Carroll, Michael K and Greg Donaghy, From Kinshasa to Kandahar: Canada and Fragile States in Historical Perspective (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2016).

Reviewed by Adam Finzi 

Canada’s legacy of intervening in fragile states is both an enduring part of its identity and a complicated part of the country’s history. On one hand, Canada’s interventions in fragile states have shaped its place in the world as a middle power, through its partnerships with the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. On the other, a serious examination of Canada’s often well-intentioned interventions reveals numerous errors and miscalculations.


In an age where political opinions are at the forefront of almost every debate, it becomes easy to see how one’s own views contribute to the perception of Canadian interventions.  Liberal viewpoints may gravitate toward framing Canadian interventions as part of an effort to protect marginalized groups who fall outside of its borders. In contrast, more conservative minds might view Canadian interventions as driven by national security and economic concerns. As a result, it is tempting to discuss these events to appease a particular target audience.


In light of the risk that the authors take in alienating certain audiences, I cannot help but respect From Kinshasa to Kandahar: Canada and Fragile States in Historical Perspective for its unapologetically honest account of Canadian interventions in fragile states. Michael Carroll and Greg Donaghy’s collection of essays will give readers a poignant evaluation of Canadian intervention overseas through in-depth historical accounts, well researched data analysis, and logical argumentation.


Regardless of the intention behind Canadian efforts, the book is clear that Canada has largely failed to meet its objectives in intervening internationally. However, Michael Carroll and Greg Donaghy’s work also provides lessons on how Canada can improve its efforts in future to counter this bleak conclusion. 


As one would expect from a book which aims to offer a historical perspective, From Kinshasa to Kandahar’s structure is in the form of a case study which reflects on noteworthy examples of Canadian intervention overseas. The editors define intervention broadly as exercise of foreign policy, which aims to change the internal workings of a foreign country. These include measures such as foreign aid, engaging militarily through the Canadian Armed Forces, and imposing economic sanctions.


The title of the book is cleverly chosen to highlight key case studies from Canadian efforts in Kinshasa, the Capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo to Canada’s more recent peacebuilding activities in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The book also characterizes the wave of decolonization following the Second World War as both a blessing and curse. While mass decolonization was a major victory for the human right to self-determination, the loss of structure imposed by colonial rule resulted in many countries turning into fragile states.


To help validate its findings, From Kinshasa to Kandahar complements its qualitative historical review with plenty of quantitative data to support its claims. While this type of evidence is common among essay collections of this nature, several aspects of the way in which the book utilizes this data stand out. As a citizen whose tax dollars contribute to Canadian foreign policy, the problems with intervention are easier to understand when you can see how money is spent on these efforts. For example, between 1977 and 1978 the Canadian International Development Agency committed the Canadian equivalent of $39 million USD to Haiti. I could not help but question whether this money was wasted when one considers that Haiti remains a fragile state nearly forty years later.


The book’s chapter on Canadian interventions in Latin America analyzes foreign aid data and determines to which causes of state instability Canadian aid should be targeted. This section of the book provided a more optimistic perspective by offering lessons for how Canada can improve its intervention methods moving forward.


One area that highlights the strengths of From Kinshasa to Kandahar’s argumentation concerns its discussion of definitions. The book’s discussion of definitions is one of its particular strenghs. The editors demonstrate that using terms like ‘fragile’ or ‘failed’ can be problematic for several reasons. Defining a country as a failed state, as opposed to fragile, is especially risky as it implies that the state can never achieve stability and that any intervention is doomed to failure. From Kinshasa to Kandahar’s chapter on East Timor directly confronts this situation. At the time, Canada refused to support East Timor’s efforts to separate from Indonesia in the belief that self-determination was hopeless. However, years later many experts view East Timor as a flawed but functioning independent state. Canada has also been unsuccessful in building a productive relationship with Pakistan because it has traditionally viewed the country as a failed state and based its intervention efforts around that notion.


Kinshasa to Kandahar honest review of Canadian intervention allows it to unearth the key factors, which have led to unsuccessful interventions. The two that stand out the most are Canada’s pre-occupation with domestic concerns and overly ambitious objectives. In several case studies, like the Nigerian Civil War and East Timor’s fight for self-determination, Canada chose not to intervene due to fears that intervention would encourage Quebec separatists in Canada. Furthermore, Michael Carroll and Greg Donaghy’s work discusses how interventions such as Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan were hampered by the impractical goal of the mission. In Kandahar, Canada aimed to lead the international state-building effort, which required the coordination of numerous government departments and the ability to contend with the heavy presence of the Taliban and limited support from Afghanistan’s government. The result was that by the end of the mission Canada’s efforts had failed to address the political problem at the heart of the country’s instability.


`Despite the book’s obvious strengths, I found the last case study on corporate social responsibility in South Sudan and Ghana out of place. Although I agree that corporations can have a positive influence on state building, the discussion felt less relevant to the overall goal of analyzing Canadian intervention abroad.


From Kinshasa to Kandahar: Canada and Fragile States in Historical Perspective is not an uplifting book, but it is one of the most rewarding. Despite Canada being known internationally for its commitment to peacekeeping and other forms of state intervention, the book shows that the results of these interventions are often underwhelming. The book’s value is derived from the way in which it challenges the narrative that Canadian intervention in foreign countries has been a major benefit globally. This allows readers the opportunity to truly reflect on Canada’s past and ask themselves important questions. Is Canada willing to take the steps needed to improve the success rate of its interventions in the future? Or is it time for Canada to remove intervening in foreign conflicts as a major aspect of its identity? These are the pivotal questions raised by From Kinshasa to Kandahar: Canada and Fragile States in Historical Perspective that only time can answer.

Adam Finzi is a Master of Arts graduate from Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science program. Adam’s previous work experience includes research and policy analysis for the Permanent Mission of Canada to the Organization of American States and observing El Salvador’s 2014 presidential election at the request of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. His research interests include Canadian foreign policy, human rights, and ethics.


Show Buttons
Hide Buttons