Dynamics: power to the people

Huguette Labelle: experiences in development

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Huguette Labelle, former President of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and current chair of Transparency International, tells us about her experiences in the arena.

“You don’t participate in international development for the sake of creating friends, you do it because you want to share your prosperity.”
- Huguette Labelle, Transparency International

Labelle started working with Canada’s Federal Government at the Department of Health and Welfare in 1973. She was one of only five women out of 700 colleagues in that group.

After holding different positions in various departments, she was appointed to the rank of Deputy Minister, as Secretary of State to Transport Canada. In this role, the international world opened up to her.

Into the world of development

From Transport Canada, Labelle became President of CIDA. “When I think about how Canada is viewed by others in terms of international development, I believe that we have been seen in the past as an honest broker, a country able to see the importance of working bilaterally in a cooperative and supportive way that benefits Canada at the multilateral table,” she says.

Supporting countries with their economic, financial and trade development after the fall of the Soviet Union, as well as working in poor African and south Asian nations, she found that countries depend on a properly functioning social, physical and economic infrastructure.

Visiting projects around the world and in Africa was a huge learning experience. “It showed how important it is to start with the needs and priorities of the community, as opposed to us arriving and announcing what our own priorities are.”

Trade and aid

“Trade holds the key to enabling developing communities become thriving communities. But trade will not happen without the essential infrastructure to support it. This is where international cooperation is so important in terms of helping countries get to a certain level so that trade and investment can kick in,” says Labelle.

“Sometimes it can be tempting to pull out very quickly because a country’s GDP is growing. But GDP or income per capita does not demonstrate the great disparity and inequality of income in the country,” she adds.

According to Labelle, certain factors need to be followed for aid to be most effective:

  • Start with the premise that you are there to support the country and its development. Start with its needs and priorities and support it in finding the best ways to achieve its aims.
  • The donor country needs to ensure that its programs and capacity is sufficiently varied to be able to deal with a number of different countries.
  • Be consistent. It is very disruptive to move in and out of a country.

At Transparency International

After seven years with CIDA, Labelle started to get involved with groups related to environmental conservation, higher education, development and governance.

On the governance side, she chairs the Board of Transparency International, trying to reduce corruption. “We publish surveys and have been very involved in establishing conventions and working with industry, governments and the judiciary as a solutions provider.”

For people considering a career in development, Labelle’s advice is:

  • Get an education. A Master’s in international development is helpful, but get a good professional base.
  • Get direct experience. Look at institutions that offer international internships.
  • Read voraciously about what is happening around the world and travel to the poorest and the richest countries.