Promoting democracy: Maybe later

In the Globe, a former staffer at Rights and Democracy and a former staffer at the Forum of Federations note the state of Canadian democracy promotion:

The Canadian International Development Agency’s Office of Democratic Governance, which channelled much of Canada’s democracy funding, was disbanded. The Department of Foreign Affairs’ Democracy Unit was folded into the Francophonie and Commonwealth division.

The Democracy Council, a forum for discussion and collaboration among Canadian democracy promotion agencies, disappeared despite interest from both government and non-government actors to see it expand.

The Parliamentary Centre’s Sudan and Haiti programs were “de-prioritized.” And our former organizations, Rights & Democracy and the Forum of Federations, have been rendered impotent by partisan and ideological board appointments and de-funding respectively.

And what of the new agency that was to make Canada a world leader in democracy promotion? Some say it was the victim of the disaster imposed on Rights & Democracy by its board; others cite the focus on austerity sweeping Ottawa. Either way, it has been put on the “back burner”.

One of the reasons stated for establishing this new agency was that many Canadian democracy experts were working for American agencies, instead of employing their talents on Canada’s behalf. Far from repatriating our home-grown expertise, we are in the process of exporting whatever is left.

The events at Rights and Democracy have been chronicled here in some detail. Cutting funding for the Forum of Federations is debatable. If your position is that the feds have a foreign-affairs department and don’t need to be spending tax dollars on fancy outboard operations, then there you go. If your position is that federalism is a smart way to run a country but one with many moving parts that deserve comparative study, then cutting money to the Forum makes a lot less sense.

But some of Galetti and Lemieux’s claims are about the internal organization of the federal government’s own proprietary outfits, so grumbling “shut down all agencies” doesn’t quite cut the mustard. Theoretically DFAIT’s Democracy Unit was doing the departmental work on promoting democracy, or should have been; a government that was busy neutering agencies but wanted to strengthen in-house democracy promotion would presumably not have acted this way.

And then there’s the Canadian Centre for Advancing Democracy, which the feds promised in their next-to-most-recent throne speech and which got as far as a report, penned by the inescapable Trudeau acolyte Tom Axworthy with help from such interesting figures as Pam Wallin, Eric Duhaime and Leslie Campbell, who has some ties to the NDP. That report was tabled a little over a year ago and I haven’t heard more about it since.

You could argue that democracy promotion offers tremendous advantages to first movers, and that no late-arriving country will ever match the Americans and the Germans, who were in the game in the late 1980s and who’ve contributed greatly to most of the democratic revolutions since then.

You could argue that the whole field of democracy promotion is tapped out — that the world’s remaining despots are on to NDI’s and IRI’s games, and that in Belarus and Russia and Iran they’ve been much more effective at blocking foreign-driven democracy-promotion campaigns than their doomed predecessors in Romania and Iraq.

And, finally, you could argue that democracy promotion is simply none of Canada’s business, that a country’s governance is its internal business and that we should not set up a new agency for meddling.

But the Harper government has not made any of the above arguments and has, instead, argued in a 2007 parliamentary committee report and a 2008 throne speech and a 2009 consultants’ report that we should be getting into democracy promotion big-time. The government’s rhetoric has been consistent. Its actions simply contradict its words.