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Canada’s feminist aid agenda: brave but not radical

Written by Caroline Harper

Canadian Minister of International Development and La Francophonie, Marie-Claude Bibeau shared reflections on Canada’s new Feminist International Assistance Policy at ODI last night. Today, ODI Principal Research Fellow Dr Caroline Harper reflects on what a ‘Feminist’ aid agenda means in reality.    

Canada’s new feminist aid agenda will certainly cause a stir. Given the semantic disagreements and sensitivities associated with the ‘F-Word’ in the North, the explicit use of the word ‘feminist’ will reignite debates on women’s activism. The place of feminism in aid is an important and overdue debate at higher levels of the aid world. 

It is important to place this policy in context. Some see three phases of feminist activity: early in the twentieth century action focussed on addressing political voice; in the 1960s, legal and economic empowerment took prominence; and most recently, the intersectionality of race, class, and ethnicity have become a focus. Importantly, this also captures people’s unconscious biases and centuries worth of discriminatory norms, often implicit and embedded in unquestioned attitudes and behaviours. 

The current interest of many donors (for example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and DFID) in addressing ‘norms’ may not be recognised by them as a feminist approach, but it is central to the feminist agenda.

Yet, while aid agencies often aim to integrate work on gender equality (for example, to support women’s progress into jobs, provide them with more healthcare or equal educational opportunities) they regularly do so without addressing the fundamental underlying structural discrimination embedded in society. 

So how does Canada’s feminist approach add up?

Aid agencies and foreign policies have used the F-Word before. Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstrom, was the first world leader to speak openly about a ‘feminist’ foreign policy. At an event in Washington, DC last year, she suggested that ‘Striving toward gender equality is ... not only a goal in itself, but also a precondition for achieving our wider foreign, development and security policy objectives.’ Gender equality is one of Swedish SIDA’s four fundamental values. 

Many aid agencies recognise the importance of working with women and girls, albeit as one of many priorities. Most headline aid goals from leading bilateral donors include many of the same aspirations: reducing poverty, promoting prosperity, enhancing peace, security and governance, advancing democracy and enabling sustainable development. However, few headline gender equality specifically.

Canada’s new policy marks a significant change of focus for a high-profile agenda because it places equality and female empowerment as key goals across all activities. We saw this policy in action this week when International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau used the Family Planning Summit to announce $241.5 million of existing funding commitments would be earmarked for projects providing comprehensive sexuality education, investing in contraceptive provision and strengthening family planning services. 

Gender equality lies within most aid agendas but addressing equality and discriminatory norms is not one stand-alone activity. Canada’s headlining policy demonstrates that a feminist approach must underline the whole agenda. But does the policy do this effectively? 

Brave but not necessarily radical

Integration of equality aims in policy is fundamental, but mainstreaming them is not new. Previous attempts have paid lip service to gender equality that then disappears under the weight of other worthy goals. By headlining women’s empowerment and gender equality as outcomes, Canada may avoid this pitfall but it has proposed no new structures. So the policy is less radical than the headline suggests.

Canada is also not allocating significant new money, it is just redirecting existing funding towards gender equality and women and girls programming. This may yield results but Canada’s decision to increase their military budget whilst keeping aid spending at 0.26% has already faced criticism. The ‘add women and stir’ approach has seen limited success elsewhere.

As with other agencies, Canada references ‘norms’ but fails to recognise how these are fundamental to change. Critics see this as the policy’s central problem. Questions remain around a potential backlash from religious groups and traditional communities, the need to develop genuine partnerships and whether a feminist approach fits with the formulaic Sustainable Development Goals. These questions relate to how radical the feminist agenda needs to be – slow, small steps or a fundamental restructuring of development. Canada is clearly taking the former approach. It is pragmatic, realistic and, it has to be acknowledged, brave.