Following nearly a decade in Canada’s foreign service, I made the leap to the private sector five years ago to work as the General Counsel for one of the few public companies based in New Brunswick.
During this time, I have witnessed the growing momentum of the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) movement and the notion of societal value that has pervaded the public markets, which has now reached a tipping point—a dynamic only hastened by the pandemic. With pressure from regulatory bodies and financial goliaths like BlackRock and Brookfield steering corporate boardroom discussions across the country, Canadian public companies that previously saw embedding ESG and sustainability practices into their business as a “nice to have” are increasingly realizing it is a “must have,” as their investors and supply chains are demanding it—at the risk of putting their money elsewhere. As I look back on my days as a diplomat, I cannot help but wonder whether there is a broader opportunity for Canada to leverage this momentum on the international stage.
Now in the midst of the “Great Pause,” we have an unprecedented opportunity to re-imagine what Canadians should be aspiring to in an ideal future. While much ink has been spilled in recent months about rebuilding a better future here at home, we should also be imagining how Canada could forge a new, better path to thrive as a global leader in the post-pandemic future. One such opportunity is to channel the momentum on ESG in our public markets into our broader national and international aspirations, and to position Canada at the forefront of the ESG movement globally. In doing so, an ESG-Centric Diplomacy should be a central pillar of our foreign policy vision for the future.
In pursuing an ESG-Centric Diplomacy for the twenty-first century, Canada should focus on areas where public sector, private sector, and broader community interests align (for example, through sustainable productivity, or combating climate change). By harnessing the alignment between these sectors to guide the pursuit of our foreign policy goals, we can achieve a greater impact on the world stage.
In this future, Canada could position itself as the leader in sustainable development, while forging non-traditional alliances with countries pursuing similar goals. Through the practices of Canadian companies, NGOs and others operating internationally, we could execute on this vision, lending significant credibility to our messaging. Specific initiatives could include:
- Government assistance in setting up the necessary ecosystem for Canada to become the global hub for social impact investment;
- Coordinate like-minded countries to share ESG best practices and lessons learned;
- Shape the dialogue on how public markets and exchanges should respond to evolving ESG reporting demands; and
- Support platforms that are creating leading initiatives and approaches (e.g. Task Force on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures).
In pursuing this vision, we should be guided by the core values of integrity, transparency and continuous improvement.
Widening the Diplomatic Pool
What is the best model for ensuring Canada’s success in developing and implementing this ESG-Centric Diplomacy?
Given the cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary nature of ESG, what is needed is a more heterogeneous diplomatic ecosystem that prioritizes a broader diversity of perspectives and experience, beyond just career civil servants. This model could include the development of a cadre of leaders with a proven track record of effectively navigating across disciplines and sectors. These professionals would seamlessly transition between the public, not-for-profit and private sectors, potentially several times over the course of their career, bringing new thought that would augment the impact of internationally focused initiatives. This fluid dynamic between sectors would allow this leadership cadre to gain a much deeper understanding of the broader social, environmental and economic dynamics at play in today’s world, be exposed to distinct operating environments that have different incentives and ways of measuring performance and results, be embedded with a client or partner organization for a time in order to genuinely understand their needs and challenges, and enhance their credibility with external stakeholders given the lived experience of having “once been in their shoes.”
With such a breadth of experience, these seasoned leaders could be better positioned to focus on developing big-picture strategic thinking—a critical piece that is often neglected in favour of transactional bureaucracy (e.g. briefing notes, coordinating committees). Imagine how much more effective a Canadian diplomat stationed in the Middle East would be from day one on the job in pursuing this ESG-Centric vision if her posting followed a three-year assignment at an NGO or a Canadian company operating in the region.
Within this model, contribution to the public service and the furtherance of Canadian diplomacy would move from an exclusive domain of the chosen few to a much broader and dynamic ecosystem of contributors, democratizing diplomacy and broadly sharing the possibilities and responsibilities of public service. Ultimately, empowering a broader talent pool under this model would strengthen the national buy-in for this ESG-Centric vision, and would create opportunities we do not even know we are missing.
A Necessary Overhaul
The complexity of undertaking deep reforms has been likened to trying to overhaul a car while driving down the highway. If we are serious about pursuing an ESG-Centric diplomacy, embarking on the accompanying overhaul of our diplomatic machine will be the challenge of our time for Canada’s foreign policy establishment. That said, the “Great Pause” of the global pandemic has provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a pit stop, and to reimagine what we want this machine to look like when it gets back on the highway. Redesigning it around an ESG-Centric vision might be just what we need to accelerate and thrive into the post-pandemic future.