Welcoming a new era of global development

As the UN Sustainable Development Goals come into effect, the authors of a new CIPS report on “global sustainable development” explain how the world’s challenges are truly global and what Canada can do to tackle them. 

By: /
25 January, 2016
"The Ebola crisis in remote parts of West Africa with weak health systems and inadequate governance institutions posed direct risks to every corner of the globe." REUTERS/James Giahyue
Catherine Tsalikis
By: Catherine Tsalikis
Former Senior Editor, Open Canada.

In the months following the election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, there has been much debate in academic and public policy circles as to what Canada’s priorities should be when it comes to its international engagement and presence in world affairs.

In this vein, the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa released a report in November entitled Towards 2030: Building Canada’s Engagement with Global Sustainable Development. The report was written by a working group and co-chaired by Margaret Biggs, a former president of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and John McArthur, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and UN Foundation. It focuses on the “the pursuit of a stable, inclusive, healthy and thriving global society that lives within nature’s means and provides an adequate resource base for future generations” – or what its authors call “global sustainable development.” 

Simply put, the report stresses the need for Canadians to change the way we think about international development – an area in which, they argue, Canada has been falling behind. 

In advance of a roundtable at the University of Toronto’s Massey College on Jan 27, OpenCanada asked Biggs and McArthur why Canadians should care about global sustainable development and what Canada’s next steps should be as it strives to deepen its international engagement in a 21st century world. 

What is “global sustainable development (GSD)” and how does the use of the term symbolize a change from previous development work and approaches?

Biggs: From the outset, we should stress that our report is the product of an amazing team effort. Kate Higgins, David Moloney, Julia Sanchez and Eric Werker were instrumental to all the ideas and recommendations. 

Our group chose the “global sustainable development” term for a couple of reasons. One was to reflect the increasingly evaporating distinction between developed and developing countries. A huge number of the world’s foremost challenges are indeed global, transcending boundaries and common across all societies, even if the local forms of each problem are distinct – things like jobs, security, climate change, oceans, poverty or urbanization. Another motivation was to underscore the complex and interconnected nature of contemporary global challenges. Think of the links between conflict and poverty, good governance and sustainable growth, or climate change and food security, to name just a few. Much of the recent international policy conversation has summarized this through five “p’s”: people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. The distillation of these interwoven challenges is reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that all countries adopted last September at the UN, with a deadline for 2030. 

McArthur: Yes, a third reason we used this GSD term was simply to try to leapfrog outdated mindsets around the term “international development” – a frame that still prompts many people to think very narrowly about charity or moral importance, secondary to Canada’s so-called “hard” interests. Ethics and philanthropy certainly play crucial roles in global affairs, but we need new terminology to catch up with the complex state of the world. As a footnote, another practical reason we used the GSD frame was that we were writing our report in 2015 at the same time as the official Sustainable Development Goals were still being negotiated, and we wanted to distinguish between the formal goals and the general concepts. If someone wants to quibble with the wording of some SDG target, then we don’t want that to be confused with the true structural challenges being faced around the world.

Why should Canadians care about global sustainable development?

McArthur: I think Margaret nailed it during one of our working group meetings when she said, “People still think these issues are the folk fest of global affairs. They don’t understand it’s all now centre stage.” I think that summarizes it beautifully. In recent months I’ve taken to asking people two simple questions to help prompt a new way of thinking. First, is China a developed country or a developing country? Second, is the launch of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) an economic development issue or a geopolitical issue? Of course these questions present false choices. China is so complex that it has millions of people still living in extreme poverty at the same time as it is a global economic powerhouse and also the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. 

As for the AIIB, both it and the New Development Bank – the so-called “BRICS bank” – were launched in direct response to the perceived shortcomings of the old Bretton Woods institutions that have been dominated by North America and Europe for seven decades. And these changes aren’t simply about China. They reflect new and widespread sources of global power that will be tackling top-tier priorities for many of the world’s most influential emerging economies. So Canadians ultimately face a very simple choice on questions like this: do we want to be part of the group with a front seat helping to design the new global order, or do we prefer to watch passively from a safe distance? And if we choose to help design, then how do we make sure we carry the necessary influence, and that our voices are heard? One terrific way is by providing clear leadership on the issues that low-income and newly emerging economies care so much about.

