07/13/2016 01:12 EDT | Updated 07/13/2016 01:59 EDT

Incorporating SDGs Into Canadian Policy A Clear Choice

By Julian Dierkes

Canadian international assistance is governed by the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act. This act specifies three criteria for approval of international assistance projects. Such projects must:

"contribute to poverty reduction;

"take into account the perspectives of the poor; and

"be consistent with international human rights standards."

The International Assistance Review provides the government with an opportunity to review these criteria and the interpretation of these criteria to mean that virtually all Canadian development assistance (DA) activities are focused on poverty reduction.

Good Governance as a Goal

The most obvious challenge that an exclusive focus on poverty reduction presents is that there are many activities that would clearly make positive contributions to beneficiaries' well-being that are not immediately linked to poverty reduction. Under the current structures, this requires a justification of such activities in terms of poverty reduction even when the connection between the two is somewhat remote.

For example, it seems somewhat clear that good governance ultimately contributes to more equal distribution of resources, but that does not necessarily have to be the case, and the connection may take many decades to unfold. But, is good governance not worthy of Canadian DA support for its own sake?

Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau seems to suggest as much herself in a recent editorial for the Globe and Mail on Canadian contributions to the rebuilding of Colombia. She writes eloquently about the need to support the peace process, about the role of women, but does not mention poverty other than through references to livelihoods. Her statement that, "Better access to land and natural resources for rural people, particularly for women, is how Colombia will avoid slipping back into conflict again." is precisely the sort of logic that many proposals and projects are forced into, i.e. in this case to justify post-conflict peace-building through its contribution to economic development.

Good governance does not always mean democracy because it can be applied to non-political contexts or to subnational contexts that may or may not be subject to democratic decision-making. However, the kind of good governance that is inclusive in consultations of stakeholders, open in terms of decision-making, and clear in its aims, is often supported by democratization of political decisions, and by the extensions of rights to all.

Currently the ODA Accountability Act acknowledges consistency with human rights as a criterion, but it does not allow for projects that are aimed primarily at human rights without (also) claiming a direct impact on poverty. I suggest that most Canadians would likely be supportive of projects that are aimed at governance and rights in addition to other projects that are aimed at poverty reduction.

Sustainable Development Goals

An alternative to a broader set of criteria would be to abandon domestically-determined criteria entirely and accept the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as criteria for funding.

Incorporating these development goals into Canadian legislation would offer a number of advantages:

The SDGs were developed as a follow-up on the Millennium Development Goals, themselves created through an international process focused on results-based intervention, but also on participation of developing countries in decision-making

There is somewhat of a global consensus around the SDGs.

At first glance, the SDGs may appear so broad that they are no more specific than the goal to reduce poverty. For example, Goal 1 is the equivalent of the current ODA Accountability Act as it states the goal to "End poverty in all its forms everywhere". Yet, the other 16 goals also have been determined to be worthy of interventions and funding toward those interventions. More significantly, however, these broad goals are operationalized through specific indicators that make them much more concrete than the overarching ambition of current legislation.

The SDGs are operating with a time horizon of the next 14 years. Adopting the SDGs would mean that this adoption has an implicit sun-set clause in 2030. Long enough for planning and development of activities, but also an occasion to review Canadian contributions.

The SDGs offer advantages of donor coordination (at least potentially) and a strengthening of UN institutions in the context of development assistance.

There are some obvious risks to incorporating the SDGs into Canadian legislation:

Coordination of efforts suggests the possibility to eliminate duplication, and to focus on widely-supported goals, but it also implies standardization and homogenization.

Accepting a global development project may suggest to some that are no specific Canadian contributions to make. Appreciation for Canadian initiatives by specific beneficiary countries may also be reduced when Canadian initiatives are seen "merely" as a contribution to a global effort

Taking Perspectives into Account

The requirement that Canadian DA activities are built around the perspective of beneficiaries is an important one to prevent the implementation of projects that are either not welcome or not appropriate.

But the main way by which such perspectives are solicited is through letters for beneficiary governments. Here, information technology offers many opportunities for real engagement with beneficiaries as I have written at DirectDiplomacy.


An incorporation of the SDGs into Canadian policy seems like a clear choice. Legislation should be revised to reflect this choice.

After an initial general commitment to the SDGs, the current consultations around DA may suggest some specific emphases that the current government might select among the 17 goals.

Julian Dierkes is an associate professor at UBC's Institute of Asian Research where he teaches Public Policy and Global Affairs. He is project lead on Mongolia at the Canadian International Resources and Development Institute. Follow him @jdierkes

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members.