To intervene or not to intervene? That has been the perplexing question humbling governments for the past two decades. There is no international consensus on when to intercede to protect the people of fragile or failing states. And when action has been taken, it has often lacked coordination. As part of its evolving whole-of-government approach to “complex emergencies,” Canada in 2005 introduced the Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force (START) to better plan and prepare law and security sector responses. Robert Derouin, recently plucked from CIDA to serve as the program’s director general, spoke with associate editor Chris Thatcher about an approach to stabilization and reconstruction that has attracted international attention.

What was the impetus for START?

With crises like Rwanda, the reaction was slow. There was a lot of debate going on while things degraded horribly. You had desk officers who had invested so much of their careers seeing things fall apart so quickly. And the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time asked for a faster response mechanism. Similar crises followed and DFAIT came up with START as a possible solution.

Interestingly, they grouped START with our humanitarian affairs response, where we coordinate whole-of-government responses to natural disasters. They built up a team, pretty well from scratch, and attracted high quality staff, some through secondment arrangements, which helps broaden our understanding of other departments.

Around the same time, the US created its Office for Reconstruction and Stabilization, the UK developed its Stabilisation Unit, and the UN created the Peacebuilding Commission, all with different modalities. Though we pursue different approaches, we’re all facing similar challenges. What they find interesting about our program is that we have a dedicated programming budget – initially $500 million over 5 years.

How does START integrate other departments?

One key mechanism is a director general-level advisory board. It includes DND, Justice, RCMP, PCO, Public Safety and CIDA. And it’s evolving. We’re debating if we should broaden that membership. For example, we’re getting more and more involved in corrections and prison work and I think we should bring in someone from Correctional Services.

The START Advisory Board is not a project review committee. We don’t want it to be operational; we want it to be strategic. And it is not just convened for information sharing by DFAIT. There was some frustration about the value of this committee because in the past I think we were just updating each other. There was a pressing need to really engage these colleagues more fully. And, recently, I think we’ve turned a corner.

We then have an ADM-level committee and a DM committee, both of which consist of DFAIT and CIDA, and we’re looking to broaden their membership as well.

We’re evolving this. I can appreciate that when it started, they weren’t exactly sure where and what type of programming there would be. Now we have cabinet direction on which countries to focus. They want us to be limited. There are maybe 57 fragile state and we won’t make a difference if we try to intervene in all of them. Part of our challenge is to ensure we are always linked to the government agenda. But we recently secured five-year program approval, which will help with our forward strategy and agenda.

That means bringing together a lot of people. What challenges have you had integrating the cultures and thinking of various departments?

Treasury Board saw the potential for overlap with CIDA, for one, prompting the development of a roles and responsibilities document between START and CIDA. The document provides good guidance on who should be the lead on what type of programming. And even with that in place, sometimes there is still overlap or things evolve. So I want the document to be reviewed on an annual basis. CIDA does their own programming; we don’t use them for implementation. It is a different type of relationship, but a very key one. We continue to sort out with CIDA where there might be areas of overlap. We don’t want to totally separate our programming, because in some respects collaborative approaches might work better. CIDA often gets criticized for being a bit slow in its programming, but there is good reason. The risk mitigation, larger budgets, and longer-term programming take a while to get going. Perhaps START can do some triage type support, get an understanding of the sector, and maybe benefit CIDA’s longer-term effort. However, we can’t start something on our own and then expect CIDA to pick it up. We have to respect that they have their programming priorities and constraints.

At one point, we were really straining the capacities of the RCMP and it was getting harder for them to meet the call for deployments. But over the course of a year my team worked very closely with them, and they in turn have built relationships with other police agencies to support international operations. The resulting Canadian Police Arrangement is a good example of where we’ve had a challenge and found a solution.

We’re not at the same level yet with Justice and Correctional Services. We’re still articulating our longer-term needs from different departments. With Correctional Services, for example, we are now looking to have a memorandum of understanding to cover a lot of the generic stuff that comes with each deployment.

With DND, it’s about open communication and respecting mandates. There is growing recognition that their effort in places like Afghanistan could be accentuated through development initiatives. When I was at CIDA, I recall that NGOs were not keen on working alongside the military, primarily due to the need to respect specific humanitarian principles. On the other hand, there is a need for security in some high-risk environments. This civil society-military relationship still needs some work. From a START programming perspective, the CF has to be fast response and mitigate risk. I’d like to learn how we could use some of that thinking and some of their methodologies in our START programming.

Where and how is START operating? And what types of programs and solutions is it promoting?

A large amount of our Global Peace and Security programming is dedicated to seven countries, the top three being Afghanistan, Sudan and Haiti. Others include northern Uganda, Colombia, Lebanon and the Middle East. Lebanon is an interesting case: it is a classic START response. When we did the planning for a response to the crisis, we had already planned our end-date. That’s a bit of a preoccupation of mine – I want exit strategies for every country we’re in. This will help articulate START’s role. Our colleagues in CIDA and other institutions do the longer-term development programming. Once we’re in a country, we can easily get sucked into long-term programming. Any Ambassador would want the START programming to continue. And these fragile states don’t become Denmarks after two years of programming. We will review on an annual basis, put forward recommendations and get the political direction.

The Global Peace Operations Program evolved out of a G8 commitment to help build peace operation capacity. We work, for example, with the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre. Sudan is a good example of a country that has not embraced western peacekeepers, so we’ve worked to build up the capacity of African countries.

