Canada’s new feminist development policy: the good, the bad and the next steps

The vision of a feminist policy needs practical approaches to implementation, writes John Sinclair, in this assessment of the winners and losers of the new policy and the many steps to help improve its impact. 

By: /
June 16, 2017
Bibeau
Canada's International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons, January 31, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy was released last Friday in Ottawa, following a week of busy foreign policy related statements — first a speech by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and then a new policy announcement by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, including new funding for the Canadian military.

International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said last week that the feminist framing was a first for Canada, calling it “the most ambitious and progressive in the history of Canada’s diplomacy.” It was the result of several months of consultations as part of an overall review of Canada’s approach to development cooperation.

 How did the policy develop? What will the challenges be in implementation? John Sinclair makes his assessment of the strengths of the new policy and areas in need of improvement.

What is the “Feminist International Assistance Policy”?

The full document released Friday presents a comprehensive feminist framework for future Canadian aid. It represents a bold — some might say revolutionary — shift for Canada as a donor. Bibeau and her team make a strong, development- and rights-based case for this transformation. 

The policy is built around six thematic areas, mirroring the UN’s Agenda 2030: Gender Equality and Empowerment; Human Dignity; Growth that Works for Everybody; Environment and Climate Change; Inclusive Growth; and Peace and Security. Its 25 pages provide examples of possible action areas, but leave unanswered questions around how the policy’s innovative and ambitious ideas will be implemented, except for promising new funding for Canadian civil society organizations (CSOs) to work with partners in developing countries. It left unmentioned, but hopefully recognized, that social change cannot happen overnight.

The policy was developed throughout 2016. Key were extensive consultations launched in May 2016, involving a reported 15,000 individuals in meetings and another 10,000 in on-line contributions. Their inputs are tabulated in a report called ‘What Did We Hear?’ Many of these conversations were with ordinary Canadians, CSOs and academics (myself included). Initially pleased by being consulted, many involved have since expressed frustration at the lack of feedback as well as the disappearance of possible bold or controversial ideas from the final policy document. Final drafting of the policy document was done by a small closed group of GAC officials and, of course, Minister Bibeau and her office. 

The motives and notable absences

New governments routinely revamp their strategies. It is likely that the Liberals particularly wanted to differentiate their approach from that of the Harper government. A policy rethink was initially prompted by the need for a vehicle to deliver Canada’s Agenda 2030 commitments — with its core goal of eliminating extreme poverty — but the final document has ultimately become a feminist manifesto for Global Affairs Canada. Its unspoken role is to demonstrate 'Canada is Back' as part of the campaign to boost Canada’s electoral chances for a 2020 UN Security Council seat.

The new policy sets out a fundamental redefinition of the core development priority, unfortunately without any incremental funding. It also left undiscussed the challenges of implementation, especially in a context of stagnant Canadian Official Development Assistance (ODA). Canada has pressed the UN to make itself ‘Fit for Purpose,’ but is GAC itself ready to deliver?

The new policy also fails to recognize that effective development cooperation needs a mutually agreed partnership. It seems to assume developing country partners will just fall into line with this new feminist approach. But these countries have their own development agendas and leadership vision. Moreover the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (2005) to which Canada subscribed says “[recipient] country leadership” is key. The new Canadian policy seems however to favour a short-term, transactional approach, project-by-project, with a wide and fluid array of smaller, maybe some less needy, countries. 

Who will and will not benefit?

 The answer should be easy. Minister Bibeau’s mandate letter says her priority is “reducing poverty.” Logic says this core goal demands that Canada should allocate the lion’s share of its ODA to recipient countries with the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged people — in UN-speak, the 49 Least Developed Countries (LDCs). 

Despite these pro-poor goals, including the UN poverty–driven aid (ODA) target of 0.20 percent of gross national income (GNI), the new policy surprisingly sets itself no target for LDCs. It does mention a more nebulous target of 50 percent of bilateral aid for Africa, but this is a very modest focus when Canada’s total aid effort for LDCs is only 0.11 percent of GNI. 

And incidentally, why no bilateral target for Asia, where many of the world’s poorest live in small countries like Cambodia and Nepal?

A global LDC target of about 75 percent of an increased level of bilateral ODA would seem more developmentally appropriate. Bilateral aid has decreased in recent years and now quite possibly funding room for new feminist programming will be squeezed due to recent very large, high-profile, maybe overly generous pledges such as the $785 million in 2016 for the multilateral donor, the Global Fund.

 The mystery also remains which countries might be possible recipients for the other 50 percent of Canadian bilateral aid. Will further millions of dollars of scarce ODA be diverted to minor middle-income countries (MICs) from whom somebody may seek commercial or political favours?  

The policy proposes the end of priority or focus countries, dismissing the past approach of a Cabinet-approved core list with multi-year planning figures. That approach still allowed ODA to regularly and easily go to non-priority countries, especially in situations like a humanitarian catastrophe. This updated approach rejects the view held by many practitioners that focus improves the effectiveness and quality of relationships with Canada’s partners, even as the UN and OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) plead for greater predictability in bilateral aid flows. Many of our most effective donor peers talk of just 12 to 15 core countries as optimal. 

