(Re)Imagining the Future of International Development: Reflections from the Cooperation Canada Futures Festival

Change and entropy are persistent realities in our world. With changing social tides, political volatility, economic downturns and upturns, and impending environmental disasters, our whole world dangles precariously from a delicate thread.

The ever-changing and chaotic nature of our social, economic, political, and environmental realities, and their interwoven causes and consequences, places great demands on our capacity to predict, respond, adapt, and plan sustainability and ethically for our future.  

Throughout its history, the international cooperation sector (henceforth referred to as ‘the sector’) has been a vehicle for responding to global crises and their aftermaths, including famine, floods, war, conflict, and pandemics. One could argue that the sector is perpetually caught in the hamster wheel of crisis and response. This raises the question: how do we move beyond endlessly providing responses to crises and instead, anticipate and be proactive in our interventions? This central query emerged throughout the International Cooperation Futures Festival hosted by Cooperation Canada. 

I do not have the answer(s) to this question. However, I am deeply invested in uncovering possible solutions. The following are key messages and considerations I gleaned from the 4-day conference that can help to illuminate the answers we seek: 

The status quo is not acceptable 

Many panelists at the conference critically pointed to the sector’s inclination towards adhering to the status quo. Equally expressed was the urgent need to divorce ourselves from this inclination as our world looks very different now than it once did. Rapidly changing and evolving global contexts mean that our world needs new solutions for new problems, and new structures to deliver and implement those solutions. To do so effectively requires that we re-invent the frameworks that guide our work and dispose of old principles and approaches that no longer serve our purpose. 

We need a revolution of ingenuity 

Pressure makes diamonds. The challenging nature of the pandemic has helped to sprout the beginnings of a revolution of ingenuity – one that needs to continue until fully in bloom. Across many of the panel discussions, there was a call to seek and source out solutions to our changing world’s problems from the frontlines. The most proactive and sustainable innovations to address the continuing health crisis, for example, do not come from ivory medical towers, but rather, from the nurses, community health workers, doctors, and emergency medics who operate from the frontlines. 

A transfer of power

One panelist asserted that “no one does anything differently because no one voluntarily gives up power”. In other words, one of the impediments to proactive and innovative development work is the unwillingness to forfeit or transfer power. Conference panelists largely agreed that more power, and importantly, more trust should be transferred to the local communities within which INGOs operate. Doing so places greater agency in the hands of community partners and would result in more proactive and sustainable solutions to local problems. 

Re(imagining) our purpose

In the quest to seek potential answers, we must (re)examine and (re)imagine the very purpose of development itself. This necessitates continuous discourse and dialogue. Cooperation Canada’s Future Festival was an ideal forum to spark sector-wide dialogues. It is up to us to continue these open conversations and take the necessary steps toward new ways of conducting our work. 

Sophia Mirzayee is a second-generation Afghan Canadian who is passionate about social justice, global citizenship education, and youth engagement. She is an Education and Youth Engagement Officer at Aga Khan Foundation Canada. Click here to connect with Sophia on LinkedIn.


November 9, 2022


Sophia Mirzayee