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What Canada's Female-First Foreign Aid Policy Really Means for Women

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On June 9, Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced the launch of Canada’s feminist international assistance policy.

This policy has it all: a focus on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, human dignity, environment and climate action, inclusive governance, peace and security, and a women’s voice and leadership program.

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 cooperation, and improving the quality of life for their families and their communities, as it states in the policy.

In short, when women and girls succeed, everyone succeeds.

Through this policy, Canada will work to enhance the protection and promotion of human rights for women and girls; increase the participation of women and girls in equal decision-making (particularly when it comes to sustainable development and peace); and give women and girls more access to, and control over, the resources they need to secure ongoing economic and social equality.

The Women’s Voice and Leadership Program will also allocate $150 million over five years to respond to needs of local women’s organizations in developing countries that are working to advance the rights of women and girls and promote gender equality.

There is no doubt: this policy is good for women and girls around the world. It puts women and girls at the core of international assistance and it’s a bold commitment.

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But the policy is not perfect: it lacks additional funding from the government and it is unclear what other programs might be sacrificed to fund this one.

Canada’s development spending is actually at a near all-time low. At just under $5 billion, the country ranks as 18th in the world, according to the Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development.

The budget falls short in other ways — the United Nations’ target for foreign aid from developed countries is 0.7% of a country’s Gross National Income (GNI), Canada’s currently sits at about 0.26%.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan also just recently announced an increase of $13.9 billion to Canadian military funding.

"The juxtaposition of a recommended 70% increase to the defence budget with a recommended zero % increase to the development budget is simply stunning," said Stuart Hickox, the head of the anti−poverty group One, according to the Canadian Press.

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Canada’s foreign aid budget has been criticized on all sides of the political spectrum. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's globally-minded image has not resulted in an increase in aid.

Still, this policy shouldn't be overlooked.

“It’s funny that the feedback to something incredibly bold is that, ‘There’s no money,’” says Nancy Peckford, the executive director of Equal Voice. “The money critique has dominated and as a consequence, we’ve spent much less time on what it means to have [this policy].”

This isn’t Trudeau’s first effort to make gender equality a priority. He appointed a gender-balanced cabinet, self-identified as a feminist and pledged $650 million towards sexual and reproductive health and rights since coming into office.

Even without additional funding, this policy has the power to do something spectacular for women around the world.

“I think Prime Minister Trudeau is in this incredibly strong position to really persuade other governments to go down this road. Canada should not be the exception,” Peckford said, “If a critical mass of countries around the world did this, I think the multiplier effect would be considerate.”

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Interestingly enough, Peckford credits Trudeau’s gender-balanced cabinet as a key component in this policy’s creation.

“Minister Bibeau is being given considerable latitude to show feminist leadership,” Peckford said, “Women in Canada are watching this very closely as well — many of them are invested in Bibeau’s success.”

She feels that female ministers in the government have more capacity to bring women-centred analysis to their portfolios. As a result, policies like this one are being created.

Lauren Ravon, director of policy and campaigns for Oxfam Canada, also agrees that this policy is a step in the right direction.

Ravon has been critical of the government’s dedication to female empowerment in the past.

On March 6, Oxfam Canada released their 2017 Feminist Scorecard that looked at what action the government had taken to advance women’s rights and gender equality. At the time, the scores were low as Oxfam revealed the government had shown little progress in any category but representation and leadership.

But Ravon says that this new policy, as well as other 2017 budget choices, would make for a different scorecard.

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“Money is definitely a big part of the picture,” she says, “But I wouldn’t underestimate the policy and firm direction.”

Ravon says that having strong aid support that is more targeted and being delivered to the people most at risk speaks volumes, even if there is no additional funding attached to it.

The new policy states that: “Within five years, investments in programs that will specifically target gender equality and the empowerment of women will represent 15% of Canada’s $2.6 billion bilateral development assistance, up from 2% in 2015-16.”

Ravon considered this 15% to be specifically important. Peckford too noted that the commitment of $150 million towards the Women’s Voice and Leadership Program was significant.

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“It’s really crucial that the dollars are earmarked in the way that they are for women’s organizations,” Peckford said, “It really is about increasing women’s access to power and leadership opportunities which are fairly crucial in terms of how funding is deployed and engagement is needed to be successful.”

Ravon added it will be critical to define what is a women’s rights project that deserves these funds.

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“Let’s be clear about what is and what isn’t transformational,” she said.

The policy outlines action areas that commit to a feminist approach to international assistance, with gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls at the forefront of those actions.

“It’s one of those things were the policy is the first step and implementation is the real deal,” Ravon says, as we look toward the future. Peckford also believes that the government is putting framework in place before funding.

“We all want more money,” she says, “But I think given what I now understand, how it’s spent and who it reaches is powerful.”

About Our Partner

CHIME FOR CHANGE is a global campaign founded by Gucci in 2013 to convene, unite and strengthen the voices speaking out for girls and women around the world. The campaign uses innovative approaches to promote gender equality. Co-founded by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Salma Hayek Pinault, CHIME FOR CHANGE works with a coalition of partner organizations, including the Kering Foundation, Facebook, and Hearst Magazines.