Kerry Max

Special Advisor, Climate Finance Partnerships at Global Affairs Canada

Kerry has over thirty years of experience in international development research, practice, policy and programming, including in climate action, private sector development, trade, investment, development finance and project management. He currently focuses on promoting climate action partnerships for gender-inclusive, nature-based solutions for climate adaptation, as part of the team managing Canada’s Partnering for Climate initiative.

Work and impact

I work at Global Affairs Canada in international development. Our mandate is to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of our Feminist International Assistance Policy that guides us to ensure that with all our programming, we integrate gender equality considerations. So with this as our guiding framework, we certainly integrate environmental sustainability and social impact.  In the particular work I am doing, I focus on the impact side using an environment and climate lens with gender and issues of indigenous justice integrated. Where I work in our partnerships branch, we’ve got a mandate to engage Canadians and support Canadian civil society organizations in helping to advance Canadian values in our development work internationally. I’m currently focusing on setting up a program that will allow them to do that with a focus on climate adaptation and nature-based solutions targeting Sub-Saharan Africa.

I, by accident, found out about a program called Canada World Youth when I was in grade 12. Up until that point, I’d been interested in business and accounting.  And while I was politically and environmentally aware, I hadn’t really thought about international development. Canada World Youth was a government-sponsored program that sent young people from Canada between 17 and 21 years of age  to live in a developing country with a group of their counterparts for three and a half months, and then brought those counterparts for three and a half months to live in Canada. When I went on that youth exchange program, it exposed me to how people in Sri Lanka were living and when I came back to Canada my views were completely changed regarding what I was wanting to do with my life.  I decided I absolutely wanted to do international development, I wanted to make an impact on supporting people in developing countries and achieving their poverty reduction and other objectives. And that led me to a dedicated cooperative program at the University of Toronto Scarborough College, the international development studies program. That was a multidisciplinary degree, focusing on political economics and physical and ecological resource management with the idea of providing students with the generalist capacity to address any of the challenges in international development. It included a year living in Benin, West Africa, as an intern, where I was on a food security pilot project. 

I came back from that and finished my last year at U of T. I then went and did a Masters in Philosophy at Oxford University, but again, with the idea of focusing on development economics. When I came back from that, I ended up doing some consulting with some of my U of T professors. That was my first exposure to what was then the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) – which is now part of Global Affairs Canada (GAC),  and that led me to a job at the North-South Institute (NSI) which was a think tank looking at international development. NSI led me to CIDA/GAC, and 20+ years of working there. I started in CIDA’s poverty reduction policy and shifted to integrate Trade and Development. I then left our Policy branch to go into the Americas branch as their Chief Economist, where we were combining trade, development, poverty reduction, and private sector development. I did a stint of four years in Nicaragua as head of aid for Nicaragua and Costa Rica before I returned to CIDA to support the environment and private sector specialists that were providing specialist advice across the department. After a close to two year break working for a Canadian NGO – MEDA – as their director of Financial Inclusion, I returned to GAC to focus on research and knowledge, where I promoted the combined areas of climate change and blended finance. It’s like social impact investing but from a development perspective. After working mostly on blended finance, I shifted to climate finance.

In high school I was an angry teenager looking at how screwed up the world was in terms of politics, unjust neocolonial development, and the risk of nuclear war. At that point there was less emphasis on the environment due to a lack of awareness in the late 80s and early 90s. I participated in some protests for peace on Parliament Hill and did some things on the environment, but it was basically towards the end of those high school years where I was thinking about social justice issues. In terms of impact in the private sector, that wasn’t something I was aware of. Once I came back from Canada World Youth and was exposed to that development impact, that’s where, all of a sudden, I knew what I wanted to do. As I showed from my career trajectory, my work on Trade and Development with the private sector allowed me to see where that impact overlap can be. It showed me that a private sector company even without an explicit social impact agenda can make a huge dent in poverty reduction by creating job opportunities, knowledge exchange, and spurring local economic development.

The advantage of being in an organization that now has a 50+ year track record and actually builds in mechanisms to capture corporate learning and feedback mechanisms, is our past experiences have influenced a lot of the orientation of current development right now. There’s a huge emphasis on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. That’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the most effective way to advance equitable development. I don’t know if you’ve come across this in your studies in terms of diverse boards or diverse leadership, but overcoming those patriarchal biases and striving for diversity really does end up shoring up your bottom line. The government’s focus on a feminist international assistance policy is something that was unthinkable in the 1990s and 2000s. I think it’s a fantastic thing. 

