In The Media

Global Affairs 'considering' UN gigs for youth

by Marie-Danielle Smith (feat. David Carment)

February 17, 2016

What better way to signal a renewed partnership with the United Nations than to send its agencies the best and brightest young Canadians?

That’s what many in the international affairs community are saying as rumours abound that foreign officials are looking at resurrecting Canada’s the Junior Professional Officer program, after Conservatives cut its funding in 2010.

The program was what brought Toronto native Steven Wolfson to the UN refugee agency’s Kampala, Uganda office in 1990. Rejecting a nascent career in law to answer a humanitarian calling, he ended up staying with the UNHCR for most of his career.

Today, Mr. Wolfson is the head of the Protection Training Unit at its Global Learning Centre. He credits the JPO program, run by the Canadian International Development Agency, with giving him a foothold in the UN system. “Certainly it was the launch of my UN career. It was the right place at the right time,” he said.

But since 2010 young Canadians haven’t been offered that kind of opportunity.

“It has been difficult for some time to find opportunities for new development professionals to learn and gain experience on the job, as a result of the loss of the JPO program and other changes,” Pamela Branch, president of the Canadian Association of International Development Professionals, said in an email.

James Milner, who worked for UNHCR and is now an associate professor at Carleton University, said this would be a “very quick” move the government could make to support both the UN and Canadian youth.

The government is thinking along the same lines.

“Given the priority the government has placed on youth and on strengthening Canadian engagement in multilateral organizations, consideration is being given to ways to promote increased youth engagement in the UN context,” Tania Assaly, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, told Embassy.

The JPO program, specifically, is on the table, according to Kathryn White, the president of the United Nations Association in Canada.

“It sounds promising,” she said. “UNA Canada would be delighted to see the program funded, as we would be delighted to see, you know, many ways that young Canadians and others could engage in the United Nations.”

'Incredible experience'

A couple of years after the JPO program was cancelled, Richard Beattie, who directed CIDA’s Youth Action Division from 1998 to 2002, said he sought advice from CIDA on how to lobby the government to bring it back. But he never got a reply.

He noted that the new Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau got her start working at CIDA. “I would suspect that she’d be a very strong advocate for measures that would enable young people to get involved in international development,” Mr. Beattie said.

UN agencies rely on JPOs from about 20 countries to help staff their offices. Officers from countries such as Australia, France and Germany are recruited every year.

David Carment, a professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, suggested Canadian JPOs could help form the next generation of Canadian leaders and diplomats.

Diane Briand, now a first secretary (development) at the Canadian ambassador in Haiti, was a JPO from 1991 to 1993. She worked for UNHCR for about seven years before landing a job at CIDA. “Being someone who had just finished university, and being able to work abroad, being able to work for the UN—that was an incredible experience,” she told Embassy.

“I have children now and one of them for sure wants to go and work abroad, and I wish there would be a program like this,” said Ms. Briand.

The deputy director (Europe) for GAC’s stabilization and reconstruction programs division, Michael Rymek, was a JPO for the UN Development Programme from 1993-1995.

“Appreciating how the UN system works (warts and all) and how it could best serve Canadian interests was certainly useful,” Mr. Rymek wrote in an email to Embassy.

'Cheap shot'

Cancelling JPO funding was “penny-pinching of the highest order,” Mr. Carment said. Mr. Milner agreed that the program’s cancellation was seen as a “cheap shot.”

But though it was a relatively small program, JPO positions came at a significant cost per head, as CIDA paid for the individuals’ salaries and living expenses.

It could cost around $120,000 per year per JPO, including administrative overhead, though Canada would typically only send between five and 10 JPOs abroad per year, said Mr. Beattie.

As Mr. Rymek put it, if the government were to resurrect the program “there would need to be some degree of clarity re: its ultimate objective to justify its costs.”

He added, “what should the Government of Canada reasonably expect in return for such a significant investment, if it were to seriously consider resurrecting the program?”

Trudeau 'championing' youth

The much-less-costly International Youth Internship Program was put under review by the Conservative government but ultimately survived. For the 2015-17 iteration, 650 youth internships of six months or less were slated for funding.

At the end of March 2017, the government will have to decide whether to renew the program again. Those decisions will be made “as we get closer to the end of the current program,” Ms. Assaly said. “The government has made opportunities for youth one of its priorities.

Chantal Havard, a spokesperson for the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, has been an advocate for the IYIP and its counterpart the International Aboriginal Youth Internships.

She expressed hope that the programs will continue. “The fact that Trudeau himself is championing the youth signals that it’s something very important for the government and for him, so we anticipate that there will be more announcements around these lines.”

That’s something for which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon specifically praised Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a joint press conference on Feb. 11.

Mr. Trudeau, also the minister of intergovernmental affairs and youth, announced Feb. 12 he is doubling the number of positions youth are offered through the Canada Summer Jobs program.

Another program likely on the agenda is Katimavik, a domestic youth volunteer program managed by Canadian Heritage until funding was cut in 2012. Mr. Trudeau is a former chair of its board of directors. 

Without mentioning Katimavik specifically, a Canadian Heritage spokesperson said, “the Liberal Party platform includes a commitment to invest in a youth service program, to give young Canadians valuable work and life experience, and provide communities with the help required for much-needed projects.”

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