Canada’s new foreign aid budget puts focus on women, girls

Canada’s Minister of International Development, Marie-Claude Bibeau, at a World Bank event on April 20, 2017. (Credit: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank)

Canada has decided to shift its foreign aid spending so that it emphasizes empowering women and girls.

The long-awaited International Assistance Policy, which is likely the first explicitly feminist aid policy ever officially launched by a donor country, was announced last Friday by international development minister Marie-Claude Bibeau.

“Canada is adopting a feminist international assistance policy to promote gender equality and empower all women and girls,’Bibeau said. “For Canada, this is the most effective approach to reducing poverty and building a more inclusive, peaceful and prosperous world.”

“When women and girls are given equal opportunities to succeed, they can be powerful agents of change — driving stronger economic growth, encouraging greater peace and co-operation, and improving the quality of life for their families and their communities,” she added.

Within five years, 15 percent of Canadian aid will be dedicated to gender equality programs, compared to 2 percent in 2015-2016. Bibeau explained that all government projects will have to integrate a gender equality and women’s empowerment component, and that to obtain Canadian funding, all of Canada’s partners must consult women locally, involve them in decision making and ensure they are significantly engaged in project implementation.

The new vision is ambitious, but Canada is not the first country to put women at the receiving end of its aid package. In 2008, the Netherlands created a groundbreaking fund for women’s rights, and Sweden pioneered a feminist approach to its entire foreign policy agenda — including aid, diplomacy and the military — in 2015.

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Canada is, however, now the single largest contributor in bilateral funding to women’s rights organizations, and the reaction from aid and civil society groups has been positive.

Caroline Riseboro, President and CEO of Plan International Canada, told Humanosphere that the plan is a “crucial step” in reaching the world’s most vulnerable people, “recognizing not only the evidence that women and girls are without doubt the most excluded, but that enhancing women’s and girls’ rights and empowerment has medium and long-term impacts at the community, regional, national and global levels.”

Aid industry leaders also say that, if met, the targets included in the new policy — such as designating 15 percent of current funding to local women’s rights groups — signify a bolder and more ambitious agenda than has been attempted before in Canada.

“It represents a very ambitious shift in the way that Canadian development and humanitarian assistance will be delivered,” Julia Sánchez, President-CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC), said to Humanosphere.

But while those in the aid community applauded the bold gender-focused vision, many have also asked why the new policy saw no new increases to the Canadian aid envelope. Various media reports suggest that by 2021-2022, somewhere between 80 and 95% of Canada’s aid and development budget will “target the advancement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls,” but those details are so far unclear.

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Disappointment in the lack of new funding was likely amplified as, just days before Bibeau’s announcement, the government revealed a 70 percent ($13.9 billion) increase in defense spending over the next 10 years.

“By way of contrast, that’s almost the same amount that would be needed to meet Canada’s longstanding, never-yet-achieved commitment to give 0.7% of Gross National Income to Official Development Assistance,” Sánchez said.

Over the last several years, policymakers globally have increasingly recognized that greater gender equality can reduce poverty and improve socio-economic development overall. The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) emphasize women and girls’ empowerment across all targets, from equal access to economic resources, education and employment to maternal and reproductive health.

Despite this shift in the global development agenda, experts say that actual financing for gender equality programs is still far behind where it needs to be. In some cases, commitments are even being reversed, such as U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent reinstatement of the global gag rule, which effectively cut off U.S. dollars for abortion services in the Global South.

In response to the gag rule, Canada produced a $483 million (USD) envelope for reproductive health and rights. Canada also pledged $14.9 million (USD) for family planning services at the She Decides conference held in Brussels earlier this year.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com