Happy Fifth Anniversary to Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy

by Beth Woroniuk, Equality Fund Policy Lead

Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) turned five last month. This anniversary is an opportune moment to look back and reflect on the impact and challenges of this groundbreaking policy.

2016 had been a year of consultations on Canada’s international assistance. There was much anticipation to see what direction the government would take. The day of the announcement, the room was packed.

During the lead up consultations, many organizations had stressed the importance of improving how Canada’s development assistance addressed the rights of women and girls, as well as gender equality issues. Yet few of us imagined that the language of feminism would be so front and centre in the new policy. The person standing next to me said “Pinch me. Are they really calling the new international assistance policy ‘feminist’?” 

At the time, the response to the new policy was mixed. A number of us celebrated, congratulating the government on taking a bold step forward. In particular, we applauded new commitments to fund women’s rights organizations. Others were more sceptical.

Five years on, where are we? Was the optimism warranted? Or has the scepticism been validated?

We asked people in Canada’s international development sector for their perspectives and we’ll feature their comments in #FIAPat5 – Part 2

Looking at the last five years, I have five reflections.

By using the word ‘feminist’, the FIAP signaled brave new ambition on the part of the Government for its international assistance

Four years earlier, Sweden announced its Feminist Foreign Policy. But by 2017 few global policy documents used that specific label. 

Canada did have over 40 years of history of looking at the role of women and gender equality in development initiatives. The first guidelines on Women in Development were adopted in 1976. Yet these policies tended to position gender equality as a ‘cross-cutting theme’ rather than a fundamental priority in its own right.

The FIAP also paved the way for the ambitious second National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, launched in November 2017. By calling the international assistance policy ‘feminist’, the bar was raised.

Admittedly there were many criticisms of the FIAP’s feminist analysis: it failed to define feminism, it lacked an intersectional analysis, it was firmly grounded in a ‘neoliberal’ framework, etc. Despite these critiques, the FIAP did put down new markers for staff at Global Affairs Canada, the Canadian development sector, as well as globally.

The FIAP also raised expectations. Once ‘the F word’ was in play, activists and academics pushed for more attention to process, policy coherence, and greater ambition. Feminist analysis involves questioning power dynamics, bringing in anti-racism and decolonizing perspectives, and moving beyond binary understandings of gender to include the full spectrum of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characterics (SOGEISC) perspectives and issues. 

With the FIAP, GAC moved money in new and feminist ways

The FIAP launched Women’s Voice and Leadership, a $150 million initiative to fund local women’s organizations. Two years later, GAC’s Partnership for Gender Equality announced an historic $300 million commitment to support the build of my organization, the Equality Fund. In October 2020, the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, Canada announced $5 million to support women peacebuilders. These are key initiatives.

There is a growing awareness that while general investments in gender equality are important, more and better investments in women’s rights organizations and feminist movements are needed. Recently we’ve seen calls from the OECD DAC, philanthropy, the United Nations, and activists to flow more resources to women’s organizations.

However, more can be done. It’s time to commit to a new phase of Women’s Voice and Leadership. Canada’s next women, peace and security national action plan could significantly increase commitments to women-led and LGBTQI+ peacebuilding organizations. Stand alone programing on unpaid and paid care work could be directed to feminist organizations. Women’s right organizations working on climate justice, gender-based violence, sexual reproductive health and rights are dramatically under funded.

One of the outcomes of the Generation Equality Forum is the Alliance for Feminist Movements. This multi-stakeholder initiative will launch in September with the aim to exponentially increase, sustain, and improve financial and political support for women’s rights and feminist organizations and movements. Given Canada’s leadership in the planning phase of the Alliance, a new, significant commitment at the launch would both be a key investment and send an important signal.

Feminist organizations are asking for resources that allow them to advance their work, not spend their time completing reports and filling in repetitive forms. We consistently hear that Canada is one of the most onerous bilateral funders with numerous requirements and bureaucratic hoops. Global Affairs Canada to look to other funders and adopt processes that better flexibility and trust with accountability.

It is difficult to assess the overall impact of the FIAP as public reporting provides few insights.

What has been the impact of FIAP? Has it changed resource flows and produced more results related to gender equality? The answer is we don’t really know.

With five years of policy implementation, where is the data on results? Do we have a clear idea of the shifts and changes that have happened within Global Affairs Canada? We hear anecdotal reports that the policy has made a difference. However, nowhere can we find consolidated reporting that shows year-over-year resource flows and investments, highlights from evaluations, and lessons learned as the department advances policy implementation.

