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Happy fifth anniversary to Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy.

What’s a birthday party without friends? With Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) turning five, we got a group of friends from Canada’s international development sector together to celebrate. Anniversaries are also a time of reflection and anticipation, so we asked them three big questions: 

→ What are the FIAP’s biggest achievements? 
→ What are some of the gaps?
→ What would you like to see in the next five years? 

Julie Delahanty, Executive Director, Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights

The FIAP’s focus on women’s rights has successfully shifted the thinking, framing, and discourse within government and among government officials on the fundamental importance and impact of investing in gender equality and women’s rights. Critically, the FIAP specifically names sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), including access to safe abortion, and recognizes SRHR as an official part of government policy in international assistance, with significant funding having been dedicated to it as well as other standalone gender equality and women’s rights issues. 

While there have been huge shifts in the way Global Affairs Canada is approaching the issue of gender equality, there continues to be a lack of consistency in programming and policy development. The FIAP demands a complete rethinking of programming and policy using a feminist framework. Increased funding for women’s rights and for SRHR are positive steps but must include increased staffing capacity and analysis across all areas of Global Affairs Canada’s work to support an intersectional, feminist framework across programs and departments. Global Affairs Canada is still not fit for purpose to deliver on the FIAP and the Government has allowed its potential to dissipate in deference to other priorities and ways of working. 

We’d like to see the FIAP realize its full potential. This policy was built on evidence provided through lengthy consultation on the best way to make positive change through international development assistance. We’d like to see the Government advance its commitments to support a feminist intersectional approach that addresses the root causes of discrimination and oppression and programmes accordingly. We want to see a stronger commitment to the neglected areas of funding (abortion care and SRHR advocacy in particular) and an understanding that it is a fundamentally different way of thinking and programming, not simply an “add women and stir” exercise. While providing more funding for standalone women’s rights issues is important and needs greater attention, other initiatives like agriculture, education, climate change, health etc. also need to be rethought from a fully feminist perspective.


Doug Kerr, Executive Director, Dignity Network Canada

When Canada’s FIAP was released in 2017, one of the most significant gaps was the almost complete lack of attention to issues related to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and sex characteristics (SOGIESC). In many places worldwide, LGBTIQ people continue to face social exclusion, discrimination, violence and oppression in ways intrinsically linked to gender inequality, misogyny and sexism. For many of us working on the human rights of people based on SOGIESC, this gap was surprising, especially considering the new Liberal government’s stated support of LGBTIQ2 communities at home. 

Looking back, however, the policy framework in the FIAP has provided a foundation for SOGIESC inclusion in the years since.  The framing of the policy as human rights-based and inclusive was used when Canada announced the first significant funding of $6M a year ($30M over five years) in 2019 to advance the human rights of people based on SOGIESC. While this funding was not a direct result of the FIAP, elements of the framework can be seen in the rationale and development of this new LGBTQ2I International Assistance program. Projects like the new Act Together for Inclusion Fund (ACTIF), which funds partnerships between Canadian and LGBTIQ2 organizations in ODA-eligible countries, are a good step forward as the FIAP evolves. 

Looking forward to the next five years, we hope that Canada’s FIAP and Feminist Foreign Policy will be more explicit in their inclusion of SOGIESC issues. Canada’s current funding to advance the human rights and socio-economic inclusion of LGBTIQ people is only around 0.1% of total international aid. Canada is moving in the right direction, but very slowly, and we hope this percentage will increase to 0.3% of total assistance, approximately $20M a year. Canada is seen today around the world as one of the countries trying to ‘walk the talk’ of inclusion of people based on SOGIESC in its international role. The Feminist International Assistance Policy should reflect this commitment in more than words but also in funding. 


