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Canada as an SDG role model for High-Income Countries?

By Sameera Hussain
on April 13, 2018

A recent article by my friend and editor-in chief of BMJ Global Health, Seye Abimbola, on the North/South framing for development and health resonates more than ever. At the core of the development story is its history of conquest and domination, with colonial rulers helping themselves to cheap labour and natural resources. It has evolved, of course. To clever people in high-income countries (HICs) helping people in low- and middle- income countries (LMICs). And then to those same people in HICs leading development programs in LMICs. Sometimes, people from LMICs even lead those programs. Thus evolved the development (and “global health”) paradigm.

Enter the UN’s global goals: the universality principle in Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development brings all UN Member States into the development discourse, requiring them to engage with intersectoral issues pertaining to people and planet, both within and outside of their countries. At least in theory.

When Canada committed to the SDG agenda, it did so under a previous government with an internationally-oriented mindset, and not necessarily a global one (read inclusive of Canada and other HICs). Just a matter of semantics? The current SDG discourse in Canada indicates otherwise. Seye, take note: many people in this HIC acknowledge that we have our own problems of inequity, and we hope to do something about it.

The SDG portfolio in Canada remains under the umbrella of our foreign policy department, and the government has been slow in beginning to engage domestically. A civil society petition called for each of the 17 ministries/departments to provide guidance around Canadian SDG progress.

It’s safe to say Canada is mobilizing on the SDGs—Alliance 2030 is a network linking communities, civil society organizations, the private sector, and anyone in Canada, really, who understands and cares about the universality of the SDGs (cf a new working paper highlights their relevance domestically, collectively, as well as externally). Indeed, the energy in this group at a meeting on March 23 was intense. Our national government doesn’t quite seem to know (yet) what to do with the SDGs domestically but is certainly interested in the notion – a pilot project by Statistics Canada to measure, by province and territory, a subset of targets and indicators was revealed. Jeffrey Sach’s shop, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) finds its way to Canada next month, shortly after a Generation SDG Summit.

But if Canada is going to lead the pack of HICs in terms of SDG commitment, we need so much more: the part looking at inequity domestically is clearly of great importance, but the same is obviously true for policy coherence for sustainable development in other areas. To be bold and transformative for people, planet and prosperity, our feminist international policy and Trudeau’s climate championship are no doubt a good start, but they contrast with much of what Canadian mining companies are doing overseas. Inside Canada, I struggle to see how it is possible for our government to be on board with the Kinder Morgan pipeline in the context of its climate policy. Our economic policy, too, requires a drastic SDG “revamp” of sorts (though this part of the SDGs is actually problematic and incoherent, encouraging in many ways the continuity of the current economic model that has contributed to the world being in the dire straits it is today), so perhaps it’s more accurate to say a “planetary health/boundaries” revamp is needed of the economy.

Certainly, Canada is setting clear and promising steps with respect to the SDGs. But many gaps remain—our trade and investment agreements (think NAFTA, CPTPP, CETA) don’t always work well for us domestically or for the planet. Some would even call that an understatement.

In short, Canada, spearheading the HICs for SDGs? In our acknowledgment that we are both domestically and internationally accountable, yes. But national policies have to find synergies with SDGs in that they must take into account the planetary health paradigm that goes beyond people and prosperity.

To date, 64 countries have presented Voluntary National Reviews to the UN’s High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. Canada’s report, out later this year, will be telling.




Acknowledgment: with input from Kristof Decoster (ITM)


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