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Canada’s Turn to Feminist International Assistance: By the Numbers

by Aniket Bhushan 

Published: June 27, 2017

Canada’s new ‘feminist international assistance policy’ was launched on June 9, 2017. This analysis unpacks some of the key targets featured in the policy statement and form the core of Canada’s turn to feminist international assistance.

Key targets in Canada’s new assistance policy

Canada’s new policy is highly focused. It articulates only 1 core action area – gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls – and 5 other (presumably non-core) action areas.

The 5 non-core areas – human dignity, growth, environment/climate, governance, peace/security – are outlined primarily as they relate to the feminist theme.

The section on “Canada as a feminist donor” articulates the problem statement as well as the key targets:

  • The current level of international assistance that specifically targets the advancement of gender equality and empowerment of women and girls is too low.
  • Since 2010 it has ranged between 1% and 2%.
  • The focus on gender equality has “diminished, especially over the past decade”.
  • In order to rectify this problem the new policy proposes to reorient assistance.
  • By 2021-22 no less than 95 percent of Canada’s bilateral international development assistance initiatives will target or integrate gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls”. [Italics added].
  • This reorientation has already started, for instance with the earlier $650 million (3 year) reallocation to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) announced on International Women’s Day (2017) and restated in the new policy.

The two key terms embedded in the statement above, as italicized, are ‘target‘ and ‘integrate‘.

This speaks to a nuance in the data. In OECD-DAC parlance gender focus is dis-aggregated at the project level. Gender related projects are coded to reflect whether gender equality is targeted as the “principal objective” or whether it is a “significant objective” (see our analysis here).

In the Canadian context the data are more nuanced and coded on a 0 to 3 scale, where 0 implies gender is not targeted at all, and scales from 1 to 3 reflect increasing centrality of gender equality in the design and purpose of the project. The primary source for this data is the official GAC historical projects database (to facilitate the analysis below we link this data with other publicly available official data).

Gender marker = 3 is therefore that subset of spending where gender is the specific ‘target. Markers 1 and 2 cover projects that ‘integrate‘ gender at some level.

The new policy also articulates the breakdown of that 95% figure:

  • 15% of all bilateral international development assistance investments specifically target gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls by 2021-22″.
  • And 80% of GAC bilateral assistance will integrate gender equality and empowerment.

The analysis below is primarily concerned with the proposed substantial increase in specifically gender targeted assistance – from current levels ranging between 1% and 2% up to 15% by 2021-22.

Beyond the feminist targets there are few specifics in the verbose, but otherwise remarkably light on detail, policy document. Noteworthy are the following:

  • Reallocation of $150 million over 5 years towards local women’s rights organizations in developing countries.
  • The decision to do away with the ‘countries of focus’ list completely.
  • The decision to allocate at least 50% of bilateral assistance to sub-Saharan Africa by 2021-22.
  • The decision to “publicly disclose the level of the International Assistance Envelope on an annual basis”.

Reactions to Canada’s new assistance policy

Reactions to the Liberal government’s feminist international assistance policy have been highly polarized and polarizing:

In the first instance, likely reflecting the government’s communications strategy, media headlines seized upon the factoid that the Trudeau government’s “feminist plan commits 95% of foreign aid to gender, women and girls by 2022″.

Vice Canada lauded the new policy’s emphasis on local women’s rights organizations as the single largest boost to women’s aid abroad ever.

However, this fawning sycophancy is hardly reflective of the totality of the reaction.

In an attempt to make a political case, the Globe and Mail’s chief political writer Campbell Clark unconvincingly argued that Trudeau’s hard line – billions for the military and a lump of coal for foreign aid – wont help reelect him. And that next year when Mr. Trudeau hosts the G7 may be the moment to make a more “Liberal splash on aid”. (Unconvincing in the face of plenty of data that shows aid spending does not move elections and is certainly pretty far down a long list of priorities that cluster around the top; unconvincing also because this calculus is not reflected in the piece at all).

The Toronto Star’s Editorial Board firmly sided with the critical view and argued that the Trudeau government not only fell short on foreign aid but that (as a share of GDP) the father Trudeau committed twice as much to foreign aid as the son.

