With new feminist focus, Bibeau faces challenges around money and momentum

As International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau learned this weekend in South Sudan, world leaders heard Canada’s recent call to invest in women’s empowerment. But can such a goal succeed without new funds? 

By: /
June 20, 2017
Bibeau in South Sudan
Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau visits South Sudan. Courtesy of the Government of Canada/Development Canada via Twitter.

Marie-Claude Bibeau is having a moment.

In a period of less than a few weeks, Canada’s international development minister initiated a funding drive to fight famine in Africa; met Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi in Ottawa; overhauled Canada’s international aid program around feminist principles; joined Bill Gates and professional wrestling star John Cena to announce a $100-million contribution to the effort to eradicate polio; enjoyed a feature role at the International Economic Forum of the Americas’ annual conference in Montreal; and then, this past weekend, visited South Sudan to witness the country’s food crisis for herself.

That’s a good run in the spotlight for a minister who typically is overshadowed by colleagues and events deemed more newsworthy by the Ottawa press corps. Even within her own super ministry, Global Affairs Canada, Bibeau is eclipsed by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who might be the most prominent federal politician after the prime minister, and François-Philippe Champagne, the hyperactive trade minister.

Yet it was Bibeau, and not Champagne, who was called on earlier this month to help buttress Freeland’s update of Canada’s foreign policy. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was handed the primary support role, following Freeland with an unexpected expression of hard power. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might have turned next to Champagne to explain what Freeland meant when she said Canada would “intensify” its efforts to diversify its trade partners. But it was Bibeau who followed Sajjan’s defence announcement with her new Feminist International Assistance Policy.

Within a few years, 15 percent of Canada’s foreign-aid budget will go to projects that promise a “transformative” impact on women and girls, from two percent currently, Bibeau told me in an interview in Montreal on June 14. If officials at Global Affairs want to back a program that does nothing concrete for women, they will have to get the minister’s approval first. “In Sweden they have a feminist policy too, but I think we are the most ambitious,” Bibeau said. An emphasis on women and girls “will be a must to get Canadian funding now,” she said.

"The country’s spending on international assistance as a percentage of the economy is trending towards its lowest levels on record."

“Ambitious” rarely is used to describe Canada’s commitment to international development these days. The country’s spending on international assistance as a percentage of the economy is trending towards its lowest levels on record. The shift to a feminist policy was universally praised; research leaves little doubt that projects that favour women produce better outcomes. Yet by leaving Bibeau’s announcement to follow Sajjan’s, the prime minister made it easy for critics to show why they believe the government’s commitment to foreign aid is weak. Sajjan met the press with a promise from cabinet to increase military spending by more than $62 billion over 20 years, a 70 percent increase from previous allocations. Bibeau’s budget was left unchanged, even though she acknowledged in interviews after her announcement that she had asked for more money. 

“It undermines her,” Julia Sánchez, president of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, said of Bibeau’s snub. “The money piece is critical. By relying on existing funds, the shift is going to be slower and harder to make.”

Bibeau, who was elected to Parliament for the first time in 2015, began her professional career at the former Canadian International Development Agency, which sent her on postings to Morocco and Benin. Her bio states that she “ardently defends the idea of linking economic growth with the fight against climate change.”

In Montreal, she told me her next major task will be making the new Development Finance Institute (DFI) operational, a job she will share with Champagne, as the DFI will be housed at Export Development Canada. The House foreign affairs committee is still holding hearings on the new institution, which aims to promote private sector involvement in development work, but Bibeau already had a pretty good idea of what the institution will do with its initial $300-million budget. She said the focus likely will be green technology, sustainable agriculture and backing women and younger entrepreneurs in Africa and other capital-starved regions. “Now that the feminist policy is launched, and our targets are known, I would say my new challenge is innovative financing,” she said. “How can we use the Canadian contribution to leverage more funds, private partners among others, to see how we can do better?”

The DFI, first proposed by Stephen Harper’s government before reappearing in Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s latest budget, will help Bibeau deflect some of the criticism over her government’s miserliness when it comes to development assistance. But only some of it. Many of the non-governmental organizations and charities that the government relies on to execute its foreign-aid priorities are skeptical of development banks, which gravitate towards projects that promise a financial return. Sanchez and others say the profit motive hinders efforts to improve lives at least as often as it helps. Nor is $300 million a great deal of money when measured against the hundreds of billions of dollars that will be needed to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.  

Bibeau insists Canada can make a difference without new money. The poorer countries with which Canada works know what they have to do to keep the money flowing, or win increased funds, she said. On a call from South Sudan on Monday, Bibeau told reporters that the president and other government officials had told her what they were doing to empower women before she had a chance to bring it up in conversation.  

“Even if some projects have already been signed, they are encouraged to change their approach, and they know that if they don’t they will get no further support from Canadian financing,” Bibeau told me last week in Montreal. “I feel that they are working to own the new policy and the new approach.”

I asked her if she would withdraw Canada’s support from countries that reject her feminist approach. Bibeau seemed averse to that. She disagrees with the Harper-era policy of focusing on a defined list of countries, and she is reluctant to withdraw from any of the places where Canada is currently working. “We are efficient where we’ve been for a long time,” she said. “Maybe we will be giving a bit less in one country and bit more in another. Maybe adding one more? I don’t know. There will be changes, but not a major shift in the list of countries.”

No new carrots, and only a slightly heavier stick. Bibeau is on a roll. She may struggle to keep it going.