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How to spend foreign aid like a feminist

In 2014 and 2015, about 35 per cent of aid committed by OECD donors addressed gender in some way. (Shutterstock)

How to spend foreign aid like a feminist

Canada’s new Feminist International Assistance Policy was released on June 9. It has been welcomed by many as a bold step for Canadian foreign aid, but questions remain about how the policy will shape Canadian aid spending going forward.

Canada is the first aid donor country to explicitly label its international assistance policy a feminist one. With its focus on gender equality and the rights of women and girls, the policy aims to help Canada regain its past reputation as a leader on these issues after seeing it squandered during the Harper era.

Most analyses of the new policy have examined its feminist credentials and criticized the lack of new funding for the aid programming. Less attention has been paid, though, to how the spending commitments in the policy will affect the already limited and, recently, shrinking pool of Canadian aid funds.

How Canada rates in tying aid to gender equality

The international aid community, through the OECD, tracks spending on women and gender equality in two ways. First, they track two categories of aid: programs that have gender equality as the “principal” objective; and programs that give secondary consideration of gender equality (as a “significant” objective), but are not mainly a gender project. Second, they track targeted support for women’s organizations and institutions — a subset of the “principal” category.

Data released by the OECD in March 2017 shows that in 2014 and 2015 (the latest years data was available) about US$40 billion, or 35 per cent of aid, committed by OECD donors addressed gender in some way. In contrast, only US$5.7 billion, or five per cent of total aid, was focused on gender as a principal objective.

Compared to the billions spent on gender equality, only an average of US$465 million was spent in 2014-2015 on women’s equality organizations and institutions globally.

Canada’s commitments in the same years included US$72 million in programming with gender equality as its principal objective and US$2.1 billion where gender was a significant priority. Together, this was 67 per cent of Canadian aid, but only about two per cent had gender as the principal focus. Furthermore, only US$3 million was devoted to women’s organizations and institutions – less than 0.01 per cent of total aid.

Promises have big implications

It’s against this backdrop that Canada’s new feminist aid policy makes several spending promises intended to shift towards a feminist approach, even though it budgets no new funds to implementing the policy. Three of these promises have significant implications for changing how Canada will spend its foreign aid dollars.

Figure 1. Gender-related aid as percent of total Canadian aid commitments.

1. Gender in Everything

First, the policy commits Canada to spending no less than 80 per cent of its aid on programs where gender is a significant objective by 2022 (see Figure 1). This means an additional 10 per cent of Canada’s non-gender-related aid programs will now integrate gender equality as a secondary aim in some way – an additional $360 million in today’s terms.

2. Now with Even More Focus on Gender Equality

Second, the policy aims to increase programs where gender is a principal objective to 15 per cent of total aid by 2022 (see Figure 1). This more than seven-fold increase from the 2.1 per cent spent in 2015 would amount to more than US$540 million spending in 2022 at today’s overall aid levels.

3. Welcoming Back Women’s Groups, Local Organizations

Third, the policy commits to spending $150 million over five years from 2017 on women’s groups and local organizations that support gender equality and women’s empowerment. In 2015, Canada spent only US$1.6 million on women’s organizations, a number that had been declining precipitously under the Harper government from 2008 on (See Figure 2).

Figure 2. Aid Disbursed to Women’s Organizations and Institutions, 2002-2015.

Taken together, these plans mean 95 per cent of all Canadian bilateral aid will address gender equality or women in some way. Coupled with the $150 million pool of funding for women’s organizations, these commitments will make Canada the leading aid donor globally for gender equality. It’s understandable why some are labelling the plan a “game changer” or a “bold and ambitious new vision”.

What gets neglected for gender?

What is less clear is how Canada’s plans to spend its way into its new feminist mantle will play out. Several questions need to be asked on this front.

With declining or stagnant total aid spending projected for the next several years, the earmarking of existing funds for gender means not doing something else. On what and where will Canada stop spending aid dollars to allocate funds to meet its new targets? Will the 95 per cent requirement mean the government will neglect to spend on programs that have no obvious gender angle? What about programming in communities and countries where gender equality programs may remain difficult or taboo? By taking an uncharacteristically focused approach, Canada’s new aid policy may shut doors to certain types of aid - and recipients of that aid — that’s not yet considered.

Will the rush to meet the 2022 targets for gender equality spending be too much, too fast? In trying to make sure that enough is spent targeting gender or at least considering it, will the 95 per cent of Canadian aid targeting gender really help women and girls? Or, instead, will we see aid programs masquerading as gender initiatives just so aid officials can tick the proper box?

Is it enough to billboard these spending commitments so publicly and prominently that they’ll have to be met? If not, then what are the consequences? Who will hold Global Affairs to account if these targets are missed, delayed or vanish like other promises made by the current government.

These questions will be answered in due time as Canada’s new aid policy is implemented. Whether Canada regains some of its former credibility on gender equality in the aid community will depend on whether it matches its bold policy statements with action that shows the world how to spend foreign aid like a feminist.