Canada’s favorite angry uncle, CBC’s Rex Murphy, missed the point of adding ‘feminism’ to foreign aid completely and true to form ranted there are torments enough in this tormented world without calling for the lens of first world feminism to be imposed on aid programs.

Leaving aside the frequent kerfuffles on social media between government officials on one side and an assortment of NGOs and CSOs on the other (whether in response to Minister of Finance’s call to aid groups to “do more with less”, or the more recent run in with the Minister of International Cooperation’s staff’s call to NGO’s to simply do a better job of communicating to Canadians), the new policy has, perhaps unwittingly, split the NGO community further.

The reason is simple. Feminism and feminist advocacy in foreign aid long predates the current government. Groups that have been advocating for these causes feel vindicated by the new policy. The government needs these groups as outside champions and validation of its approach.

Others find it very hard to be critical of the government on development issues, even when there is cause for critique. The Prime Minister and his foreign policy cabinet members are too popular internationally. Their feminist credentials – well-founded or not – are central to the soft-power brand. It is easy for Canada to show up well (and at low or no extra fiscal cost) when the global bar is quite low.

In this context the disjointed reaction from NGOs makes sense:

On the fawning sycophancy end of the spectrum there are groups that praised the government for ‘walking the talk on global women’s rights‘, and described the new policy as a “game-changer“.

On the other end are those “simply stunned” by the “juxtaposition of a 70% increase in the defense budget with a 0% increase in the development budget“.

A Data-Driven Reality Check

The above reactions lack reflection on the current state of play and what the proposed reorientation may mean for Canada’s future development spending.

  • For e.g. the 95% figure looks significant in isolation, but what is the current level?
  • The new policy states that the emphasis on gender has declined in recent years. Is there evidence of this?
  • The jump to 15% gender targeted aid implies a major change. But what does that funding go towards? Which partners, where geographically and what sorts of projects?
  • What might the increase imply for the outlook on development spending?

The discussion and data below help address these questions.

How realistic is it to target or integrate gender in 95% of international assistance, where does the figure stand today?  

Figures 1 to 3 below leverage Canadian gender marker based data. They reflect the time-series trend from 2005/06 to 2014/15.

They indicate that currently about 71% of Canada’s international assistance targets or integrates gender. The comparable figure using the OECD-DAC approach which we have analyzed elsewhere is approx. 61% (2015).

However this includes all levels of gender focus (both targeted and integrated). In reality the two are very different (more on this below).

The trend shows that at this aggregate level Canada’s gender focus has increased from around 54% in 2005/06 to over 70% by 2014/15. So it is entirely plausible for this to increase further to the 95% target by 2021-22.

Is there a paradox? Has the focus on gender declined in recent years? 

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, the data again do lend some credence to this. Figures 1 to 3 also show that the increase in gender focus has been almost entirely driven by projects coded as gender marker = 1.

This means the increase is driven by projects that are lowest on the Canadian gender marker scale, i.e. projects that integrate gender to some degree but are not designed specifically to advance gender equality or empowerment.

Projects that integrate gender to a greater extent, i.e. are at the gender marker = 2 level, have declined from over 45% in 2005/06 to around 25% of GAC project spending in 2014/15.

Projects that specifically target gender, gender marker = 3, have remained static over the entire period between 1.1% and 2.8% of total GAC project spending.

This is the reason why the jump up to 15% in gender specific spending (in theory) represents a major, and potentially very risky change (as discussed below).

Where does specifically gender targeted funding go currently? 

To conduct this analysis we linked historical projects data (HPDS) with other official sources. The analysis is of gender marker = 3, i.e. gender specific spending, and covers the time period from 2010/11 to 2014/15.

The total amount of funding covered is approx. $265.7 million.

Figure 4 shows the main partners that intermediate Canada’s specifically gender targeted spending. As a group, foreign non-profits and multilateral institutions account for 64% or the largest share of this funding. UN agencies alone account for approx. 49%. As the figure shows, UN Women makes up the largest individual institutional share of such funding. Followed by UNICEF, UNFPA and UNDP which also feature among Canada’s top 5 partners on gender targeted support.