In an interview, Bibeau said no current recipient countries would be dropped from Canada’s list. However, given stagnant ODA budgets, scarce funds could well be diverted from partner LDCs to fund additional ‘new opportunity’ countries. As a result Canada could risk gaining a reputation for unreliability as a donor. Ultimately, Canada cannot be everybody’s partner. Every commercial opportunity or ambassadorial plea cannot be met. The goal is not a full dance card, but success with our important partnerships.

How to be a better feminist donor

All this said, the new policy presents a critical opportunity to right-size our development cooperation, especially our UN Agenda 2030 commitments, after that lost decade under Stephen Harper when development cooperation was the victim of budget cuts and stalled decision-making. Many experienced professionals were lost to downsizing. Not least the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was eliminated as a standalone development ministry.

We are now in catch-up mode, learning to operate in a global context where even the poorest of our traditional partner countries are much more sophisticated than they once were. They are demanding the leadership role in setting their own development agendas.

Canada’s focus on women and children — the feminist development agenda — extends and deepens a role started in the 1980s. At that time CIDA even had mandatory gender sensitization training for all staff. Canada’s future development work will need to accommodate more than just feminism and CSOs; it will remain engaged in multilateralism, humanitarian aid, agriculture and much more, all to co-exist within a flat budget.   

The vision of a feminist policy needs practical approaches to implementation. The new policy document is very limited in its discussion of the critical ‘how’ of Canadian development programming, especially in poorest countries, often with institutional capacity and governance challenges.

In today’s world, almost all donors, including once hesitant multilaterals like the World Bank, are sensitized to the gender dimension. Canada’s new flagship program should optimally be implemented by rebuilding GAC’s weakened bilateral programming capabilities. GAC may want to limit the share of funding to gender-specializing UN agencies which can otherwise perversely translate into diminished Canadian visibility, essentially only known to UN bookkeepers.  

Most critically GAC will need empowered directors and stronger professional capacities in-country, with easy timely access to senior decision-makers of partner countries. Rebuilding often weak, understaffed thematic and programming GAC HQ staff will take time, as well as requiring managers with development experience. Last, but not least, effective change demands a management culture that recognizes and fosters risk-taking.  

For a development practitioner such as myself, scaling up the feminist agenda is long overdue, but also best pursued longer-term. We need to move on from support for CSO-styled micro-projects to a strategy involving long-term partnerships, often multi-donor, using SWAPs (Sector–Wide Approaches) with LDC governments. These partnerships can tackle root causes in culture and customs via transformational changes hopefully triggered by providing access for girls and their mothers to full spectrum education and health services, including reproductive health. New country programming approaches will be needed at this more strategic level, including being less bureaucratically allergic to budget support. 

What else is missing?

The UN is increasingly a key partner, both politically and on the ground. But important agencies have often been overlooked and underfunded by Canada. The new policy includes little discussion of how Canada might help rebuild the UN. It should also be thinking about working with the new but ignored array of multilateral bodies and new donors, including those created recently by emerging economies.  

Global Affairs should plan for more partnerships, including creating joint programming agreements with all major recipients. GAC will need such partnerships for optimal development cooperation; Canada needs them to frame its longer–term economic and political relationships with the Global South. After a decade of absence, Canada will need to re-earn its entry pass; we cannot bribe or bully the doorman.

There are hints of plans to impose formal conditionalities that could make or break a project in future should the Canadian government choose to. This sounds good, but conditionality has a bitter history with developing countries. We need to create a tone of equity and trust in our partnerships. 

What would improve impact?

There are a number of actions that I believe would improve impact — beyond what has already been said above on implementation and partnerships:

  •  For one, more development funding is needed. This is a core prerequisite for delivering a feminist agenda and to simultaneously meet our Agenda 2030 goals. Canada should pledge to match Pierre Trudeau’s 1975 ODA peak effort of 0.54 percent of GNI by 2020. Unlike the new defence review, with its bold new $15+ billion budget for 88 jet fighters (likely never to be used in war), there was nothing in this development policy, not even a ‘best effort’ promise that comes close to Lester Pearson’s 0.7 percent target for ODA. Our present dismal 0.26 percent does not even match the Harper best of 0.34 percent. Not a great signal of being back.
  • Another suggestion: A stronger ODA budget share, say 75 percent, earmarked for LDCs, delivered as bilateral aid, with predictability reinforced by re-introducing five-year ‘indicative’ budget frameworks, linked to new joint programming agreements.  
  • Recruit more skilled GAC development staff, with equal status to foreign service counterparts.  Managers to be selected for leadership experience on development cooperation, not bean-counting skills. As the World Bank now insists, all aspiring country directors to have first served in an aid post.
  • More decentralization. The key for effective partnerships are professional GAC staff on the ground, with empowered country directors, starting with all LDCs. (But conservative, managerially risk-averse/budget–cutting thinking seems to favour reducing, not extending, decentralization, just as it is needed to facilitate closer working relations with our development partners. More HQ control equates to less credibility with the partner country.)
  •  The Canadian government should also create an independent advisory panel of experienced development professionals reporting to the minister.
  •  Create a public identity for Canada’s development cooperation. Perhaps try ‘Development Canada’ (similar to UK Aid or CIDA formerly).
  •  Lastly, take action to make policy coherence inside GAC a reality — a two-way flow of ideas and equal influence between development, trade and politics, not a one-way street of influence.