How Canada’s unique makeup can pack a punch globally

Canada has prioritized an inclusive economic growth agenda at home and abroad. As Lamia Naji writes, if it leverages the next generation of political, social and tech leaders properly, it can make that happen. 

By: /
June 26, 2018
Canada's next generation
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Grade 7 students take part in the Hour of Code computer programming event at Shopify in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

In recent years, the Canadian government has received its fair share of criticism over its decreasing and comparatively low budget allocations to international assistance. The reality is Canada may never achieve the global target of 0.7 percent of gross national income, a measure set in 1970 and under different economic circumstances. Canada’s commitment in 2016-2017 was 0.26 percent.

That may be okay. Canada contributes upwards of CAD$5 billion annually towards international aid. As a middle power with a population of 36 million (the population size of California alone), Canada’s global contribution can go beyond traditional dollar disbursements to aid — it can make an impact not just by the number of dollars but with the unique calibre of people and resources it already has in its midst. Specifically, Canada can better harness its diverse population, a knowledge ecosystem and gateways to non-profit and for-profit opportunities in emerging markets.

As Canada’s international development agenda will inevitably shift with changing government priorities, any forward-looking foreign policy approach should first focus on embedding strategic constants that leverage the strengths of Canadians and its international partners — strengths that, as a member of a young, ambitious and diverse community in Canada, I have seen first hand. Here, I detail just a handful of the many people and innovations advancing Canada’s impact worldwide, as a way to celebrate and advocate for them.

Specifically, there are three ways to maximize the gains from these groups, and here’s how:    

1. Make a greater investment in the next generation of Canadian leaders.

As a graduate student in the nation’s capital, I had access to co-operative education (in other words, a co-op placement), which represented a pathway to government ministries I cherished as an aspiring diplomat. Co-ops are likely the most common gateway for entry-level roles within government and offer bridging opportunities that launch meaningful careers in the Canadian civil service, including ones involving international affairs.

Beyond co-op and federal government, however, there is room to expand pathways to international development work for Canadians. In the past, Canada was a contributing member of the Junior Professional Officer Programme (JPO), which enabled the recruitment of young Canadian professionals into the United Nations system. Today, funded opportunities are in large part facilitated through consultancies and fellowships as part of Global Affairs Canada’s roster of international development organizations.

Having myself participated in experiences made possible by this funding, in Barbados and Tanzania, I can attest to the intangible gains they afford: broadened exposure to and understanding of different cultures and thinking; new, long-lasting friendships spanning oceans; and a skill-set strengthened by an increased ability to adapt. More importantly, these experiences made me realize the essential role of stakeholders outside of the traditional development space: the private sector.

Through my different encounters in the Caribbean and East Africa, I met young people exporting coffee. I met young women introducing a wellness and yoga culture. I chatted with young men who created and expanded their own advertisement agencies. I met young people striving to adopt a ‘farm-to-table’ culture to support local produce. I met young people taking over their family businesses, be it in port management or the restaurant industry. Of course, I also met bankers.

These experiences underscore the importance of linking young Canadians to a broader range of sectors in emerging markets. How can universities and Global Affairs Canada, through co-ops and international placements, support an emerging private sector in these markets? We know that millennials, through their unwavering appreciation for authenticity and social good, are disrupting business models. As such, there is room to systemically enable the greater participation of young Canadians in public-good oriented businesses abroad. There are a series of connections that can be made based on our own areas of expertise.

For example, with agriculture being fundamental to growth in Africa, what lessons can be exchanged from young Canadian farmers? As Canadian pension funds ‘go green,’ what linkages can be made with the increasing potential for solar power in Africa? Given Africa’s infrastructure needs, is there an opportunity for secondments between young people at Canadian and African pension funds? Given Canada’s potential leadership role in blockchain technology, how can related efforts be linked to financial inclusion and international development more broadly? 

2. Better leverage the human capital from Canadian universities and home-grown innovations.

Co-op placements aside, overall Canada’s high-quality knowledge ecosystem breeds great talent. As the world begins to mull over the implications of artificial intelligence on the future of work, the outputs of Canadian universities offer a source of hope, including on the inclusive economic growth front.

Let’s consider the experiences of international graduates of Canadian universities as an example. Fahad Awadh — an entrepreneur originally from Zanzibar, Tanzania — completed a business marketing degree at York University. He has recently earned recognition in Forbes for his company that processes Tanzanian cashews for export, linking over 1500 local farmers to international markets such as the Netherlands. In building an inclusive value-chain for the domestic processing of cashews, Fahad is directly providing a local solution to a well-known challenge: while most of the world’s raw cashews are produced in Africa, over 80 percent are processed outside of the continent.

Olivia Codou Ndiaye, a graduate from both the Université du Québec à Montréal and Concordia, is another example. Originally from Senegal and Japan, Olivia returned to Dakar to co-launch Dakar Lives, a platform that reveals a raw account of Senegalese art, culture and tourism to tourists and residents alike. With an Instagram following of approximately 70,000, the platform is a go-to for many and effectively taps into what is clearly a nascent market: the intersection of technology and a beaming creative arts sector. Her team is franchising this model into other parts of Africa, including Morocco.

"Could Canada subsidize learning exchanges as part of its development strategy?"

The journeys of Fahad and Olivia highlight the opportunity to map alumni across Canadian universities to develop mutually beneficial partnerships that can provide valuable lessons, networks and potential entry points for additional ventures in emerging markets. 