As a group, Canadian non-profits account for the second largest share at approx. 26%. Care Canada, Oxfam Canada and the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada being the 3 largest over the period covered.

Figure 5 shows the geographic allocation of gender targeted spending. To assess the geographic focus we developed a composite indicator using the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index, Gender Development Index, and the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap.

Canada’s gender targeted spending is focused on some of the worst performers on our composite measure. Afghanistan, Congo (DRC), Pakistan, Yemen, Mali and Burkina-Faso stand out. However the level of overlap and spending is (relatively) low. Which means there is considerable scope to (a) increase the emphasis on and more directly target gender via projects in countries where the challenges are the greatest and (b) expand programming geographically to cover regions where the challenges are acute but may not have been the focus of Canada’s gender targeted assistance (e.g. Niger, Chad, Ivory Coast, Palestine, Sudan).

Figure 6 lists the 35 largest individual project level investment over the period covered in order to provide a sense of what types of projects qualify as ‘specifically designed to target gender equality and empowerment’. Figure 7 provides detailed descriptions for the top 5.

With the exception of institutional support (core funding) most of these projects tend to be relatively small in dollar value.

Implications of the 15% target by 2021-22 

As mentioned above there remains scope to both increase and more directly target gender in contexts where Canada’s programming is already engaged, and expand programming to cover new areas that may not have been the traditional focus. Geographically speaking, in the absence of a ‘countries of focus list’, this may happen de facto. However it carries risk.

Increasing the share of gender targeted assistance and focusing the same where the challenge is the greatest means an incrementally larger share of Canada’s assistance portfolio will be more directly exposed to contexts where aid effectiveness challenges are the greatest, and the ability to show ‘wins’ and value for money is the weakest.

While the new policy does not allocate any additional funding, it is highly ambitious. The extent of the increase (or the delta) will compound the challenge.

Back of the envelope math should help put things in perspective:

  • According to our analysis between 2005/06 and 2014/15, total GAC project level assistance increased by a CAGR of merely 2.4%. This number is in fact somewhat inflated by the fact that since 2013-14, post amalgamation, spending from former ‘DFAIT’ is included (whereas prior to that it was not).
  • Over the last 5 years the CAGR is only 0.6% (excluding the effect of the amalgamation, since 2011/12 it would be negative).
  • If we assume total GAC project spend remains flat for 2016/17, and take the 2015/16 level of $3.95 billion as the base (rounded to $4 billion); at a slightly higher CAGR of say 3% (nominal), GAC spend by 2021/22 should reach approx. $4.6 billion.
  • The 15% target implies approx. $695.5 million (nominal) by 2021/22.
  • Current spending (as detailed below) is approx. $47.7 million.
  • Therefore the target implies a 14x to 15x delta!

Even with approx. $30 million/year going to local women’s organizations in developing countries (part of the $150 million reallocation), and approx. $216 million/year going towards SRHR (part of the $650 million reallocation), both of which will most certainly qualify as ‘gender targeted’, the new target represents a major shift that can only be accomplished in one, or likely a combination of all, of three ways:

  • Increased support to and through multilaterals that take a feminist approach or focus on women and girls. 
  • New and larger calls for specifically gender targeted projects. 
  • Rapid ‘feminisation’ of existing and planned funding. 

The first is the easiest and most probable approach. It is also consistent with the Liberal government’s focus on multilateral institutions and UN security council ambitions. Moreover multilateral channels and UN agencies specifically, as shown, are already the largest conduits of gender targeted assistance from Canada.

An obvious area would be to increase investment in UN Women. While it is already the largest channel of Canada’s gender targeted spending, in recent years Canada’s core contribution to UN Women has declined. Canada is not among the top 10 contributors to UN Women. Reversing the recent decline would be an easy step. Smaller donors than Canada – Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Australia – all contribute far more than Canada to UN Women.

Other obvious ways Canada can and is already stepping up include by hosting high-visibility international events and conferences, as it did with the Global Fund replenishment in Montreal in 2016 and will with the decision to host the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver in 2019.

The balance between the 3 options listed above will be relatively easy to assess.

