Canada’s new feminist international aid policy: From words to action

Sonal Marwah Featured, News

On June 8, Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau released Canada’s “first feminist international assistance policy.” This bold policy has received praise and applause from Canadian civil society and international development actors.

What is a feminist approach? A common misconception is that it focuses exclusively on women and girls. On the contrary, such an approach seeks to address systemic and structural inequalities and barriers grounded in social constructions of gender and patriarchal power relations that attempt to control women’s bodies and choices. Canada’s feminist international assistance policy is based on the foundations of gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.

A feminist lens on international aid will allow Canada to effectively target the root causes of global poverty, which include exclusion and unequal power relations among the genders. Prioritizing equality for women and girls is also central to other multilateral development initiatives:

  • The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) state that a precondition for alleviating poverty and inequality is women’s empowerment.
  • In the Paris Agreement, women can be powerful actors in the transition to sustainable energy and climate-smart agriculture.
  • The UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction indicates that empowerment of women and girls is critical in building effective disaster resilience.

The new Canadian aid policy has six priority action areas:

  1. Gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls: Canada has chosen to make this the core foundation on which to base investments, interventions, and development programs to alleviate global poverty.
  2. Human dignity: Canada will assist the most vulnerable to access essential and quality health care and nutrition, education, and timely humanitarian assistance, all while respecting the dignity of the individual.
  3. Growth that works for everyone: Inclusive economic growth ensures the full and equal participation of women as economic actors, both in their families and in their communities, and includes women’s control over their own sexual and reproductive health choices.
  4. Environment and climate action: Canada aims to design disaster risk reduction strategies and foster resilience building, which will open channels for women’s leadership and equal participation.
  5. Inclusive governance: Canada will work to ensure that women and girls have agency through policies, laws, and procedures that support gender equality and provide full and equal protection. Included are equal rights related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, property, and land ownership.
  6. Peace and security: Canada will work to build and sustain peace in fragile and conflict-affected contexts for the safety of citizens and as a precondition for sustainable development.
Realizing Canada’s feminist international aid policy

Successful implementation of the new feminist policy requires a careful rethinking and redesign of the policies and programs of the Canadian government. Ottawa should consider these three crucial areas:

  1. Harmonizing government policy

What is needed is a whole-of-government effort: policy harmonization, using a feminist lens, across departments that relate to defence, trade, environment, foreign policy, health, justice, as well as international assistance. For example, it does no good for Canada to publicly condemn gross human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, including a pattern of gender-based repression, while selling $15-billion of military equipment to the Saudi government in a deal that has been widely questioned at home and abroad.

A lack of coherence across government sectors wastes development funds and makes Canadian international efforts seem hypocritical.

  1. Increasing funding to Official Development Assistance

In Canada, funds for international assistance programs come from the International Assistance Envelope (IAE)—the term used to cover Official Development Assistance (ODA). From the IAE come allocations for international cooperation, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and some programs of Foreign Affairs Canada, the Department of Finance, and other federal departments.

The United Nations recommends that developed countries spend 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) on ODA spending, with 0.15-0.2% of GNI allocated to the least developed countries. The 0.7 per cent target was set in 1969 by a UN expert commission headed by former Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson and has been repeatedly endorsed by international development forums and committees. Canada’s budget allocations lag shamefully behind.

The government currently spends just 0.26 per cent of GNI on foreign aid. Regrettably, the 2017 budget provides no new funding for the IAE. According to AidWatch Canada, in 2016-17, allocations toward ODA were estimated at $5,852-million; in 2017-18, the predicated amount is $5,266-million. Compare this with recently announced increased defence spending, from 1.2 per cent of GDP to 1.4 per cent by 2024-25; in real terms, this is roughly an increase of $32,700-million from $18,900-million. ­

 Canada’s contributions to ODA

Fiscal Year 2010-11 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16
ODA as % of GNI 0.33 0.31 0.30 0.26 0.29 0.26

Source: http://www.ccic.ca/_files/en/what_we_do/2016_10_Brief_Update_Canadian_ODA.pdf

The just-announced policy includes specific targets, such as that 15 per cent of all bilateral assistance investments (up from 2 percent in 2015-16) will be allocated to gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls by 2021-22. Funding has been restructured, but there is no new funding.

The government has encouraged the private sector to consider development-focused partnerships and investments. Diversified funding sources can certainly assist government efforts, but such a practice does not get Canada off the hook of meeting the ODA target. To achieve the promises made in the new aid policy, the government needs to ensure a predictable and multiyear increase in budget allocation to the IAE.

  1. Striving for equality across the gender spectrum

Canada’s new aid policy seeks to “deliver transformational change” by targeting “social contexts” and social constructions of gender norms and expectations that prevent women and girls from reaching their full potential. However. If the government is seeking to break down damaging and harmful social constructions of gender-related norms and expectations, it must walk the talk. So far, this has not always been the case.

The resettlement of refugees falls under the IAE. In 2015, the government’s resettlement plan of 25,000 Syrian refugees excluded single Syrian men. Why? Because single men and older boys travelling alone are viewed as a security threat (men who travel in a family unit are not). Some of these men and youths had fled Syria to avoid military conscription or forced recruitment into armed opposition groups. But then they faced new obstacles in gaining asylum, primarily due to their gender.

It is not easy to gather evidence of safety risks faced by forcibly displaced men and boys. Entrenched gender norms and cultural and religious taboos make it difficult for males to disclose that, for example, they are survivors of sexual violence (UNHCR 2012). Despite an awareness of this complex situation, the Canadian government enacted a policy that was discriminatory and exclusionary.

Government policies should be careful not to reinforce gender stereotypes; after all, the feminist approach is precisely about unpacking harmful social constructions of gender. This standard should be applied both at home and in the international context.

Leading the way

The new feminist international assistance policy could be a real game-changer in international development and make Canada a global leader. Harmonizing policy, increasing funding, and implementing gender equality across its policies and practices will enable the Canadian government to move from the promises of the new feminist international assistance policy to action and implementation.

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