The other element is blended finance. It’s that deliberate effort to embrace the opportunities to work with the private sector, to promote the incentives, and build markets that leverage their financial and knowledge contributions, because public finance on its own will never be enough to finance all International Development needs. 

The last element is the major advances more recently in the localization agenda. Focusing on local capacity on the ground, opening the door to shifting leadership to the local level. Based on the experience I have had in terms of private investment, the key to winning in local markets is local market intel. It’s changing the effectiveness of our international development work and the level of social impact as we build up markets for people locally. People who know what they can do, what can’t be done, what should be done, and who can make the connections to get those things done. 

I think there’s a misconception about government. There’s a misconception that it’s bloated, slow and too traditional.Similar when many people think about international development, a lot of people see it as irrelevant to domestic well-being or not linked to domestic private sector agendas. However, based on what I have seen, I think government is a lot more efficient than it is given credit for, while private sector efficiencies are way overstated. I’m hearing stories of  bloating, vanilla programming and lack of innovation from many of my friends and colleagues working in the private sector. Also, in my own organization, I’m seeing some really interesting innovations and some major opportunities to advance things going forward. Overall, and coming back to the issue: “is development relevant to domestic well-being?” as COVID shows, we’re in an integrated, interdependent world. So development matters, in terms of supporting peace, stability, security, creating markets, creating knowledge, and creating those linkages across people.

Life and aspirations

I’m fortunate to be working with an amazing team in a department that already shifted to accommodate work-from-home. In part because the government was already shifting to a new model of less than 100% occupancy anytime during the year. When COVID hit, we were already well set up. In terms of my day-to-day, I start the day with a check-in meeting at 830, we all come together and catch up on where things are at with work, and as colleagues, we also check in with each other’s well-being. I spend my days doing a variety of writing, whether I’m writing a policy brief, preparing a website for release, or drafting a project approval memo. I also do a fair amount of research, staying on track of what the areas are in the field that we’re trying to promote and key lessons learned. Furthermore, there’s a lot of direct engagement. I have meetings with colleagues from other divisions, and I’m constantly engaging with practitioners in the areas of climate action. That, in and of itself provides quite a diverse and interesting job package that helps support my work-life balance. Also, I made a decision very early on in my career that family matters, and that I would not become someone who only prioritized work and gave up on family and friends, and I’ve been able to maintain that. So, I work normal 8 hour days, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter.  I make sure that I’m there in the morning for the kids, and I’m there at the end of the day, for my spouse and for my dog, so that that balance is working out really well. 

Any time you’re working in a big organization, whether it’s the government or a multinational corporation, you’re part of a big machine. So my sphere of influence is relatively limited. At the end of the day, as a civil servant, I can only give my best, evidence-informed advice. People may not take that advice, but the thing you need to understand in this context is what I’m telling people is only a piece of the puzzle that they’re putting together in what is often a larger, broader context. It’s a broader context of tradeoffs (e.g., political, economic, human resources, etc.) and considerations that I’m not necessarily aware of. So while it’s challenging to not always see my advice taken on board, I don’t particularly find it frustrating because I understand why it’s happening. The flip side is, that particular challenge drives me to look for ways to maximize my influence, and figure out ways of triangulating the messaging to our managers and political masters. That’s always an interesting and exciting challenge to have. And there are ways of doing that.

I’m very happy with what I’m doing. I’ve got a number of good healthy years left in me. I think I’m planning to stick around to see the kind of programming that I’m doing come to fruition. It’d be cool to become part of a climate action impact investment team. I’ve been dealing with a lot of private investors in my work. I think it would be very exciting to be part of the team that gets the funds into climate adaptation investments on the ground in developing countries.

My interest is also still on the development side, and I’d like to get back into the world of being able to go and work in or live in developing countries, which is the best way to connect to what is really happening. There are insights that you get from the face to face connections that you don’t get from sitting at home. So that’s where I would go on that front.

Advice for the next generations

The first one is comfort in dealing with the unknown. You need to be flexible to the changing demands of the job, and you need to really embrace the learning and the diversity of experiences that come from that. 

Especially with all the stuff going on in the world, there aren’t very many jobs out there right now that are going to have long-term stability, even in terms of job structure and focus. That’s very true in terms of public service and international development. There are rapidly changing priorities, whether that’s a function of changing priorities on the ground, or because it’s a part of political machinery. I’m working in government, and we work to serve the crown.