The primary reporting mechanism is the annual Report to Parliament on the Government of Canada’s Assistance. The latest report downplays the FIAP, treating it as a programming sector rather than the overall framing of all development assistance. For example the section on COVID-19 fails to explain how feminist analysis or principles influence Canada’s global approach to the pandemic. That section of the report includes only a few marginal references to gender equality dimensions.

The reporting on GAC’s Civil Society Partnerships Policy provides more narrative information, but only through the lens of work with civil society. 

Canada’s reporting to the OECD-DAC on investment does show improvement. A key statistic is the percentage of investments that have supported programming specifically designed to advance gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. The FIAP set a target of 15% by 2021-22 for these investments and that goal appears to have been met. However, the latest figures show a significant drop in 2020 from the previous year (15% from 25.4%). Overall, Canada is significantly above the average of all Development Assistance Committee members, which is 5%.  

Canadian International Assistance investments in programs specifically designed to advance gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls (reported to the OECD as Gender Marker 2)

Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development CRS database

However, these reports only present a partial picture. An overall assessment of progress to date on what difference the FIAP has made would be most welcome.

Strengthen the “Feminist” in the FIAP

Feminist approaches to global challenges are needed even more now than there were in 2017.

The last few years have been difficult: war in Europe and ongoing conflicts throughout the world, a global pandemic, climate crisis, increasing food insecurity, record levels of displaced people… The optimism of the Sustainable Development Goals has been replaced by the growing recognition that achievement of these goals is now next to impossible. All of these crises have profound gender implications and their solutions are inextricably linked to building more gender just societies and economies.

Given this context, the ambition of the FIAPis essential. The urgency of addressing gender inequality as both a goal in its own right and as an essential step in addressing our planetary crises has, if anything, increased in the five years since the FIAP was announced. 

Our understanding of feminist approaches has also become more sophisticated. The value of ensuring that our analysis is truly intersectional is clear. Robust attention to SOGIESC issues, anti-racism and decolonizing, age, ability/disability as well as class must guide both our analysis and our actions.

Feminist attention to power, process, and transformation now challenge established government procedures and processes. There is an urgent need to review and revise outdated GAC contracting and reporting requirements that stifle innovation and straight-jacket organizations in the Global South. It could be very fruitful to explore what a decolonial approach brings to perceptions of risk and risk aversion. Canadian support should enable activists, not confine them to their computers completing lengthy reports and excel files.

It is also clear that a feminist international assistance program within an overall ‘foreign policy as before’ will not deliver the much needed outcomes. That’s why we welcomed the news that Canada would outline how it defines its overall feminist foreign policy. The FIAP is just one pillar of Canada’s feminist foreign policy. If it is to stand and be effective, it must be supported by a feminist approach to all international policies and investment: trade, diplomacy, defence, security, climate, migration, and health. 

Feminist movements are vital drivers of democracy and merit a central role in both Canada’s Feminist Foreign Policy and the FIAP

Feminist movements are key to feminist change and broad social, economic, and political change. Feminist movements have led the charge on reproductive rights in Latin America and on land rights for women in Sub-Saharan Africa. Mobilization by women’s organizations is also linked to positive change on issues related to violence against women, family law, women’s legal status at work, marriage equality,as well as expanded economic rights for women. 

In addition, global feminist movements create positive change for whole communities, economies, and nations. They are strong advocates for civil society space and are a force countering authoritarianism. They build peace. They fight for democracy. They advocate for racial justice and LGBTQ+ rights. Feminist movements push for climate justice and strong human rights mechanisms (not just for women but for all).

If Canada wants to support greater gender equality then supporting feminist movements is key. This includes financial support and more. Canada can open doors for participation by diverse feminists in policy discussions – not just on women’s rights but on the key issues of our day: climate, trade, pandemic preparation and more. Canada can demonstrate the benefits of feminist policy approaches to global allies and in multilateral institutions. Discussions with feminist civil society are key – both in Canada and around the world. Accountability mechanisms and reporting on progress can contribute to broader learning and improvements. 

The last few years have been particularly hard on women, girls, and non-binary people. The Taliban’s return to power has erased decades of progress on the rights of women and girls. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed dramatic inequalities in the division of care work, reversed the positive trends of women’s labour force participation, and saw huge spikes in domestic and intimate partner violence. There are growing reports of the unequal impact of climate change on women and girls. 

As we mark five years of the Feminist International Assistance Policy expectations for Canadian leadership are high – both around the world and in Canada. Let’s hope we have many more feminist advances to celebrate five years from now.

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Join in the discussion using #FIAPat5.  

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