Goodbye North-South Institute, we’ll miss you

The NSI stood out for its capacity to bring contending politicians towards common understandings, says Adam Sneyd.
By: /
September 18, 2014
Researcher on globalization, development and the political economy of commodities in the Global South

As Canadians reveled in the aftermath of a truly historic find in Canada’s North last week, one of our best exports to the South stopped flowing. While the oil trains kept trucking and the geese continued to hone in on warmer climes, our globally renowned centre for the production of research on how to build a fairer world was forced to close its doors. In a totally unfair move, Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development informed the Ottawa-based North-South Institute (NSI) that it no longer met the Department’s funding criteria.

The Harper Government’s failure to renew support for the production of export-ready knowledge on the most pressing political and economic issues of concern to emerging economies, and especially to developing and least developed countries, is shocking on a number of levels. For starters, it flies in the face of the Institute’s demonstrable global impact. And let’s be clear that this influence goes far beyond citation counts. Since 1976, the scholarly and policy-oriented outputs of NSI’s leading researchers have indeed been cited countless times by academics. But they have also informed the work of policy-makers across Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Pacific and South Asia.

Take just two examples from East Africa. When relations between the Tanzanian Government and its international creditors and donors fell apart in the mid-1990s, the Danes sought to break the impasse. Who did they call? The North-South Institute’s founding father and leading intellectual force, University of Toronto Professor Emeritus Gerald K. Helleiner. Similarly, a decade later, as Sudan planned for partition and a peace that has yet to be found, NSI researchers were front and centre. While NSI’s research occasionally fell on deaf ears, the Institute often punched well above its weight internationally. And of course this is the exact area of policy where the Harper Government is at its absolute weakest.

When international trade and development issues were discussed at the World Trade Organization and at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in Geneva, the Institute’s reports were never absent from the negotiating tables. In Paris, during meetings at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on how aid could be made more effective, NSI briefs drove discussion. And in New York at the United Nations, North-South staffers were valued contributors to civil society dialogues on global finance, taxation and better natural resource governance. The icing on the cake of this low-cost source of reputational capital for Canada came recently when the Institute was twice recognized to be the top small budget think tank in the world.

Back at its minimalist office in Ottawa’s ByWard Market, NSI researchers conducted innumerable seminars for developing country officials. These training sessions built the capacity of many thousands of individuals to develop and implement effective policies in areas as diverse as gender empowerment and best practices in the provision of corporate social and environmental responsibility. Over the years the Institute also played host to hundreds of aspiring young Canadian researchers. Many of the Institute’s interns came to the NSI to apply the analytical skills that they had learned in graduate seminars to ‘real world’ development challenges. For their efforts, they were often credited as co-authors on NSI publications, and even subsequently found gainful employment. This aspect of the Institute’s legacy – the development of Canadian research capacity – is as unsung as it is consequential. For every NSI alumnus trotting the globe with an international development organization or civil society group, there are others who now ply their trade in the service of making Canada a fairer place.

The heart of the matter is that the NSI did not play politics. It was characterized primarily by its pragmatism. In a field polluted with polemics, the NSI stood out for its capacity to bring contending politicians towards common understandings of development challenges. Joe Clark, Bill Graham, Ed Broadbent and a host of other former and current MPs can attest to the thoroughgoing apolitical nature of the NSI.

The Harper Government’s politicized move to turn off the tap should consequently be condemned and remedied. The North-South Institute has nothing to do with a ‘socialist’ agenda and everything to do with developing the capacity of people the world-over to build a better global order. Canadians are now left to wonder how many of our other ‘success’ stories in international development are slated to go the way of the dodo. From the perspective of an educator, this Government has simply gone too far. It has tampered with the underpinnings of our national capacity to understand and act upon pressing global issues. Now, more than ever, the world needs more Institutes like the NSI. Its resurrection is the order of the day.

Adam Sneyd interned at NSI and is an Assistant Professor in Politics and the International Development Studies Program at the University of Guelph.