Word on the street is that it’s “business as usual” for another six months.
While we’ve long been hearing rumours that some sort of change is “imminent,” the fate of the Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force—also known as START—is still unclear. The latest news making its way through the Ottawa-grapevine is that it has received yet another temporary funding extension while it continues to undergo yet another review.
Intending to serve as a “one-stop shop” within the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development (DFATD), START was launched in 2005 as an inter-agency mechanism for coordinating Canada’s whole-of-government response in fragile and conflict-affected states. Established under the leadership of Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, START became the lead focal point for analyzing, planning, and coordinating effective conflict prevention, disaster response, civilian protection, peace operations, and stabilization interventions in places impacted by complex crises.
Originally designated a relatively modest budget of $500 million over five years through the Global Peace and Security Fund (GPSF)—a funding pot created to finance the secretariat and its programs—START has significantly exceeded this initial target. By March of 2013, it was reported to have received more than $1 billion since its inception.
What, concretely, are the kinds of things this task-force is tasked with carrying out?
Focusing on seven priority countries/regions (a list that has remained relatively stable over the years), the initiative has supported such things as justice and security sector reform in Haiti, the conflict minerals certification scheme in Africa’s Great Lakes Region, disarmament and reintegration processes for ex-combatants in Colombia, constitutional development in South Sudan, and National Police force training in Afghanistan.
Very multifaceted and, some would say, innovative work. Given that the 21st century security environment is characterized by complex and interconnected causes of violence (state failures, civil wars, and slow- and rapid-onset disasters), interdisciplinary approaches like START that draw on a range of tools and actors are important.
It should be noted, of course, that any “whole-of-government” approach (however laudable in intent) is not without its complications. After all, development, defence, and diplomacy often have related-yet-distinct goals. Problems arising from blurred lines between political and military efforts in complex environments like Afghanistan, for example, have highlighted potential areas of tension when the line between “coordination” and “integration” isn’t mindfully managed. MCC has been critical of “whole of government” approaches because of the way they militarize development efforts, distort development priorities (from seeking to meet the needs of local people to serving the strategic interests of military forces), and increase danger and insecurity for all aid and development workers.
Apart from the practical challenges of working across departments, START also isn’t immune from being shaped by larger political agendas. Lead by the assumption that the fragility of other states poses a threat to Canada’s own security, determinations about what countries to focus on, programs to implement, and length of engagement are governed by a set of interest-based considerations. As such, responses risk being filtered through the lens of Canada’s own foreign policy agenda rather than by the most effective peacebuilding strategies.
START has been shaped in subtler ways as well. When launched in 2005, the initiative was rooted in the human security agenda that was a signature of past Liberal governments. This agenda, however, has all but been abandoned in recent years, as overt references to “human security” (and other peace-related terms) have been removed from websites, division names, and programs, replaced by terms such as “freedom,” “human rights,” “rule of law,” and “democracy.” Such linguistic changes capture a larger shift in Canada’s official foreign and defence policy towards a different kind of security paradigm.
All caveats aside, START, and the Global Peace and Security Fund (GPSF) that makes its work possible, seems effectively to fill an institutional gap for Canada’s response to complex environments.
For the last year or so, however, the fate of this program has been (to outsiders, at least) fuzzy at best, with conflicting information coming down the pipeline in fits and starts.
Last spring, we heard that START was in the midst of being re-branded—the launch of a “new-and-improved” (more likely just newly-named) initiative just a rubber-stamp from Cabinet away. Twice last year, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird promised the Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development that the GPSF was not being cut (as many feared), but that a “new initiative” was “coming in short order.”
By all accounts, it seems the time-allotment for “short order” has come and gone, and we are still waiting with baited breath for some definitive news. Beyond the six-month extension, the program’s future still remains unclear.
At the end of six months, will we see the end of START, and the start of something new?
Let’s hope if this is just a re-branding exercise, they don’t change too much of the substance.
By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Senior Policy Analyst