s economic performance.

Needless to say the results for both these countries are far from encouraging, especially considering the money their governments have been given. Examining the big picture allows us to draw two basic conclusions. First, we have clear evidence that Afghanistan is stuck in a fragility “trap,” whose situation can best be characterized as worsening, despite receiving global support over the last decade, with promises of billions more by the international community at the recent Tokyo Conference.

Second, we have evidence of volatility and quick reversal in the case of Haiti where rapid gains in the previous decade were quickly evaporated when the earthquake struck.

Given the difficult financial situation faced by many donor countries, global aid flows will not increase over the next few years and may even decline more than they already have. Canada will be no exception as the projected freeze to the international assistance envelope will mean that its aid to gross national income ratio will remain stagnant. It is essential now more than ever that our aid dollars be more effectively used and carefully monitored.

For that reason, having the right tools to monitor how donor money is spent must be a priority if Canada is to avoid another lost decade of aid spending. An effective donor program on fragile states must be linked more thoroughly to development planning through a three-step process.

First, detailed structured risk analysis, covering everything from governance and security to environment and demography, should be properly used by donor agencies. Most agencies work from different starting points and assumptions; by using a common set of benchmarks, misinterpretation, duplication and redundancies are avoided.

Second, this multi-sector approach should be demand-based and not supply driven. This means that agencies need to identify links between key causes of fragility and identifiable focal points of activity in which the donors must be engaged, not where they want to be engaged.

Third, these multi-sector risk assessments should be used constantly and we must consistently monitor and evaluate progress. The key goal is to determine if aid is having the desired impact and if course corrections are required.

David Carment is a fellow at the Calgary-based Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a professor of international affairs at Carleton University. He is editor of Canadian Foreign Policy Journal.

Yiagadeesen Samy is an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University and a research associate at the Ottawa-based North-South Institute. Their work on failed and fragile states can be found at

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