Dear feminist PM: Bold words require bolder action

Why Canada’s international assistance gap threatens to undermine a new policy on feminist foreign aid
November 1, 2017

Trudeau at Women in the World event

PM Trudeau talks to Tina Brown during the Women in the World event in Toronto on September 11, 2017 (photo taken from PMO Flickr account).

In 2014, Justin Trudeau watched a video that would forever change his outlook on feminism. It was a five-minute-long YouTube clip of Hollywood actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt explaining his own embrace of the word “feminist.”

“It was like, ‘Oh, OK, it’s OK for men to say that they are feminists in a public sense. Great, I’m finally going to do that,” our prime minster told a crowd at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation–organized Goalkeepers conference in September. Before that, Trudeau explained, he had lived by the advice of an old McGill buddy who once told him only women called themselves feminists.

The revelation was popular with the media, who predictably (if with some eye rolling) fawned over Trudeau’s speech. “We All Think Justin Trudeau Is A Super Hunk Because of Joseph Gordon-Levitt,” Elle magazine declared. “Trudeau Needed Joseph Gordon-Levitt to Help Him Come Out as ‘Feminist’ and That’s Cool,” heralded

Yes, embracing women and men alike as drivers of gender equity change is a good thing. The same goes for encouraging allies to step up and be active within the women’s movement. It’s also good to have high-profile leaders like Trudeau amplifying and strengthening the voices of women and girls with lived experiences of gender discrimination and inequality.

But, to risk stating the obvious, you can only get so far with celebrity name-dropping, which does little to reassure those already skeptical—or becoming so—of the depth of Trudeau’s brand of popular feminism. Gender and international development experts in particular are preparing to hold the federal government to a promise, announced in June, that Canada would take a new feminist approach to its international aid programs.

Under the Liberal government’s new feminist international assistance policy (FIAP), Canada would apply a human rights lens to six development focus areas: gender equality, human dignity, growth that works for everyone, environment and climate action, inclusive governance, and peace and security. There are high expectations for the policy, which will require a massive cultural shift within the federal bureaucracy after years of poor funding for international gender issues.

Getting the tone right is one thing—and it seems nobody does that better than our jetsetting feminist PM—but now the Liberal government must show lofty talk can actually lead to real action, and finally commit the resources to make it happen.

The FIAP and accompanying shift in rhetoric by the government is a positive step “towards gender transformative change,” says Fraser Reilly-King, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC). “Generally, we’re very happy with how the policy turned out in the end after a long time waiting for it,” adds Diana Sarosi, a women’s rights policy and advocacy specialist with Oxfam Canada.

Such comments were typical of the people I spoke to (stakeholders in government parlance) for this article. But so was disappointment with the government’s lack of significant new funding for its ambitious new international assistance policy, and general questions about the capacity of Global Affairs Canada to successfully operationalize it. “If you’re going to have an ambitious vision, then you’re going to need to have ambitious resources to back that up,” says Reilly-King.

In general, there were high marks for the government’s responsive consultation process, which led to several key civil society proposals being included in the policy. For example, the initial discussion paper that led to the FIAP lumped women’s rights under a pillar on health. “That was something we were absolutely against,” says Sarosi, noting the policy as it stands now reflects those concerns. “We really wanted to have that (women’s rights) as a standalone priority, but also mainstreamed throughout.”

The federal commitment to focus funds and programming on sexual health and reproductive rights (an area that got little attention under the Harper government) is another winner. And the development community welcomed moves this summer toward multi-year funding for humanitarian crises—a first for Canada, according to Oxfam’s Sarosi—and decidedly away from a “countries of focus” strategy in favour of more flexibility.

The Oxfam analyst says she’s pleased with the “ambitious” targets the FIAP sets, including a promise that within five years 15% of bilateral international development assistance will have gender equity and empowering women as a primary target, with a further 80% of bilateral aid integrating these themes. At the same time, Sarosi wonders if the policy really earns its feminist title.

“We wouldn’t go as far as calling it ‘feminist,’ maybe, in the sense that in many ways…it’s still really instrumentalizing women,” she tells me. “As in, ‘Yes, if we just get women in the economy we’re going to have better economic growth,’ rather than ‘women deserve fair and decent work.’” At points the policy falls short of “looking at power relations and structural relations, and really transforming gender roles,” she adds.

The question of implementation is top of mind for Canada’s development community. Sandeep Prasad, executive director with the non-profit Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, points out only a few other countries, including Sweden, apply a feminist lens to development, and that in broad strokes the policy is “a major step forward.” But he finds it “shocking and disappointing” that the Trudeau government is contributing only meagre funds to see the FIAP through.

For some time, voices in the development community have been calling for additional, predictable long-term funding and a concrete plan to get Canada up to the internationally agreed target of 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) for official development assistance. Canada’s ODA currently sits at just 0.26% of GNI—a little over a third of the global target, and the lowest it’s been since Lester B. Pearson was prime minister.

“The prime minister shows no signs of wanting to change that, and some would argue that his popularity globally is such that he doesn’t have to,” Prasad says. “Getting traction on [the funding issue] is proving very difficult.”

Reilly-King says that while the FIAP is “a very good start,” the government’s other international policy objectives may be overshadowing its commitment to development. He notes how the FIAP was announced just days after a speech by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland on Canada’s need for “hard power” to support global order, and a separate announcement, on June 7, of plans to boost military spending by more than $30 billion over the next decade.