We also have the Glyn Berry program, which is more focused on conflict prevention and democratic transitions. It’s small, but it allows us to develop research projects that help inform the rest of our programming.

How is a project identified? And how is it delivered and funded?

Our process would start with a fragile state review. Once we’ve pick up a new country, then we develop a policy document to identify priorities. This can require some assessment missions – often DFAIT-led but sometimes with other departments – or support from the field, the embassy and such, as well as from partner countries.

In some cases, projects have already been conceived that meet our priorities and need funding; sometimes we design it ourselves. Often, we can tap into UN or other multilateral efforts and collaborate with them on delivery. We do have some support for civil society programming but we haven’t really defined that well enough yet. However, I think we do have to do that because we’ve been discovered.

We have a grants and contributions budget for programming through UN or international organizations or, sometimes, local entities. And we have an operating fund to support the work of public servants – the RCMP has its own budget but we pay the incremental costs.

When I was in Haiti recently, we had meetings with key officials and that really gave us guidance on where government priorities are. Then we use that to try and build up their capacities.

How well can you operate if a government is unwilling to be supportive?

It’s not for us to maintain the stability of the country; it’s to assist that country in maintaining its stability. So the overall goal is to work with the government to build up their capacities. By their nature, these governments are not very stable and sometimes they shift on us. In Haiti and Afghanistan, we receive good cooperation from the governments and it helps move us forward. Sudan is not the most collaborative of governments. We have allocation targets we would like to meet but sometimes we run into trouble. In Gaza, the situation curtailed a lot of our intended programming. We have to react to the development situation.

You’ve mentioned the importance of exit strategies: Do you have specific timeframes for programs?

We’ve been working in northern Uganda for two years. There is now a big shift as they look to conclude the peace arrangement. So we’re proposing that we stay in Uganda a little longer and shift our programming to support the peace agreement. Statistically, some of these peace agreements fall apart in the first five years. So rather than exiting too quickly, we’re considering staying there to do certain interventions that will help move that peace process forward and keep them from sliding back.

We’re also looking at monitoring countries, doing exploratory missions to identify areas where we can do diplomacy to prevent conflict from arising. It would be a new dimension for us. We won’t be doing projects but we will be investing some of our time and effort monitoring the stability of certain states.

How does START relate to, and interact with, something like the Afghanistan Task Force? Is there an overlap of responsibilities?

It might have been a bit difficult at first because START was the initial task force. When the new task force began there was a period of adjustment. But Afghanistan is Afghanistan. It’s not your typical START programming. It’s a high government priority and we support the task force with our programming. They provide policy and diplomacy leadership and we support them.

The Sudan Task Force began under geographic leadership before it came under START and now is back under geographic leadership. That has been fairly seamless. It’s an interesting model of a smaller task force where we work collaboratively and one doesn’t direct the other. There has been talk on and off of perhaps a task force for Haiti because it is such a large programming country for us. At present, we work through an inter-departmental committee that meets every two weeks, and that seems to be working well. In the case of Uganda, we work with the geographic desk.

The bigger a crisis gets, the more there might be a need for a task force. My people get strained and you need fulltime, dedicated resources. I’m quite neutral on these management options. At times it’s complex because you have these options in play at once. However, I see that as an opportunity to study these various models, the pros and cons and the cost benefits, so we’ll understand what management model to apply to a new country, based on past experience.

This obviously means a closer relationship with the military. How has that evolved?

In Haiti, for example, the military is very engaged and works through the UN stabilization mission framework. My closest contact – Major-General Chris Davis, Director General International Security Policy at DND – is through the advisory board. We rarely program through them, unless they are better positioned to deliver projects aligned to START’s mandate, but they are at the table and they are very key partners.

Afghanistan is also changing. My senior director, Elissa Golberg, was recently recruited to serve as the new Representative of Canada in Kandahar. She will lead the civilian efforts in Kandahar, working very closely with the military. The CF provides the security. We’re concerned about the safety of our civilians working in the field and that’s why we respect and rely on DND’s judgment.

Occasionally, there can be a bit of frustration that arises. As mentioned earlier, open communications are important. We met recently with a number of senior defence people to explain our project development process for Afghanistan, and they fully appreciated it. The more we can get them involved up front on our forward thinking, strategies and procedures, the more solid our relationship can be.

Are there areas beyond security and justice reform that are a priority?

Landmine removal is one. We also focus on disarmament, demilitarization, reintegration – DDR. I suppose the two Ds are ours and the R is CIDA’s. In Colombia, in particular, we’ve been focused on that and on internally displaced people. Landmine action comes into play there because we make it a safer environment for returnees.

How do you see this integrated concept evolving?

We’re starting to see a number of countries build up START-type operations. The British and Americans are pursuing some form of dedicated program funding. The Americans are working on ambitious deployment capacity. The Germans are starting to articulate how they might build up something similar. We continue to see where there we might collaborate and share experience. We’ve built a network of practitioners. I think this will help internationally to forge a new mode of programming across a number of nations.

When we talk to other countries about whole-of-government, everybody grins because they know how hard it is, but they are very curious about how we’ve pursued this: having a formal structure to inform this collaboration, and then at the working level having respect for each other. It’s probably going to be a vehicle that is replicated. It’s still early but I certainly think we’ve turned a page. It will be interesting to see where we can take this in the next couple of years.