Steve Mason, Regional Director, North America (Programs and Partnerships), Aga Khan Foundation

In 2019, while traveling in one of Tajikistan’s more conservative regions, I met with the newly appointed District Governor. She gave a passionate overview of her ambitious plans for the region, which included a major emphasis on women’s economic and social empowerment. After the meeting, the Aga Khan Foundation’s Chief Executive Officer in Tajikistan, Kishwar, turned to me and said, “You know, Steve, the reason that we are seeing such strong women in decision-making roles here is because of Canada. This would not have been possible even ten years ago.” The emphasis that Canada has continually placed on gender equality has enabled the Aga Khan Foundation to shift norms and facilitate many new opportunities for women and girls, in Tajikistan and across Africa and Asia.

For me, this perfectly encapsulated the power and the potential of Canada’s FIAP: it builds on Canada’s long history of supporting gender equality and women’s empowerment, sharpening the focus in a way that promotes long-term, sustainable improvements in the lives of women, girls, and their communities. 

During that same trip, I also saw how much more there is to do. While Aga Khan Foundation’s partnership with Canada has been transformational for Tajikistan, much of that support has been focused on single sectors (health, or education, or agriculture). Our experience has shown that simultaneous and integrated efforts across multiple sectors in specific geographies is the most effective way to address the root causes of poverty. The FIAP’s framing around specific action areas runs a risk that such multi-sectoral approaches will be overlooked, or deprioritized, thus limiting the ability of progress in one sphere to benefit or contribute to progress in others. 

After all, the ability of the District Governor to rise to her leadership position was a result of investments in strong education and health systems, efforts to promote women’s roles in community and civil society organizations, and programs that ensured the economic well-being and stability of households and communities. Valuing and supporting such multi-sectoral approaches would be a laudable objective for the next five years of the FIAP.


Lauren Ravon, Executive Director, Oxfam Canada

The greatest impact of the FIAP has been to open up space for conversations about patriarchy and inequality in the context of humanitarian aid and international development. The FIAP enabled new programming to emerge that deliberately addresses the systemic inequalities that keep women and gender-diverse people trapped in poverty, while opening up new funding channels for advocacy work. The FIAP provided the framework for a much-needed ramp-up of investments in gender justice programming, including in chronically underfunded areas such as women’s transformative leadership, LGBTQI+ rights, and sexual and reproductive health and rights. The FIAP also acknowledged the catalytic role that women’s rights organizations and feminist movements play in advancing gender equality and led to much-needed resourcing of their work. 

Feminists the world over will tell you that two of the greatest obstacles standing in the way of gender equality are gender-based violence (GBV) and the heavy and disproportionate burden of unpaid care shouldered by women and girls. The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the urgency to tackle these two issues head on. And yet, while the heavy burden of childcare is alluded to in the FIAP and the Government of Canada made promising announcements at the Generation Equality Forum in 2021, Canada has yet to significantly fund standalone programming on paid and unpaid care work. The FIAP also lacks a sufficiently robust focus on violence against women and GBV, and this area of work remains sorely underfunded given the scale of this shadow pandemic. 

To truly realize the ambitious promise of the FIAP, the Government of Canada and its civil society partners need to deliberately challenge the colonial underpinnings of the humanitarian and international development system. This requires better applying feminist principles to our ways of working, and actively seeking to shift power, resources, and decision-making to the Global South – in particular women’s rights organizations. It also requires deepening an intersectional analysis to ensure more program funding is directed towards advancing the rights of Indigenous women, women with disabilities, LGBTQI+ people, and migrant and refugee women. The government should also release a long-awaited feminist foreign policy, which would ensure policy coherence across aid, trade, diplomacy, security, immigration, and climate change. 


Rebecca Tiessen, School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa

From workshops to conference paper presentations, and from scholarly publications to Twitter posts, blogs, and other informal conversations, the introduction of the FIAP has fostered a much-needed conversation within and across sectors working on international assistance and foreign policy. The significance of this conversation is the emphasis on feminist values, principles, and priorities. The discussions have shifted from simple assertions of a feminist international assistance policy to reflections on how we can be more feminist in our efforts to design programming, evaluate projects, and collaborate with partner countries/communities. 