“In the [Freeland] foreign policy speech, development got next to no mention,” says Reilly-King.

Currently, Canada spends just under four dollars on defence for every dollar on development, according to a CCIC briefing note on the new feminist international development policy. Assuming no new money is put toward the latter, Canada will be spending six times as much on defence as it does on international aid by 2026-27. Comparable countries, such as Norway, Germany and Sweden, have ratios between 1:1 and 1.6:1.

“Do Canadians prioritize defence over supporting development overseas? And why is it that we’re putting $30 billion into defence and nothing into development? It doesn’t seem coherent with…how Canadians see themselves internationally in the world,” Reilly-King says. Canada needs to “put money behind what we’re saying on the international stage,” confirms Sarosi.

“On paying its global share, Canada’s not back—it’s far back,” Celine Wadhera and Robert Greenhill wrote earlier this year in a report for OpenCanada, an online publication produced by the Centre for International Governance Innovation. They point out the Trudeau government is on track to have the lowest commitment to international assistance of any Canadian government in the last half century. This resource gap has a “massive human cost,” say the authors, who calculate that “the total human cost of Canada’s commitment gap since 1995, across Liberal and Conservative governments, is the equivalent of over seven million lives.”

How long will it be before the international community takes note of the void between the Trudeau government’s rhetoric and action on human development? While international development advocates continue to push for new money, few are predicting there will be a significant funding boost before the next federal election.

“We don’t want to wait, but to be honest we have little hope that there’s going to be more money put into foreign aid over the next two budgets,” Oxfam’s Sarorsi says.

Another potential obstacle to successfully putting the FIAP into action is the capacity of Global Affairs Canada itself. A number of experts, who spoke to me on background, agree that while the ambitious language behind the new policy was indeed a significant step forward, there remain serious questions about how GAC will deliver on progress.

“You have a minister without a department—that’s Minister Bibeau—whose staff is buried in the bowels of [GAC],” says one experienced international development professional familiar with the department. As such, their “options for promotion are not regulated by the quality of their work in relation to development assistance, but by their evaluations by the people who are more traditional foreign affairs people.”

New governments like shiny new programming. But the truth is the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which was absorbed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (now Global Affairs Canada) under the Harper government in 2013, had been working with gender equality and women-in-development policies since 1984.

For many years, CIDA was a model for how to integrate gender equality into programming and the structure of international development agencies. That is no longer the case, the development expert tells me, explaining that the Harper government’s turn away from a focus on gender equality toward maternal and child health severely whittled away GAC’s in-house expertise on the file, on top of cuts to the development budget dating back to 2012.

“A lot of the bureaucracy, first of all, has been very resistant to really giving gender equality and women’s rights the priority it needs,” says Sarosi. “There needs to be a serious investment in training of Global Affairs staff…there need to be real champions within the department that are going to push this forward.”

Until that happens, relying on the expertise of outside organizations is crucial. But the number of GAC partners has noticeably decreased over the past decade, says Prasad. “You need to question whether, in that diminished set of partners, you have the right partners to implement a feminist international assistance policy, and I would argue that they don’t.”

The result is that we have noticeable shift in emphasis of international development announcements, to supporting gender equality and women’s rights, but not the policy infrastructure to make it happen. “So far the projects announced haven’t really hit the mark,” says Sarosi, meaning the funds are not going to organizations where women are in the “driver’s seat” on implementation. “That’s really a shift that we still need to see.”

Realistically, it will take time to get the implementation right, says Reilly-King, but that shouldn’t hold up projects that have been awaiting approval a long time.

The gap between the Trudeau government’s feminist foreign policy ambitions and its funding commitments so far is disappointing but, as mentioned already, hardly unusual. Canada has never met the globally agreed spending target for foreign aid. Not even close. And none of the major federal parties seem in a rush to get there.

In the lead-up to the 2015 federal election, the NDP promised a multi-year plan to get to 0.7% of GNI (which would have cost billions annually to implement), but the pledge was missing from the party’s eventual fiscal plan. The NDP later confirmed that the foreign aid target wouldn’t have been met during the first mandate of an NDP government.

The full NDP platform pledged to increase international assistance spending by a modest $500 million, along with a non-defined promise to set a timetable to meet the foreign aid target. But the question remains: if Canada’s leading progressive party isn’t more ambitious in pressing Canada to step up its international assistance commitments in the near term, what impetus is there for the Trudeau government to do any better?

In a world where women’s access to basic human, sexual, health and reproductive rights is still threatened far and wide, the Liberal government’s new plan deserves some credit. After “months of Trump macro-aggression can we not celebrate the Trudeau government’s steady if imperfect progress in gender equity?” wrote Tina Brown, organizer of the Women in the World summit, in a Globe and Mail column in September.

As with some other progressive policies introduced by this government, the answer to this admittedly rhetorical question is, of course, yes. But Canadians are justified in asking for more. Props from the international media don’t fund grand commitments. And if the Trudeau government is serious about its pledge to strengthen global gender equality as part of its international objectives, there is hard work ahead for Global Affairs Canada and its civil society partners.

Ultimately, after countless years of subjugation, inequality and oppression, the world’s women and girls deserve more than good intentions and inspiring YouTube clips by Hollywood’s, and Ottawa’s, feminist superstars.

This article was published in the November/December 2017 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.