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This Post is Not About “Feminism”

By Rachael Calleja 

Published: June 23, 2017

By now, most are probably aware that the Government of Canada recently launched its “feminist” international assistance policy. The policy places gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls at the centre of Canada’s efforts to support poverty reduction, inclusive growth, and a peaceful world. Towards this end, the Government pledges to allocate “no less than 95 percent of Canada’s bilateral development assistance” to supporting gender equality and the empowerment of women by 2021-22.

Since its launch, there has been a lot of discussion about the challenges and opportunities surrounding a “feminist” approach, but this policy does more than re-orient Canada towards feminist international assistance. It also re-defines where Canada’s international assistance will be allocated and how Canada understands aid effectiveness.

In this context, the shift to feminism is perhaps less contentious than questions of how the policy will actually manifest in practice. On this, there are a number of points that need to be addressed.

Where will gender-focused aid be targeted?

A key announcement from the new international assistance policy is that Canada will discontinue the countries of focus list previously used to guide geographic allocation. Regional strategies will be used instead, with a particular focus on sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). By 2021-22, SSA will receive no less than 50% of Canada’s bilateral assistance.

Beyond the focus on SSA, little has been said about the process of selecting individual country recipients within specific regions, nor how many countries will be targeted (both regionally, or in total).

How should Canada determine its recipients?

There is no easy answer to this question. Our best advice is that ODA should be targeted to countries with the greatest need, but should also consider regions where gender-focused spending has the greatest potential to generate results.

There are a number of indexes and indicators that can be used to understand national progress towards gender equality. Three such measures come to mind:

  1. Gender Inequality Index (UNDP) – Measures gender inequalities as three components of human development: reproductive health, empowerment, and economic status.
  2. Gender Development Index (UNDP) – Measures “gender gaps” in human development achievement as disparities between men and women in terms of health, knowledge and living standards.
  3. Global Gender Gap (World Economic Forum) – Measures gender-based gaps in access to resources and opportunities. The index is a composite of four sub-indexes, which measure: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment.

A large part of the challenge is determining how to use indicators to inform allocation decisions. Specifically, there is the question of whether targeting those with the greatest gender gaps offers the greatest room for improvement or whether it indicates conditions where structural or deep-seated inequality threatens to reduce the potential effectiveness of Canadian ODA.

From an effectiveness perspective, it may be prudent to limit engagement in countries where structural barriers (legislation, for instance) constrain potential progress. This is particularly true in light of the discontinuation of Canada’s countries of focus approach.

Part of the justification for concentrating aid and identifying development partners is the capacity to foster relations and exert influence through higher field presence and long-term engagement. Without individual countries of focus, it is unclear that Canada will have the relationships and weight needed to encourage more meaningful reforms.

In short, allocation choices may affect ways of working and the types of change that Canada can reasonably expect to enact with the resources available. Programming smaller projects in more countries will necessarily take on a different form and will be capable of achieving different results than fewer, larger projects, undertaken with key partners.

What about aid effectiveness?

The decision to forego the countries of focus list may also have implications for aid effectiveness. There is a risk that too many partners or too short timeframes could limit the ability for Canada to align aid programs with recipient government priorities and ensure recipient ownership over development efforts. While it is perhaps prudent to reserve judgment until more information on the regional strategies is available, such strategies should be guided by the logic of aid effectiveness.

To this point, it is worth noting that the “effectiveness” section of the new policy statement makes no reference to the Paris Principles or internationally recognized standards of aid-giving best practice. This is, well, curious.

Instead, the “effectiveness” strategy is oriented towards the private and civil sectors. There is a clear emphasis on looking beyond traditional aid resources to better engage the private sector for long-term development outcomes. Similarly, the civil sector will be more readily engaged in partner countries.

In both cases, the strategy makes sense. The world is changing; new and differentiated partnerships are being sought to strengthen development impact. Yet, leveraging other actors does not preclude the government from ensuring that its policies align with international standards for aid effectiveness.

Perhaps the clearest example is found under the heading, “More effective partnerships.” The section touts the importance of working with partner governments, engaging civil society, working with multilateral partners, the private sector and La Francophonie. But, notably, there is no reference to working with other donors to advance the harmonization of aid and reduce the administrative burden on partner countries.

So where do we go from here?

Policies do not exist until they are implemented. Prior to implementation, a policy document is just a nice idea.

The challenge with the current international assistance policy document is that the practicalities are largely missing. The how, who and where, the parts that will actually make a difference and determine the effectiveness of policy in practice, remain unclear. So too is the link to international standards for aid effectiveness.

We hope, and expect, to see more of this in the future. Until then, the discussion needs to look beyond “feminism” to the more fundamental aspects of Canada’s new policy.

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