Canada’s feminist international assistance policy aims to achieve sustainable development and peace through gender equality, but it has also helped reshape the aid industry itself, at home and abroad. Has it gone far enough?
Launched in 2017, Canada’s feminist international assistance policy (FIAP) commits 95 percent of Canada’s international assistance to focus on gender equality and empowerment by 2022. Important as this shift is to increase programming in key fields, the secondary impacts of the FIAP on the aid industry itself should not be overlooked.
The FIAP has spurred many development implementers to rethink the logic of development interventions and questions assumptions about how they do business. While FIAP made a significant commitment to supporting women’s groups and local organizations that support gender equality and women’s empowerment, the majority of funding continues to flow to implementers with essentially non-gendered or gender-mainstreamed perspectives on development. The learning curve for these groups under the FIAP has been steep and fast, to the benefit of the industry as a whole.
Organizations that are successful in winning grants under the FIAP are called upon to rethink their development models and logic frames and innovate programming in new areas. Significantly, many implementers have found themselves immersed in reflection on how their existing approaches and remedies may be contributing to disempowering patriarchal patterns in development processes. They are spurred to think about how to challenge the status quo of power relations through their programs, rather than passively reinforce it. This has been an illuminating process, especially in my field of development (democracy assistance), where the assumed gender equality benefits of traditional approaches have rarely been questioned (spoiler alert: its past time to question them).
Positive as this has been, the FIAP is currently at a critical juncture that will determine how deeply these gains take hold.
Firstly, although implementers have largely risen to the FIAP’s challenge insofar as program design is concerned, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) needs to hold the implementation community accountable for outcomes. Measuring women’s empowerment defies traditional monitoring and evaluation measures and indicators. It can be comparatively resource-heavy to conduct, demanding in terms of expertise required and incremental in the progress it measures. Furthermore, it can be tempting to sidestep or ignore especially where development goals and feminist goals compete. This is common in the elections assistance world, where (despite best feminist intentions at the outset), projects are frequently considered successful in achieving political process goals despite falling short on women’s empowerment at the evaluation stage. A feminist approach to project evaluation would place women’s empowerment goals equal to or ahead of other objectives, based on the understanding that failure to achieve feminist goals in development ultimately reproduces harmful patriarchal structures.
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Secondly, it is worth looking at whether implementers have meaningfully integrated these feminist principles into their internal workings or whether they have simply become more adept at feminist marketing and rebranding. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the body of existing development knowledge, expertise, staffing and budget practices requires time to adapt. Implementing organizations need to retrain their experts, especially country directors and program staffers, to better understand the gender dimension of the work they undertake, or to explicitly hire experts with appropriate skill sets (or both). In some fields, such as democracy assistance, where gender dimensions have rarely been critically questioned, implementers need to invest in creative and research processes to think through the existential issues described above. They need the staffing resources to ensure that their gender experts are as equally engaged in the implementation and evaluation of projects as they are in fundraising. Will GAC support and hold its implementers to account through this transition?
Third, has the feminist shift in development programming been reflected in women’s empowerment within the implementing organizations themselves? Humanitarian aid organizations and non-profits have not been immune from revelations of the #MeToo movement, with many female aid workers reporting sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of their colleagues and calling for reform. Have the imperatives of #MeToo, combined with increased awareness of feminist values through FIAP, made implementing organizations better places for women to work? Most tellingly, the leadership of the organizations implementing FIAP programs is often still deeply patriarchal. There has yet to be a female CEO of an international democracy assistance organization, and other fields struggle as well including the United Nations itself.
The impacts of the FIAP on enhancing feminist approaches and values within the international development assistance community should not be overlooked or under-rated. Further work is needed to fulfill this potential and ensure these gains take deep hold.