For some commentators, Canada’s FIAP has highlighted gaps, missed opportunities, inconsistencies, and even hypocrisy. These critical insights have renewed our energy to further advance our commitments to feminist policy and practice and to hold policymakers accountable for their commitments. These insights have also helped establish areas for further development, whether in improved language and rhetoric, expanding feminist policy priorities beyond international assistance, linking goals and objectives with feminist methodologies and new data collection methods, or inside activism to support feminist goals and visions. Evidence of the expansion of commitments to a feminist approach can be found in the collaborative work between and across sectors including scholars (students, professors), policymakers, practitioners (from civil society and government), and funders. The conversation has moved from what needs to be addressed to include additional priorities like: who needs to be involved, what are the power relations that need to be addressed, and how we can work toward a feminist vision together. 

Academic scholars have highlighted some of the gaps, including the FIAP’s: disproportionate focus on ‘women and girls’ rather than gender equality (Tiessen, 2019); lack of a clear definition of feminism (Tiessen, 2019); limited approach to intersectional feminism (Morton, Muchiri and Swiss, 2020); limited focus on sexual orientation and gender inclusion (Aylward and Brown, 2020); and failure to distinguish itself substantively from previous policies that have been criticized for insufficient attention to feminist and gender equality priorities (Parisi, 2020; Smith and Ajadi 2020; Rao and Tiessen, 2020; Tiessen and Swan, 2018).

What I look forward to: a full feminist foreign policy, expanded conversations about what a feminist foreign policy means (hoping the conversations expand outside of feminist circles such that all policy analysts, scholars, practitioners begin to engage in what a feminist foreign policy means. What I am finding is a general dismissal of the ‘feminist’ approach to policy making. Many Canadian foreign policy courses or international assistance courses don’t even mention the feminist international assistance policy. Students are often surprised, even now, to learn that we have a feminist international assistance policy because ‘no one talks about it’. 

The conversation has grown but it is still very limited. I would like to see all policymakers, policy analysts, scholars, students, etc engage meaningfully in what a feminist foreign policy means in their specific areas of work. I’m dreaming big here!

References:

Erin Aylward and Stephen Brown, “Sexual orientation and gender identity in Canada’s “feminist” international assistance.” International Journal 75, no. 3 (2020): 313-328. 

Sam E. Morton, Judyannet Muchiri, and Liam Swiss, “Which feminism (s)? For whom? Intersectionality in Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy,” International Journal 75, no. 3 (2020): 329-348. 

Laura Parisi, “Canada’s New Feminist International Assistance Policy: Business as usual?” Foreign Policy Analysis 16, no. 2 (2020): 163-180.

Sheila Rao and Rebecca Tiessen, “Whose feminism (s)? Overseas partner organizations’ perceptions of Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy.”International Journal75, no. 3 (2020): 349-366.

Heather Smith and Tari Ajadi, “Canada’s feminist foreign policy and human security compared,” International Journal 75, no. 3 (2020): 367-382

Rebecca Tiessen, What’s new about Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy: The problem and possibilities of ‘more of the same’. Vol. 12 (School of Public Policy, University of Calgary and the Canadian Global Affairs Institute,2019), 1-15 

Rebecca Tiessen “Towards a Transformative Vision for Gender and Canadian International Policy: The Role and Impact of ‘Feminist Inside Activists'” (submitted to: International Journal): under review

Rebecca Tiessen and Emma Swan. “Canada’s feminist foreign policy promises: An ambitious agenda for gender equality, human rights, peace, and security,” in Norman Hillmer and Philippe Lagassé, eds., Justin Trudeau and Canadian Foreign Policy: Canada among nations 2017 (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 187-205


With five years of FIAP behind us, our international development friends have found lots to celebrate. They note new conversations, shifting momentum, new opportunities, and changes in discourse. Yet it is not yet ‘mission completed.’ Our commentators urge diving deeper into feminist analysis and practice, bringing more attention to SOGEISC issues and intersectional perspectives, clarification of Canada’s feminist foreign policy and greater coherence across programming ‘sectors,’ greater investments in key feminist issues, and more.

We’ve done our own reflections on five years of the FIAP.

What do you think? Join the party by sharing your thoughts on social media, tagging #FIAPat5.

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