Last summer, the government of Canada launched its “feminist international assistance policy,” a radical rebranding to a “truly feminist approach that supports the economic, political and social empowerment of women and girls, and makes gender equality a priority, for the benefit of all people.” By 2022, at least 95% of Canada’s international assistance spending will focus on equality and empowerment with another $150 million going directly to women’s organizations. Canada will focus on the world’s most challenging regions, with Sub-Saharan Africa receiving at least 50% of the funding, and on fragile and conflict-affected countries.
These are noble intentions. But as a strategy for development, it is a recipe for failure — hubris marching hand in hand with naivety. The policy is highly ideological, brimming with Western messianism, and oblivious to scientific evidence. (As just one example, I wrote about the lack of evidence for the claim that including women in peace negotiations makes peace more sustainable.)
In short, the policy disregards that effective international development depends on thoughtful, pragmatic, context-appropriate approaches. Its cardinal sin is that the policy rejects gender equality as a goal in itself, one that does not need further justification beyond the value argument that it is a desirable goal. Instead, the policy puts forward many variations of an instrumentalist argument that sees gender equality as a means to various ends: more growth, more health, more peace, better climate action, or better governance. According to such logic, “empowering women and girls” (whatever that means on the ground in Kandahar, Darfur, or Damascus) leads to successful development outcomes. For example, “The empowerment of women and girls [is] the most effective way […] to a peaceful […] world.”
This thinking turns common sense on its head by confusing cause and effect. Does anyone really believe that empowering Afghan women and girls will bring peace to Afghanistan? Conversely, every day of peace in Afghanistan would make the lives of Afghan women and girls so much better. Girls could go safely to school or to health facilities, something they cannot do now. The same logic is applied to other development outcomes. Economic growth? Easy, just empower women and girls. Better humanitarian assistance? Better governance? Better health? Empower women and girls and all these development goals will magically follow.
There is very little scientific evidence for such a spillover effect, which does not mean that creating equal opportunities for women and girls in developing countries is not a worthy goal. It’s just not a magical shortcut where all other approaches have failed. In fact, the notion that women in the developing world are heroines who are harder-working, more peace-loving, more oriented to their children and communities, and less corrupt than men has become a Western stereotype, as feminist scholars Chandra Mohanty, Srilatha Batliwala, and Deepa Dhanraj have pointed out.
The international aid industry has made serious efforts to empower women and girls in developing countries. Gender-mainstreaming and gender-equality policies have featured prominently for the past two decades. As with all development policies, there are rarely swift and unconditional successes. One clear lesson is that even when aid policies do contribute to increased economic productivity by women — more control over assets, more independent decision making, better access to financing, better skills — this almost never rewrites the traditional gender roles. Social and cultural norms must change from within — slowly and incrementally — and are very resistant to external meddling and tutelage. Spending aid to change deeply embedded social norms in distant countries is probably the least effective way to spend aid.
But not only will this “feminist assistance” fail to deliver, it might actually do harm. Prioritizing aid spending for social engineering means less aid to spend on things that actually work. The poorest and most conflict-affected countries need help saving lives and improving livelihoods: clean drinking water, irrigation, food security, basic health, small infrastructure, and the like.
Furthermore, effective aid needs buy-in from partner governments. Which governments in Sub-Saharan countries and fragile states are likely to embrace a “Canadian feminist” assistance strategy? Recipient governments may not see Canadian feminism as one of their development goals over their own local priorities. Countries with a colonial past are rightly skeptical of such Western ideological steamrolling. In Muslim countries, skepticism and mistrust of the West runs even deeper. No one wants outsiders telling them how to change the inner workings of their society. Mistrust and lack of buy-in will make aid even less effective.
The local grassroots organizations that Canada intends to support with $150 million are hardly a substitute for real civil society buy-in. Many so called “grassroots organizations” are donor-dependent NGOs with a donor-driven agenda. They speak Western development lingo but are detached from their societies, so have little potential to promote societal change. I don’t want to belittle such NGOs — very often they are led by remarkable, highly energetic, brave human beings. But that alone does not make them levers for broad, radical social change.
An “activist and transformative” feminist policy also risks creating resistance and backlash where traditional cultural or religious norms are strong. The Western obsession with bringing “gender mainstreaming” to Afghan communities has done little to empower, but has frequently created harm and violence to women and girls. It is stunning that nowhere in our policy is there reference to the concept of “do-no-harm” or even to context-sensitive approaches.
Implementing effective development always requires pragmatism, flexibility, local knowledge, context-sensitivity, imagination, and curiosity. Putting an ideological straightjacket on development assistance will make these qualities less likely to flourish.
We already know that there will be no more money to fund the feminist policy. But one can wish that some of the existing funding — 30% would be a good number — will be spent on rigorous, intellectually honest evaluation. Wouldn’t it be nice to know, in a few years, whether exporting Canadian feminism has helped women and girls in the developing world? Or not?
Part 2 of this blog offers 10 suggestions for implementation.