In this vein, my conversations with youth involved in startups in Kenya and Senegal often have me thinking about the potential role that Shopify or the University of Waterloo can play in providing targeted technical assistance when local expertise is unavailable. Could Canada subsidize learning exchanges as part of its development strategy? This is one of several questions I’d be curious to ask Canadian founders of international development-oriented companies such as JazaEnergy (Tanzania), M-KOPA Solar (Kenya, Uganda), CodaPay (Southeast Asia) and Arifu (East Africa). 

3. See the potential of diaspora communities and remittances.

The growing number of second-generation Canadians (those born to first-generation immigrants), coupled with the rise of immigration to Canada, means an increasingly diverse ethnic population. Projections suggest that by 2031 up to 32 percent of Canadians — approximately 14 million people — could belong to a visible minority group. These numbers offer a window of opportunity for boosting economic growth abroad: Canada’s diverse communities are uniquely placed to elevate its global development efforts.

In the case of diaspora, there are several untapped opportunities. One example is the recurring phenomenon where young people are travelling to their countries of origin in pursuit of meaningful employment and entrepreneurship. Born in Guelph, Ontario to Rwandan parents, Pierra Ntayombya relocated to Kigali in 2016 and now heads Haute Baso, a boutique shop selling ‘made in Rwanda’ jewellery and clothing crafted by a roster of over 275 artisans, most of them women and youth. Pierra studied fashion management at George Brown College in Toronto and strives to use fashion as a vehicle for positive change and job creation. During her trip to Rwanda earlier this month, Ellen DeGeneres was gifted a token of appreciation from the shop by officials from the government of Rwanda.

Feleg Tsegaye is another example. Born and raised in Colorado, Feleg relocated to Addis Ababa in 2012 to link his passion for technology to untapped markets in Ethiopia. After unsuccessfully piloting a sim-card distribution business, Feleg launched Deliver Addis, an e-commerce food delivery platform now linked to 30 restaurants. Deliver Addis relies on motorbike drivers and employs a team of approximately 30. Deliver Addis has secured a diverse range of capital, including from impact investing outlets such as Renew, which in turn receives financial support from Global Affairs Canada. While an example from the United States, Feleg’s story, as briefly documented in BBC, highlights the spectrum of ideas pursued by diaspora.

Pierra and Feleg represent a growing pool of young diaspora blending their different worlds to lead creative and solutions-oriented business models, particularly in the services sector. Despite being raised in North America, their upbringing maintained strong ties to their roots and culture, enabling a unique cross-cultural lens. In emerging markets, this translates into value-added services that appeal to a growing local middle class as well as international tourists and residents. Recognizing their unique contribution, countries such as Rwanda and Ethiopia are actively inviting the economic participation of diaspora, which is enabled by favourable dual citizenship or tailored visa classes that permit employment across all sectors. Considering this, the government of Canada is well placed to allocate traditional grant funds to initiatives that meaningfully support small and medium enterprises (SMEs) led by diaspora in their countries of origin.

"Diaspora millennials act as interlocutors between their countries of origin and citizenship, between themselves and Generation X, and within their own ethnic communities."

In addition to diaspora and SMEs, remittances are a second untapped opportunity. Growing up in Ottawa, I have fond memories of joining my mother during her trips to the halal meat shop where she’d make two transactions — she’d purchase diced meat and injera then make a remittance payment to my grandma living in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia (the wire transfer fee charged at the shop was more affordable than at Western Union). When calculated at an aggregate level, the amount of money sent back home from diaspora worldwide is remarkable. In 2016, World Bank estimates placed remittances at US$601 billion, with US$441 billion channelled to emerging markets. The former figure surpasses official development assistance (ODA) disbursements by more than three times for the same year.

Given the sheer volume of annual transactions, Canada should design a whole-of-government remittance strategy that deliberately pursues the potential here. The strategy could explicitly integrate remittance conversations with expanding initiatives around ‘blended finance, which seek to merge ODA with private capital to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The strategy could also consider ways to catalyze the success of diaspora bonds, which shift the focus from remittances to households (such as my mother’s transfer) to national development efforts like those seen in India and Nigeria. One way to do this is by extending tax incentives to Canadians supporting diaspora bonds that align with Canada’s countries of focus within its international development agenda and due diligence criteria.

Admittedly, there can be challenges associated with engaging diaspora for international development efforts, especially with respect to influencing domestic or international politics. For reasons of this nature, efforts to engage diaspora can be avoided all together. It is important to thoughtfully differentiate between actual and perceived challenges, as not engaging diaspora in an increasingly diverse Canada is a missed opportunity.

In my own peer circles, I’m a proud witness of the transformative influence of diaspora millennials in particular. Whether it’s following Eden Hagos’ Black Foodie blog showcasing food stories from Caribbean and African communities, watching Terhas Ghebretecle debate alongside Kim Campbell, Canada’s first female prime minister, or my own previous experience working for Maryam Monsef, Canada’s first Muslim cabinet minister, I am cognizant of the contribution brought by a diverse range of young people in social, academic and political spheres. Today, diaspora millennials act as interlocutors between their countries of origin and citizenship, between themselves and Generation X, and within their own ethnic communities advancing progressive ideals such as women’s empowerment. Multilingual and unequivocally empathetic, they are natural ambassadors day-in, and day-out.

Ultimately, while Canada is small in numbers — both in population size and dollar disbursements to ODA — it can nevertheless leave a profound footprint abroad. By better leveraging a diverse range of people and innovations unique to its makeup, Canada’s approach to international development can be strategically holistic. In my books, this is a powerful form of innovation: it involves working creatively, and differently, with what you have.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of her employer.