Larger gender specific calls for proposals will be easy to see as (above a certain threshold) these will be public. It is also the main route by which to engage Canadian civil society and other partners.

The remainder balance will be a function of ‘feminisation’ of existing and planned funding. This again will be relatively easy to assess through a pre/post analysis of gender marker data.

The impact of the new policy on where Canada’s funding goes – especially in the absence of a ‘countries of focus’ list and given the target to allocate at least 50% of spending in SSA – will be worth watching. The new feminist policy should imply a greater share of funding going to where the challenges are more acute and donor commitments are relatively low. To what extent this happens will say a lot about how far the new policy really goes.


This analysis provides a data-driven reality check of the new Liberal feminist international assistance policy. Our early reading suggests the following:

  1. The new feminist assistance policy, taken in the wider context of Canada’s current level of ambition when it comes to international affairs and investment in development, comes across as an attempt to hedge contradictory demands and risks.
  2. The new policy is highly focused – perhaps unwittingly too focused – as it outlines only one core action area.
  3. The decision to integrate or target gender equality and empowerment in 95% of bilateral assistance seems dramatic, but is much less so when we unpack the data.
  4. The significant and highly ambitious change is to increase the share of specifically gender targeted assistance, which has been at or under 2% for a decade, to 15% by 2021/22.
  5. In setting such a target the government essentially opted for one set of risks over another.
  6. On the one hand, demands to increase the level of development spending loomed large (not only from CSOs etc, but by all accounts from within the department at the highest levels).
  7. However, the case made by the department to cabinet to increase development spending clearly did not succeed (by the Minister and senior staff’s own admission).
  8. Instead, GAC essentially hedged and bought time. The calculated risk of focusing on feminism responds to the need to define a new focus and brand.
  9. While the feminist approach has its champions – within and outside government, in Canada and abroad – reactions to the new policy have been highly polarized and polarizing.
  10. According to our early analysis, if this reorientation is meaningful, the risks embedded in taking a feminist approach are bigger than perhaps proponents realize.
  11. The new approach means an incrementally larger share of Canada’s assistance portfolio will be more directly exposed to contexts where aid effectiveness challenges are the greatest, and the ability to show ‘wins’ and value for money is the weakest.
  12. The delta is so large – according to our calculation between 14x and 15x increase in specifically gender targeted spending – that the only way to achieve it will be through a combination of 3 options: increased investment in gender focused multilaterals, larger gender specific calls for proposals and rapid ‘feminisation’ of existing and planned funding.
  13. Assessing the balance between the 3 should be relatively easy, and will be the focus of our future analysis.
  14. On balance, it makes sense that the Liberal government chose to announce the reorientation without allocating new dollars to the same. This is for at least two reasons: first, as noted, the new strategy entails higher risk. It makes sense to let it play out for some time to see how effectively the department can deliver against it. Second, Canada’s hosting of the G7 in June 2018 presents a higher-visibility opportunity if the intention is to increase the international assistance envelope.

Key Data on Canada’s Gender Programming (using the gender marker approach); 2005/06 to 2014/15

Figure 1.

gndr mrk-area

Figure 2.

gndr mrk-line

Figure 3. 


Who delivers Canada’s gender targeted programming?

Top 20 partners involved in delivering programming specifically designed to advance gender equality and empowerment (marker = 3), 2010-11 to 2014-15; by total amount in CAD$. Accounts for $231.6 million or approx. 87% of funded programming.

Figure 4.

gndr mrk - top20partner

Where has Canada’s gender targeted programming gone geographically?

Top 30 countries or regions where programming specifically designed to advance gender equality and empowerment (marker = 3) has been targeted, 2010-11 to 2014-15; by total amount in CAD$. Accounts for $251.9 million or approx. 95% of programming.

Figure 5.

gndr geotop30

What types of projects count as specifically designed to target gender equality and empowerment?

Top 35 projects (gender marker = 3), by amount, 2010-11 to 2014-15. Accounts for $226.9 million or approx. 85%.

Figure 6. 

top35 projects

Figure 7. As illustration, detailed description of top 5 projects (by amount).

top5 projects descrip

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