Advocates propose blueprint for US feminist foreign policy

The feminist foreign policy paper is the result of a lengthy process of discussions, research, and consultations with more than 100 feminist activists in more than 40 countries. Photo by: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

WASHINGTON — A group of more than 50 foreign policy, humanitarian, and gender equality advocates and organizations unveiled a blueprint for a U.S. feminist foreign policy Thursday.

“The way we interact with the rest of the world badly needs updating,” said Heather Hurlburt, director of the New Models of Policy Change project at New America, at an online launch event.

The policy makes several bold recommendations — including that 20% of official development assistance be dedicated to programs focused on gender equality and that feminist foreign policy have White House-level leadership. Analysis and planning throughout every agency would be required, addressing everything from development to defense to trade.

The feminist foreign policy paper is the result of a lengthy process of discussions, research, and consultations with more than 100 feminist activists in more than 40 countries, which began in August 2018. Advocates said that it is time for the United States to step up, and in some cases go further than other countries that have adopted their own feminist foreign or international assistance policies, such as Sweden, Canada, and Mexico.                

“We’ve begun the work today by articulating this agenda,” said Lyric Thompson, senior director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women. “We still have a lot of work to do in moving the U.S. to a more feminist foreign policy.”

“We need to make sure the foreign policy apparatus looks more like us and represents the views of women in the global south.”

—  Lyric Thompson, senior director of policy and advocacy, International Center for Research on Women

The first step for the group was coming up with a definition of a feminist foreign policy, considering that efforts spearheaded in several other countries don’t necessarily share a common approach, Thompson said.

“We were keenly aware that if we ask the U.S. government to adopt a feminist foreign policy, it would need to say clearly what that means and what it achieves,” she said.

The definition they came to is: “Feminist foreign policy is the policy of a state that defines its interactions with other states, as well as movements and other non-state actors, in a manner that prioritizes peace, gender equality, and environmental integrity; enshrines, promotes, and protects the human rights of all; seeks to disrupt colonial, racist, patriarchal and male-dominated power structures; and allocates significant resources, including research, to achieve that vision. Feminist foreign policy is coherent in its approach across all of its levers of influence, anchored by the exercise of those values at home and co-created with feminist activists, groups and movements, at home and abroad.”

One of the key issues that came up in the discussions was the need for policy coherence between domestic and foreign policy. One of the hardest conversations women's rights activists have is about why the U.S. isn’t aligned with a policy they are pushing, explained Thompson, or why it hasn’t ratified key international agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

A common thread through both the remarks of the creators and supporters of the policy and in the document itself, is that policies must be more representative and inclusive, both of feminists and diverse voices in the U.S. and of those who are impacted by U.S. policies and programs.

“It’s not just the what of the policy but the how and the who must be actively and collaboratively shaped by feminists inside and outside the government,” said Thompson. “We need to make sure the foreign policy apparatus looks more like us and represents the views of women in the global south.”

The policy must have presidential leadership and be mainstreamed through the U.S. foreign policy structure, according to the blueprint. The executive branch needs to have a coherent vision, and each agency should articulate its commitments to implementation, budget, staffing, communications, and appoint a high-level position responsible for overseeing its work on the issue, said Serra Sippel, president of CHANGE, the Center for Health and Gender Equity, during the event.

The proposal also recommends the creation of a senior leadership role at the White House, and potentially a feminist foreign policy inspector general, responsible for resources and the implementation of the effort.

The government would also need to increase its budget for implementing the goals, achieve gender parity in political appointments, directly fund more local women-led organizations, mandate gender analysis, and analyze the environmental impacts of U.S. foreign policy, Sippel laid out.

Other recommendations include prioritizing co-creation and local ownership of foreign assistance, funding more local women-led and women’s rights organizations, and considering launching a mechanism similar to Canada’s Equality Fund, which would provide technical assistance and funding to women’s rights organizations and feminist movements. It also recommends comprehensive funding for sexual reproductive health and rights.

U.S. foreign policy currently has several restrictions, such as sourcing requirements that prioritize U.S. companies and specific funding allocations for faith-based organizations, which “often make assistance costlier to deliver and less effective overall,” according to the report.

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The proposal calls for removing those restrictions, repealing the expanded Mexico City Policy, working with Congress to repeal the Helms Amendment, and changing National Security Presidential Directive 22, which conflates human trafficking and sex work.

The policy also outlines a series of transparency measures, which will be critical to ensure the policy makes it off the paper and allows civil society to track implementation and hold the government accountable, said Megan O’Donnell, assistant director of the Center for Global Development’s gender program, during the online event.

The policy defines transparency as requiring a process of inclusive, evidence-based implementation and evaluation, with outcomes that do no harm and are in line with what those impacted want.

The advocates who spoke Thursday acknowledged it is an ambitious agenda, but they pointed to existing Congressional support. The policy was initially supposed to be launched with members of Congress at a Capitol Hill event before coronavirus derailed that effort.

“We will take the vision forward to Capitol Hill and work with whoever wins in November to make sure it is integrated,” said Gayatri Patel, director of gender advocacy at CARE. “Advocacy is an uphill battle, but one we’re all motivated by.”

Update, May 22, 2020: This article has been updated to clarify that the consultation process began in August 2018.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.