How Feminist is Canada's New Foreign Aid Really?

Feminist Canada Foreign Aid Policy Sarah Pittman

On June 9th, the Canadian Minister of International Development, Marie-Claude Bibeau, announced that Canada intended to radically alter its foreign aid policy to specifically center on feminism. Called the Feminist International Assistance Policy, it has since made waves around the world. Responses have been mixed; on the one hand, the new policy has been considered empowering by many. On the other, it has been highly criticized, with one observer bluntly declaring that it won't help women. With governments and think tanks taking note, it is important to consider how feminist Canada’s new foreign aid policy is. Despite its intentions and the fact that this new foreign aid policy is feminist in some ways, there are still significant problems that the Canadian government needs to address.

To begin, it is important to distinguish between traditional foreign aid and feminist foreign aid. Broadly, foreign aid is contributed by governments, large organizations (for example, the World Bank), and non-governmental organizations in an attempt to improve some of the world’s largest problems, like poverty, conflict, and disease. Feminist foreign aid attempts to do the same thing, but views these problems through a feminist lens. For example, while a traditional foreign aid policy might address a post-conflict situation with large donations in an attempt to boost a country’s economy, a feminist foreign aid policy may tackle the same problem by specifically helping female entrepreneurs to establish businesses, which is known to boost economies. Canada’s foreign aid is now more likely to choose the latter.

Financially, the Canadian government states that at least 95% of Canada’s foreign aid spent “will either target or integrate gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.Furthermore, the government will cease working with partners who are not willing to address issues which particularly affect women and girls.

That a government is approaching foreign aid with a feminist mindset is certainly a win. Adopting a feminist foreign aid policy makes sense - girls are often disproportionately poor, more vulnerable to diseases, and have less access to education. Additionally, research has shown that when women have leadership roles in places affected by conflict and poverty, the outcomes are better and improve the whole society.

This new foreign policy also provides an opportunity for Canada to lead the way in fighting poverty and conflict, filling the vacuum left by the Trump administration.

This new foreign policy provides an opportunity for Canada to lead the way in fighting poverty and conflict, filling the vacuum left by the Trump administration. With U.S. President Trump’s proposed cuts to foreign aid being called “breathtakingly cruel,” and a mandate to put “America First,” Canada’s feminist foreign aid policy is a clear break from one of its strongest allies. Following in the footsteps of Sweden - which pioneered a feminist foreign aid and policy approach in 2015 - Canada can potentially fill the void left by the United States.

However, the Canadian government must first sort out the significant problems in the Feminist International Assistance Policy: the first of which is a problem of definition.

There is no clear definition to clarify what feminist foreign aid is, or for that matter, what feminism is at all. Feminism is a politically charged and highly contested term, and without a core definition to base the policy on, such ‘feminist’ motivations behind foreign aid decisions may be widely varied. This lack of definition means there is little way to determine if the goals of the policy are even met, and risks feminism being co-opted as a PR stunt.

When the Feminist International Assistance Policy was first announced, critics were quick to dissect the finances behind the policy. No new funding will be allocated, while at the same time, the military was given a $14 billion annual budget hike. Julia Sanchez, the President of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation hit the nail on the head when she said: “What’s the message we’re sending to the world? Are we saying that we’re going to invest in our military, but the development side, the soft side of peace and security isn’t important?” It certainly seems plausible that the Canadian government is not putting its full weight behind this policy. Without extra funding to pursue its new goals, it may fall short.

The Canadian government currently spends only 0.26% of its gross national income (GNI) on foreign aid, which is far from the United Nations target of 0.7% GNI. The Feminist International Assistance Policy relies on language stating that Canada is taking a “leading role on the international stage,” but with this lack of funding, that is unlikely to happen. If the Canadian government wants this foreign aid policy to actually make a difference, it is going to have to put its money where its mouth is.

Another issue with the Canadian government’s feminist foreign aid policy extends beyond the policy itself and into the possibility that the Canadian government will use it as an excuse to declare itself a ‘feminist government’ while it is actually nothing of the sort. The Canadian government has recently engaged in foreign policy decisions that are against the principles of feminism. One example in particular is the lucrative arms deal the Canadian government recently finalized with Saudi Arabia, worth $12 billion, making Saudi Arabia a significant trading partner with Canada. Saudi Arabia is arguably one of the most anti-feminist places in the world, and Canada now supports such a regime with weapons. Additionally, it was recently discovered that Saudi Arabia has been using these Canadian-made weapons against their own people. Even if the Feminist International Assistance Policy is sincere, and genuinely works to help create a more gender-equal world, questions have been raised as to just how much difference will it make overall, especially when Canada financially prioritizes military over foreign aid.

The Feminist International Assistance Policy has the ability to make a difference around the world. But until the Canadian government addresses the problems within the policy and acknowledges the importance of non-aid decisions, there’s no guarantee that it will accomplish anything at all.

Sarah Pittman recently completed her master's at The Graduate Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @SMPittman_

Marissa Conway