Biggs: Canadians have always supported action around poverty, hunger and oppression. Now we also need to care about how global sustainable development impacts our own security, prosperity and quality of life. We saw this vividly when the Ebola crisis in remote parts of West Africa with weak health systems and inadequate governance institutions posed direct risks to every corner of the globe. Moreover, our prosperity increasingly depends on successful long-term economic gains in emerging countries and our ability to seize trade and investment opportunities with them. At the same time, our physical well-being – our fisheries, our farms, our clean air and water – depends upon environmental sustainability and the actions both here and abroad. And as John has pointed out, we need to develop deep, long term partnerships with these emerging countries. They are rewriting the rules of the global game. 

Your report talks about “megatrends” occurring throughout the world — what are they and how will they impact Canada?

Biggs: The world is changing so quickly and dramatically on so many frontiers. In our report we worked incredibly hard just to boil it all down to 10 pages! We structured everything around four categories of trends:

  • First, the undercurrents and structural shifts, like the shrinking number of low-income countries, and the fact that “developing” economies now account for the majority of the world’s economic growth;
  • Second, the compelling evidence that policies can succeed, like the revolution in global health that has already saved at least 15 million extra lives compared to trajectories as of 2000;
  • Third, the limits to progress, including the “last mile” of hundreds of millions of people still living in extreme poverty, emergent inequalities, and the complexities of conflict and political fragility;
  • Fourth, the emergent challenges, like ongoing population growth, rapid urbanization, more regular climate-linked disasters, a hyper-connected global economy, and the need for ever more complex forms of global cooperation between government, business, science and civil society. 

McArthur: Yes – what she said! 

You write that despite the importance of GSD, over the course of a generation Canada has fallen behind other countries in keeping up with the evolving global context. Why has this happened? What should be done?

McArthur: I would underscore the word generational.  In the course of our work, our group quickly came to the conclusion that it’s not a recent or partisan issue, very consistent with the findings Robert Greenhill and Meg McQuillan published here on OpenCanada last year. They showed that Canada’s international investments have fallen well behind our peers’ since around 1995. We think everyone needs to cast a wide lens to understand the causes and consequences of that trend. For example, Canadian business is falling short in terms of trade and investment with developing economies. We have much less private sector engagement in global policy forums than our peer countries. And despite pockets of real research strength, Canadians are under-leveraged in terms of thought leadership, applied policy research and innovative idea generation on global frontier issues. We also lag many of our peers in terms of providing international learning and work opportunities for Canadian students. So when you add up all these factors, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising when the data show that our media aren’t covering global policy issues as well as other countries either.   

On the investment side, we shouldn’t pretend that there has been any grand strategy guiding Canada’s global approach. For instance, it’s not like there has been some rigorous analysis making the case for investing 0.24 percent of national income for global development investments. That investment level is driven by complacency and inertia,   plain and simple. That’s why we recommend a new, multi-generational task force to establish the “how” and “how much” for Canadian public and private investment priorities. It requires multi-generational perspectives, young and old, from business, academia, government, media and civil society, to map out the mix and scale resources that will advance Canadian strategic interests. 

More broadly, our group makes recommendations for each aspect of Canadian society. For example, we recommend the formation of a Business Leadership Alliance, building on the lessons of CEOs jointly advocating for global sustainable development in countries like Sweden and the U.S. For the academic community, we recommend the launch of at least three applied research centres of excellence across the country. Meanwhile, we cite Forbes’ count of 39 Canadian billionaires, which should easily be enough to launch at least three GSD-focused philanthropic foundations investing at least $50 million per year. Civil society needs renewal too. We recommend the creation of an “innovation hub” and a high-level review on the national enabling environment for civil society and global philanthropy. Each of these actions can help to build the interactive Canadian ingredients for success.