If the government changes, those policy priorities can change, so it’s important to be flexible. The second key skill is networking and developing personal relationships with co-workers. Whether it’s the government or a private sector organization, organizations are made up of people, and you need to be able to connect with the people that are important to you. You also need to be available to connect with people that you are important for because you never know where future paths will intersect. I’m currently working with people that I’ve helped in the past, as well as people who have helped me in the past. That networking skill comes back to what I was saying about triangulating your influence because you can use colleagues and they can use you to help achieve shared objectives. It’s not just a question of being nice and friendly, it’s finding that intersection of your objectives and their objectives so that the overall relationship is one that is mutually beneficial. There are times when I feel like a vampire. I’ll reach out to a colleague in civil society, and I’ll say: “I really need your help in this” and I’m just taking from them and not giving anything back. However, I try to give back so that there’s a balance.

The third skill is linked to the unknowns I first mentioned. While it may be unknown, it doesn’t have to be surprising. We all need to – as they say – be able to see the forest for the trees. To really help advance an organization’s agenda, you need to look beyond your immediate area of responsibility and interest, and find out where you fit with your organization’s objectives. Find the intersection between your priorities and those of the organization. However, you’re not going to see that or understand it or position yourself to do it if you only stay narrowly in your little zone. You’ve got to step back from your day-to-day, you need to look at the broader trends, pay attention to your organization’s messages, and you need to pay attention to what’s happening in the industry, and try to anticipate that and position yourself for it.

Lots of different degrees can satisfy an organization, but you definitely need one. The closer your degree is linked to the mandate of the organization you’re trying to get into, the better off you’re going to be. And sadly, in today’s competitive environment, an undergraduate degree may not be enough.  But at the same time, it’s really important to remember that you’re unlikely to get much out of your degree if you don’t find what you’re studying appealing in and of itself. If you can study what you love, that’s going to give you so much more out of that degree, and it will make you a more appealing job candidate when you’re pitching your candidacy. That enthusiasm and enjoyment will come through. I was very lucky to come out of Canada World Youth into an international development studies program that was explicitly set up for people with multiple interests like me. In contrast, with Oxford, I hoped I’d be doing development economics but it was more Mathematical, and it really was a drag and became a means to an end. Having said that, it was still an essential investment that contributed to getting me my positions in Global Affairs Canada, and my job at the North-South Institute.

The very first thing is: show me that you’re prepared. Show me that when we connect, you’ve actually taken a little bit of time to learn about something my team or organization is doing, and show me that you’re organized and thoughtful. That’s a characteristic that I know can then translate into, you know, a really beneficial relationship. It also means that if you’re coming to me for help, or for support, I know you’re not coming to me without having done a little bit of homework. I don’t have to worry about taking you from ground zero. Sometimes that is necessary, and we’re happy to do that. However, in a very busy work environment, people who need to have their hands held from the start all the way to the advanced stuff, that’s a heavy burden, and people might start shying away from you.

Likewise, show me that you pay attention and that you actively listen. I’ll give you an example. In some of the recent interviews I conducted, we told people they had 30 minutes for questions. However, some tore through their answers so quickly that they missed the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge. Or, if they didn’t have the knowledge, demonstrate that they would know how to get that knowledge if they didn’t have it. Also, you can tell if people are paying attention. It’s how they react to you, whether they check their texts, whether they’re taking notes and thinking about things before they immediately respond. Again, it’s that characteristic that says: “Alright, I’m with someone who’s taking themselves seriously and taking me seriously.” 

The last thing – show me you’re really excited about the job. I’m in a team of people who love what they do. We’re looking for similarly enthusiastic people to join us. Even if the subject matter doesn’t excite, there may be elements of the job that are exciting. If you’re excited about your job, it shows me that you’re enthusiastic about embracing life, and it’s just more fun to be with people like that.

As you can probably guess, I was really lucky. I figured out what I wanted to do, and then I stood back and figured out what I needed to do to get where I wanted to go. So I studied and I had the early chances to get the experience I needed to succeed. I feel I still should have done a better job deepening my core knowledge. For example, I was told by my professor in university that I was going to need calculus if I wanted to go into economics. I blew it off, and in fact, he was right. 

There’s a second answer I want to provide. Life is short and uncertain, right? So don’t give up three or four more years of enjoyment and learning to position yourself for a career you think you want. Ideally, try to find a way to get the education and experiences you need in ways that are rewarding and interesting to you. In comparison to conditions today, I come from somewhat of a golden time in Canadian education and  Canadian government support where the job environment was less competitive.