Lauren Dobson-Hughes: Canada is no longer 'fit for purpose'

COVID and now Afghanistan are showing us how deeply dysfunctional our institutions have become

By: Lauren Dobson-Hughes

Watching Canada’s reaction to the human crisis unfolding in Afghanistan has been deeply shameful; not least because our inability to respond quickly and effectively was entirely predictable. For years, many who work in foreign affairs or development have identified institutional challenges. Canada simply doesn’t have the capacity to deliver.

These challenges aren’t restricted to international affairs — we saw them over and over domestically during the pandemic. They aren’t new, nor are they restricted to one stripe of government (although they have certainly manifested differently under Liberal and Conservative governments). Their impact has been quietly costly, but usually in a drip-drip way only noticed by people paying attention. Our decline manifests in a hundred missed opportunities, confused processes, responses so late they are almost useless, or woeful underfunding.

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Now the mounting crisis in Afghanistan has provided a perfect storm; a microcosm in which long-term problems have crystallized in a single devastating and very visible way — Canada’s embarrassing failure to protect and evacuate Afghans to whom it owes a debt of safety. Kevin Newman’s excellent pieces describe the disgraceful and callous treatment of vulnerable people that may well have cost them their lives.

Journalists and veterans trying to get former Afghan colleagues to safety report being frustrated by bureaucratic inaction, confusion and dead ends. From what little reporting we have from the ground (there are no Canadian journalists or outlets in Afghanistan — another, parallel example of long-term institutional decline), the story is consistent — lack of communication, basic errors, confused and very late decision-making, stonewalling, and a reality that doesn’t match public statements.

The situation around Kabul airport is indeed extremely challenging. But the stakes are too high for these type of mistakes. 

So what’s causing this? At the tactical level, it’s a collection of internal factors that probably sound boring — “ineffective inter-departmental coordination,” anyone? — but they matter. Put bluntly, if the three departments charged with responding to the situation in Afghanistan are too busy fighting each other in order to advance their own narrow interests, and their political masters are off seeking re-election, it becomes virtually impossible for us to pull off a quick evacuation of vulnerable people.

This is just the immediate failure. It’s the result of a longer-term decline: over time, we’ve allowed our institutional capacity to atrophy. We lack the data, systems, infrastructure and processes to address complex challenges. In Afghanistan, an underfunded, neglected diplomatic service left us without enough intel or people to properly understand or navigate the situation on the ground.

Add to that: a chronic problem of confused decision-making. If it’s not clear who should provide input into a decision, how and when they should do so, nor is it clear who the final decision-maker even is. This leads to frustration, infighting, and paralysis.

Beyond these inside-baseball challenges, we lack a coherent foreign policy. I’d argue this problem is particularly acute under the current government. As Paul Wells notes, the Liberals have aptly judged the public desire for platitudes and expressions of Canadian values. But we have little appetite for actual action.

Overall, our foreign policy and development work has suffered from a lack of long-term, strategic planning and coherence. Canada tends to hyper-focus on the minute details at the tactical level (no, the text on a roundtable invite does not need to be reviewed by an assistant deputy minister), but has much less ability to anticipate broader trends and challenges.

Afghanistan provides a clear example of this. While we can debate how shocked we should have been at the speed at which Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, the withdrawal of U.S. troops was entirely predictable. We should have begun to evacuate translators, activists, and fixers when the withdrawal was first announced in April. Women’s rights groups set up underground railroads for their own activists many, many months ago. How is it that small charities with shoestring budgets were better able to rescue their own people than an entire G7 nation?

There is also the culture of government seeing itself as the “holders” of foreign policy, with outside experts and groups largely held at arm’s length; those of us on the outside of government provide input into formal processes, but we’re not invited to collaborate on big, shared challenges. How much more effective would our evacuation have been if Canada, recognizing the imminent challenge, immediately convened the expert women’s rights groups it has been funding for years (many operating in Afghanistan), along with the veterans and journalists trying to help former colleagues, and asked for advice and support?

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Instead, the disaster on display is sadly typical. It’s classic Canadian risk aversion, leading to disastrous paralysis. This country’s bureaucracy tends to over-analyze issues until they are so fraught, that any action seems effectively impossible. Yet in crises, the risk of inaction is often greater than the risk presented by action itself. Inaction is also a risk. And in this case, the inaction may now come very visibly in the form of Afghan lives.

These sins may lie primarily with the culture of the bureaucracy, but they are greatly compounded by a lack of political oversight. With ministers occupied with running for re-election, and most political staff seconded to the campaign, it is clear there is a disconnect between what political levels are saying, and what bureaucratic levels are doing. Yes, the situation on the ground is fluid and information is not always reliable. But there have been multiple instances in the past week where ministers have made pronouncements that are not matched by the reality on the ground, or stated directions that have not been enacted by bureaucrats. It seems as if bureaucrats, for whatever reason, are quietly frustrating ministerial direction.

All of this culminates in yet another situation where Canada has spent years indulging in lofty rhetoric, for example, about a “feminist foreign policy,” or the international rules-based order, and yet when it comes time to put that rhetoric to work, we are largely absent. Our words should not exist as a political tool designed solely to signal how progressive and morally superior we are.

Our words mean things. Or, at least, they should.

When we say we have a feminist foreign policy, people draw logical conclusions about how we will therefore act. We cannot spend years lecturing others on refugees, repeating ad infinitum our welcoming of 25,000 Syrian people six years ago as our crowning achievement (like Germany hasn’t welcomed 800,000 in the same time), only to be unable to carry through in moments like this.

Even the few achievements we tout are, frankly, mediocre and misaligned with our inflated sense of our own importance. Yes, I know these critiques will be met with defensive cries like:  “How dare you! We’re working so hard! You don’t understand how difficult it was!”

And yet that’s the point. If it takes the whole capacity of the entire Canadian government to get 1,000 people out of one besieged city, and we probably won’t succeed at even that, what does that say about our ability to do anything more?

I understand people are tired. Many are working hard with insufficient resources and most importantly, a culture and system that aren’t set up for what they’re now being asked to do. They are mostly doing their best. But the best Canada can produce right now isn’t good enough. We are judged by our outcomes, not our inputs. “But I tried hard” doesn’t cut it when lives are at stake.

Canada has long been a boat in safe harbour. Thanks to extraordinary geographic luck, we were protected from being forced to confront the reality of our own mediocrity. In this state, we calculated that inaction was the safest path and action was too costly. But this is likely no longer the case. As Line co-founders Jen Gerson and Matt Gurney noted in a recent columns, the global crises are compounding. They are coming wave after wave, with little rest time in between.

The climate crisis alone will test us in ways we’ve likely never known. And with climate change will likely come more pandemics. It is already increasing migration and displacing vulnerable people, and causing conflict over scarce resources. This is not the future; it is now.

We are ill-equipped, floundering, and as the Brits would say, not fit for purpose. The Afghanistan debacle should prompt serious thinking about how we were so woefully caught short, and unable to rise to the ideals we’ve been so vocal about. We built our systems, structures and cultures for a different time. They are now failing us, and fast. If this is Canada operating at its very maximum capacity, and the outcome in a crisis is broadly underwhelming, how will we fare when we are truly tested?

Lauren Dobson-Hughes is a consultant specializing in gender, health and rights. She was previously executive director of an international development NGO, and past president of Planned Parenthood. Lauren worked for the late NDP leader Jack Layton.


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