Biggs:  I would just pick up on another word that John uses there: Canadians. In our report we use that word quite a bit, instead of traditional references to “Canada.” In our view, this isn’t about some national monolith, certainly not just about Ottawa. The issues are broad and structural, so Canadians across the country have a crucial role to play – spanning academia, business, civil society, philanthropy, and, yes, all levels of government.  

You cite the lack of public or political attention paid by Canada and Canadians to the negotiations leading up to the launch of Sustainable Development Goals. How helpful should these goals be in guiding Canada’s approach to the future?

Biggs: These new “Global Goals,” as many people are calling them, are highly ambitious. For sure, there are lots of them: 17 goals with over 100 outcome targets. But they represent the first time the global community has tried to take an integrated approach to what we know to be a complex range of problems. They are the product of a unique international political consensus. For the first time, we have the traditional development community, the human rights community, the environmental community, peace and humanitarian community, and the economic growth community all in the same tent. And the buy-in comes from civil society and the private sector too.

The world has never had such an agreement before, so the story is yet to be written. The Goals will form something of a north star guiding much of international cooperation over the next 15 years, and will frame the scorecard against which Canada’s global contribution and domestic track record will be judged. 

It is easy to pooh-pooh the goals – there are too many, they are too messy, etcetera –but I think this misses the point. These goals are simply tools for galvanizing new forms of cooperation and action. If we take them seriously and figure out how to use them to change trajectories, both at home and around the world, then we have a chance at the outcomes we’d all probably like to see. So Canada needs to start internalizing the agenda as a whole, while also identifying areas where it can make a distinctive and leading global contribution.

McArthur: Margaret is right to point out some of the subtleties around why and how global goals can work best. With these new Sustainable Development Goals, there are lots of bits in there that aren’t exactly how any individual person I know would have written things themselves. But that’s actually part of their beauty. They are the product of the most inclusive global agenda-setting process the world has ever seen, with at least eight million people sharing their views around the world. The word “Churchillian” comes to mind when I think about it – his old line about democracy as the worst form of government except for all the rest. The goals are a bit complicated, but the world is complicated.  

In fact, when I first sheepishly told my mom in Vancouver last summer that there were going to be 17 goals, she surprised me by saying she thinks 17 is a terrific number. When I was a bit dumbfounded and asked why, she said, “It sounds like they didn’t fake it. The world is complicated.” She later added, “If they had come back with some Letterman-style top 10 then I probably wouldn’t have believed them.”

 In truth the SDGs are a pretty accurate distillation of many of the world’s foremost challenges – from jobs and inequality to hunger, health, education, clean energy, oceans, sustainable cities, climate change and sound public institutions. When I give speeches around the world I like to ask audiences what they each think is the single most important problem the world needs to solve. It doesn’t take a very big room to match the 17 headline goals. Then I ask them which issue they’d like to cut since there are so many, and the reaction is understandably always, “No way, not mine!” I think that’s a fair snapshot of the world’s challenges. Some people are still arguing about the need for a small set of priorities. But I think that’s based on a misframing of how the world works. Yes, prime ministers and presidents can only manage a handful of priorities at a time. But their governments, for example, tend to be made up of at least 17 ministries at a time. So in essence this is just saying that each ministry needs a goal, and they all need to deliver for each other.

Some people are still arguing about the need for a small set of priorities. But I think that’s based on a misframing of how the world works.

The election of Justin Trudeau and the new Liberal government has many Canadians feeling more positive about their leaders. What should the role of the Canadian government be in all this?

McArthur: We should clarify that we finished writing our report prior to the October federal election, so we were agnostic to its outcome. The report reflects our assessment of the dramatic changes underway in the world and the need for all levels of Canadian government, alongside Canadians more generally, to engage with the world in new ways and at scale in order to advance the nation’s values and interests.

That said, the new government has clearly asserted that “Canada is back’” and there is considerable excitement and anticipation in international circles as to what this will bring. So now the challenge is to deliver. The government is still in the early days of mapping out its practical strategies. It will be crucial that the new agenda doesn’t end up translating to “back to the future.” The world is changing too quickly. Canada needs to leap forward. We need to build long-term credibility through long-term actions. This means bringing serious ideas, resources and solutions to the table. 

