Canada's new foreign aid policy puts focus on women, rights

Canadian International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau at the launch of Canada’s new Feminist International Assistance Policy. Photo by: Development Canada

Canada is placing women and girls at the heart of its poverty eradication efforts.

Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau released the country’s long-awaited International Assistance Policy last Friday, a strategy that calls itself “feminist” and represents a major shift of the country’s vision for international development onto the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized populations.

Within five years, 15 percent of Canadian aid will be dedicated to gender equality programs, compared to 2 percent in 2015-2016, Bibeau said.

“Focusing Canada’s international assistance on the full empowerment of women and girls is the most effective way for our international assistance to make a difference in the world. Sustainable development, peace and growth that works for everyone are not possible unless women and girls are valued and empowered,” Bibeau said.

The new policy focuses on five pillars: Gender equality, human dignity, inclusive growth, environment and climate action, inclusive governance, and peace and security. It contains several new requirements, priorities and funding mechanisms that are expected to significantly alter Canada-supported programs abroad.

All projects, regardless of sectors, will have to integrate a gender equality and women’s empowerment component, and Canada’s implementing partners will have to consult with women locally and include them in the decision-making process when launching new programs.

“That to me is a systems change shift,” said Jess Tomlin, president and chief executive officer of The MATCH International Women’s Fund, a Canadian organization funding grassroots programs addressing gender equality and women’s empowerment. “I think that has the potential to be extremely empowering, not only for those women's organizations but for the international development sector more broadly, who are now being mandated to bring these folks into legitimate conversations.”

Bibeau announced the creation of the Women’s Voice and Leadership Program, a 150 million Canadian dollars ($111.4 million) fund to be disbursed over five years for women’s grassroots organizations working in women’s rights and gender equality. The fund seeks to address a growing trend in global development that sees a decreasing portion of international aid reaching local civil society organizations. Less than 1 percent of Canada’s current gender-based funding goes to grassroots women’s rights organizations, according to MATCH.

Other announcements include an upcoming review of Canada’s priority countries for assistance, which should place a stronger emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa and on fragile states. This includes a new target to dedicate at least 50 percent of bilateral aid to sub-Saharan Africa, with a focus on women and youth and on francophone countries.

The strategy also plans for multi-year humanitarian funding, a move seen as essential by humanitarian organizations, especially as Canada deepens its commitment to the Syria response.

“This allows us a little bit more time to work with women’s groups and have an integrated approach,” said Jacquelyn Wright, vice president of international programs at CARE Canada, in an interview with Devex.

The new policy was well received by Canadian aid organizations, as it reflects several of the recommendations voiced during a months-long consultation process that took place in 2016. More than 15,000 NGOs, donors, governments and individuals were asked to share their views on the orientation of the new policy.

The need to adopt a rights-based approach as well as a feminist lens ranked high among priorities voiced by civil society. “The government consulted us, and they have clearly listened,” said Julia Sanchez, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation.

“We need to see, moving forward, Canada's commitment extending beyond good policy and including adequate resources and new funding.”

— Sandeep Prasad, executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Right

Some civil society recommendations were still left unaddressed in the new policy, including calls to increase Canada’s official development assistance budget, which currently stands at 0.26 percent of its gross national income. The latest federal budget tabled no increase for ODA over the next five years. Canadian NGOs were hoping the new policy would open the door to expanding the aid budget, especially as a 70 percent increase in defense spending over the next 10 years was announced only days before Bibeau’s announcement.

“It’s easy to be quite skeptical about the sort of support that will ultimately be given to the implementation of [the international assistance] policy, particularly in a context when we see a massive, multi-billion investment in defense spending, without even a small increase to the ODA budget,” Sandeep Prasad, executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, told Devex. “We need to see, moving forward, Canada's commitment extending beyond good policy and including adequate resources and new funding.”

Few details have so far emerged as to how the new policy will be implemented. Speaking after Bibeau’s announcement, Deputy Minister of International Development Peter Boehm said his department would work in a more integrated manner within Global Affairs Canada, the umbrella agency that also houses foreign policy and international trade. The department will seek to expand the range of its partnerships especially with the private sector, invest more in research and innovation, and make its results more transparent, he added.

Although the strategy represents a major and welcome shift in the government’s approach to poverty reduction, its success depends on an profound change in the department’s culture, Prasad warned. He told Devex that previous efforts led by the former Canadian International Development Agency at mainstreaming gender components into development efforts had mixed results. NGOs often failed to apply a gender lens to their programs, choosing instead to run gender-specific activities on the side in order to meet their funding requirements, he explained.

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Canada’s government seems committed to take a leadership role on the international stage and fill some of the gaps left by an expected budgetary pull-back from the United States. In her speech to the House of Commons last week, Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland called for Canada to reduce its dependence on its southern neighbor.

“The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership, puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course,” she said.

Previous announcements made in the international development realm included a $650 million Canadian dollars ($482.6 million) envelope for reproductive health and rights that came on the heels of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to reinstate the “global gag rule.” Canada also pledged $20 million Canadian dollars ($14.9 million) for family planning services at the She Decides conference held in Brussels earlier this year.

The new foreign aid policy now provides a clear framework of action for the government’s stated feminist agenda, pushed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “It’s important to show the world that there is another approach, that you can actually prioritize women's rights, gender rights within development assistance,” Prasad said.

About the author

  • Flavie Halais

    Flavie Halais is a freelance journalist based in Montreal, Canada, covering international issues and cities through a social lens. Her work has appeared in WIRED, the Guardian, Le Monde Afrique, Jeune Afrique, the Correspondent ,and Devex.