The North-South Institute

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Opinion

How to Influence Policy

June 27, 2013

By JOSEPH K. INGRAM

Published in Pambazuka

The North-South Institute (NSI) has been championing international development for nearly forty years. And in those forty years there were times when the Canadian government looked kindly upon international development assistance and times when it did not. With every change to Canada’s outlook on international development, the Institute made sure to adapt so that it could continue to fulfill its mandate and research ways to end global poverty and promote equality.

It takes many actors to bring about true change. Governments make the rules, research institutes and academics try to influence and inform governments, and activists are the watchdogs that monitor and challenge our rule-makers when they disagree with them. Supporting all these actors are engaged citizens counting on institutions such as NSI to help bring about, through analysis and research, positive policy changes that will change the world for the better. All these actors’ roles are inter-related and vital to the democratic system.

The North-South Institute has been a broker between global citizens and policy-makers since our inception in 1976. We have spent years gaining the trust of both civil society organizations and government so that our opinions would be listened to and not written off as partisan attack on individuals’ or governing bodies ways of doing things. We have been able to bring bureaucrats and activists together in the same room for open, safe and non-partisan dialogue on issues of critical importance.

Recently we held a forum on The Governance of Natural Resources for Africa’s Development, a subject that has not been much discussed publicly in the past in Canada. Our goal was to bring together academics like Professors Fantu Cheru, Tim Shaw and Jose Antonio O’Campo, African leaders like Ngozi Okonjo-Iwaela, Sam Russ and Cadman Atta-Mills, Canadian policy makers like MPs Lois Brown, Dean Allison and Hélène Laverdière, international organizations like UNECA, the World Bank, the OECD, Transparency International, and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) – all to present to an Ottawa audience composed of development professionals, civil society and academics, an in depth collection of perspectives on issues surrounding natural resource management in Africa. Over the course of two days, debate, discourse, and a respectful exchange of ideas took place and minds were informed and changed. The NSI Ottawa Forum will be followed by a forum in Ethiopia later this year, in collaboration with several regional institutions and representatives from African non-governmental organisations and including representation from communities directly affected by natural resource development.

In a recent article, our friends at Pambazuka expressed disappointment in The Institute’s lack of activism at the North-South Institute Ottawa Forum. But to the authors, who are passionate activists, I say that although the Forum did not solve all of the issues surrounding foreign natural resource extraction in one sitting, it did get policy-makers listening, which is the first step to bringing about meaningful policy change. For example, at this event a journalist asked us if we could arrange an interview with our speaker Huguette Labelle, the Chair of Transparency International, to comment on Canada and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). A frank and informative article was published. Only four weeks later the Canadian government announced that it will be partnering with Peru and Tanzania to further strengthen transparency in their extractive industries. As well, a month after the Forum, The North-South Institute was invited by the House of Common’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Development to comment on legislation seeking to strengthen the accountability of Canadian mining companies operating in developing countries. The Chair of the Committee was the opening speaker at the North-South Institute Ottawa Forum. A day later, the Prime Minister announced his intention to require mandatory reporting requirements by Canadian mining companies, a promising step in creating more transparency for the sector.

So how does one influence policy-makers? Inviting key stakeholders to the table so that a variety of voices are heard and evidence-based policy alternatives presented, certainly helps.

The North-South Institute is a producer of research and convener of ideas. We leave the activism to the activists and the rule-making to those in official policy positions. But as I said at the outset, all of us are vital to the democratic process and all of our work, no matter how different the instruments, endeavors to reach the same shared goal of global peace, prosperity and greater equality. We are convinced that the recent Forum contributed to this shared objective.