Biggs: Given the government’s early signals at the Paris climate change conference and other international summits last fall, our report’s focus on global sustainable development and the call for broad-based societal action might well resonate. I am thinking in particular of the intersection of economy and environment; the importance of sustainable and inclusive growth; the nexus between security and development; the need for generational change and youth engagement; and the potential for whole-of-Canada solutions.

Our report calls for ambitious leadership on the part of the government but it also suggests government increasingly see itself as a “system architect” that sets the conditions for all elements of Canadian society to contribute ambitiously to global sustainable development.  One way to bring this to life quickly, and to carve out a distinctive global role, would be to convene, in Canada, a regular Global Sustainable Development Forum in the lead up to the UN’s annual High Level Political Forum in New York. It would take advantage of Canada’s geography – as the country closest to UN headquarters in New York – to focus on innovative ideas and collaborative solutions to SDG (and GSD) challenges. It would connect Canadians to the frontier global agenda and global players. Equally important, it would connect Canadians with each other, drawing together Canadians from all sectors – private sector, government, research, civil society, youth – in outcome-oriented discussions, focused on the global challenges.

McArthur: Yes, I call this the “substance summit” that would precede the political events at the UN when all the pom-poms come out. Canada could leverage its pluralist strengths to convene global business, science, civil society and practice to help shape and inform global problem-solving. 

It will be crucial that the new agenda doesn’t end up translating to back to the future. The world is changing too quickly. Canada needs to leap forward.

You’d like to see a target set that would see every Canadian university graduate completing an overseas learning or work opportunity by 2030 – how important is this for getting young Canadians to help with Canada’s global engagement?

Biggs: We have been pleasantly surprised to see how many people are excited about this recommendation. There seems to be a broad understanding that if Canada is to remain globally competitive and have influence in the world then it needs a generation of leaders who are globally connected and can reach and work across borders. When Canadian students live, study and work in other countries they develop vastly enriched lifelong perspectives, networks and skills that will allow them to thrive and contribute in an increasingly competitive and complex world. Unfortunately Canada is falling behind its peers and competitors when it comes to outbound student mobility. Whereas other countries are ramping up, the percentage of Canadian students studying abroad has stagnated over the past decade.

McArthur: I would just add that something like this definitely requires practical problem-solving at the level of universities, provinces and the federal government. But it also needs some public leadership and excitement. This is the type of thing where CEOs and public leaders can really leverage their public platforms to kick start new senses of opportunity and possibility for young Canadians. 

How can Canada use GSD to counter the influence of global terror groups like Boko Haram and ISIS, who are capitalizing on the failure of governments to deliver necessary services and provide a basic guarantee of rule of law for their people?

McArthur: The causes of radicalization are complex and no one should pretend otherwise.  However, we do have a fair amount of evidence that poverty, insecurity, exclusion from economic opportunity, poor governance and even environmental duress are contributors.  At one level there is a basic challenge of managing diversity, both within and across borders. And there are definitely bad guys out there too. But we need to keep in mind that the bad guys exploit conditions of instability. Moreover, the world’s leading scientific journals show that temperature spikes are linked to increases in violence everywhere. In the most basic form of the problem: when the rains fail and crops fail, hungry people are more likely to fight. This is likely a major contributing factor for conflicts in the African Sahel – which has seen some of the world’s most severe drop-offs in precipitation over recent decades. In some respects the world has actually outsourced its climate adaptation policies to our soldiers, rather than investing in things like irrigation. To be clear, no one is suggesting an excuse for any form of terrorism. But there is a need to invest in strategies that will promote inclusive opportunity and stability and reduce the odds of any form of violence and conflict.

Biggs: The bottom line is that development and security go hand in hand. As is often said, conflict is development in reverse. The world is struggling to cope with refugee and humanitarian crises on a scale not seen since World War II. Most of these crises are man-made, rooted in weak governance, exclusion, insecurity and lack of economic opportunity. As NATO leaders will be the first to say, military action alone is not the solution. The question of stabilizing fragile and conflict-affected states is highly complex and should not be oversimplified. But any society that ignores these realities does so at its peril. 

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter