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A Feminist G7 Agenda: Girls’ Education and Women’s Economic Empowerment

by Robert Sauder and Anna Vanderkooy

Published: May 25, 2018

This article is part of a series exploring critical sectors for moving Canada’s feminist international assistance policy forward in light of opportunities to lead at the G7 Summit in Charlevoix, QC (June 8-9). The rest of the series is available here:

Part II – Ensuring Benefits for Women and Girls at All Education Levels 

Part III – Education, Health, and Gender Linkages to Improve Learning Outcomes for Women and Girls

Canada has made advancing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls a priority, especially on the international stage. It is one of five themes of the upcoming G7 Summit and forms the core of Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), which states that “Canada has chosen to focus on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as the most effective way to challenge poverty and inequality.”

FIAP aims to have 95% of Canada’s bilateral international assistance either targeting (15%) or integrating (80%) gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls within five years. This would entail a dramatic shift for gender targeted assistance from levels of under 2% to 15% within five years, and a shift for gender integrating assistance from levels of about 69% to 80%. FIAP comes with very little new funding; it is largely about re-focusing current international assistance funds on gender.

It is crucial that the government shift its resources in ways that really do result in improved gender outcomes and reduced poverty and inequality. Within FIAP, GAC highlights the importance of Canada maximizing the effectiveness of its international assistance, yet details are not provided regarding how they plan to do this. There is a vast menu of options within the realms of Canadian feminist international assistance which give rise to challenging questions:

Which gender partners should Canada fund more? Where in the world should Canada’s funding go? What types of intervention are most effective in advancing gender equality and empowerment? Within sectors, which programs will have the most impact? Will successful programs work everywhere? What interventions offer the best value for money?

Answering these questions reveals dilemmas that all international development donors face. We review these challenges below, provide advice on how navigate them, and present analyses of programming choices in two sectors, education and economic empowerment:

Challenge #1: The Christmas Tree Problem

For donors, an unfortunate but common response to a long list of problems is to commit to addressing them all. Every problem gets an “ornament” (solution) on the proverbial “Christmas tree,” resulting in a well-decorated tree but no real prioritization.

The SDGs have been critiqued for having too many priorities and targets which has the potential to spread limited resources too thin without achieving real impact. Donors and partner countries are, of course, free to select their own area of prioritization. But the question remains: what programs will have the most impact is which context?

Fortunately, there is growing evidence of attempts to identify what works in various sectors. A review of women’s economic empowerment programs showed that impact is quite dependent on the social characteristics of the program’s beneficiaries. Another example of immunization in Africa showed that key drivers of success include the “critical role of implementation strategies and the need for locally skilled managers.” Research on program failure can be very helpful here, as well as systematic reviews, impact evaluations (see: the World Bank’s Development Impact Evaluation (DIME) initiative and 3ie impact evaluation database), project evaluations, and action research.

Key Takeaway: There is a need to carefully examine evidence about impact and be prepared to select only the most promising approaches.

Challenge #2: Tokenism

For many years, gender was a required consideration for any Canadian aid project as a cross cutting theme. It is not clear, however, if this requirement led to greater impact. The previous Canadian governments was criticized for weak support of gender issues. While there was some acknowledgment of Canada’s contribution to advancing gender equality, civil society commentators suggested that much more could be done better. Setting out gender as a guiding policy principle requires substantial additional investment in systems and programming to make it effective, as the cases of Norway and Australia indicate.

There is a tendency to believe that almost any intervention will somehow be good, even tangentially, for a given problem. If there is a need for a bridge, and it is likely a lot of women will cross that bridge, then surely that infrastructure programming can be considered to have a gender benefit. But is that really gender sensitive programming?  The OECD-DAC gender equality policy marker, which indicates whether gender equality was a significant or principal objective of a project/programme, show that gender-focused spending is actually low globally.

Key Takeaway: Move towards programming that is unquestionably gender-focused, such as supporting local community groups, addressing issues concerning unpaid domestic work, SRHR, and secondary school places for girls.

Challenge #3: The Powerful Impact of Context

The history of international development projects is filled with ideas, programs and models that were seen as a ‘magic bullet’ that would work almost anywhere. In fact, there is significant evidence that this assumption is quite naïve and program failures often occur. Almost all country contexts have their unique realities and dynamics, such as the ability to support services, which can dramatically affect programming needs. The Paris Declaration (2005) and Accra Agenda for Action (2008) emphasize local ownership, in part because local stakeholders usually have a better idea of the local realities. It is difficult for donors that have grown accustomed to designing projects, mostly at headquarters using rigid results-based management methods, to shift their orientation towards engagement of local decision-makers. This also means giving a place for incorporating lessons learned.

Key Takeaway: Donors need to be flexible with their funding models, and help partner countries select projects from the ‘menu’ which suit their local situations.

Challenge #4: Keeping it Simple, But Not Too Simple

Many single innovations in international development have held promises of very significant change. For example, micro-finance for women or the abolition of school fees. These innovation led to impressive results, such as greatly increased school participation. Unsurprisingly, many of these interventions have been enthusiastically taken up by donors. Yet, experience shows that single interventions often have limited long term impart and even sometimes perverse outcomes. Having access to microcredit is by no means a guarantee of improvements in access to social services or women’s empowerment. The abolition of school fees may have boosted participation, but now there are significant quality concerns.

Taking a single new idea to scale is notoriously difficult to do, as Ben Ramalingam and others have argued. The lesson here is that interventions may need to be packaged up with others to have impact. For example, micro-finance together with counselling and support groups, or larger classes together with better teacher training. A good example of multi-pronged intervention is an investment in higher education placed together with policies that address equity concerns. There can also be unexpected synergies from combining interventions. For example, micro finance and health training. Likewise, a ‘systems’ approach is often needed, such as in health systems, where all the key elements for change must be considered.

Key Takeaway: Avoid singular interventions and look for strategic combinations.


There is a clear need for strategic and disciplined decision-making and strong orientation towards impact. To summarize, policymakers should consider four main questions when pursuing gender equality projects and programming:

  • Is there prioritization on areas with the most potential impact?
  • Is there explicit benefit for women?
  • Is this programming adaptable to its local context?
  • Is there a strategic approach that goes beyond a single intervention?
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