What Is Feminist Foreign Aid? The Concept Could Literally Change The World

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Gender equality, and the pursuit of greater educational and economic empowerment for women, have been a focus of the operations of NGOs around the world for a long time. But an emphasis on gender equity has started to move from the world of charities and foundations into governments, with both Sweden and Canada making explicitly feminist commitments for their foreign policy in recent years. This is a big deal, not only because it's raising more awareness of how feminist thought is necessary for better outcomes in societies worldwide, but because the more organizations and governments get involved with feminism and feminist thought, the more they can change some fundamental ideas about what a successful society looks like. So what does feminist foreign aid look like, and can it change the world?

Foreign aid is typically thought of as giving money or resources from one nation to another, but it's actually a big and complex beast. Everybody from governments to collectives like the World Bank and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) contribute resources in varying forms to countries around the world to attempt to alleviate poverty, solve conflicts, help with humanitarian crises, promote vaccinations and medical help, and all sorts of other aims. The United States currently has a foreign aid budget of $30 billion, though the Trump administration wants to cut that radically. How you give to other countries, and what you hope to accomplish in doing so, is an extremely complicated question, and it's one that, increasingly, may have a feminist answer.  

On the national level, Canada and Sweden's adoption of explicitly feminist foreign aid policies made a lot of waves. Canada's change is the most recent, coming into effect in June 2017; it now means that 95 percent of the country's foreign aid budget will be devoted to projects that have specific effects on women and gender equality. Sweden, however, started this sea change: The country's Foreign Minister commented in 2015 that "Women's participation in decision-making must be strengthened in countries at peace, countries in conflict and countries in which reconstruction is underway. This will also strengthen the sustainability of our societies." This comment had its intended ripple effect: People in development are starting to look at how feminism affects aid's bigger goals.

Gender equity, when it comes to a country's overall health, wealth and happiness, is incredibly important. British think tank Chatham House points to research that ties feminist attitudes to better non-violent conflict resolutions in countries, for example, and the United Nations Population Fund has a wealth of data on the economic, medical, and educational benefits of fostering gender equality in developing nations. Foreign aid administered according to gender-equal principles, empowering women on multiple levels, could have some very big benefits. But for some people, that only scratches the surface of what feminist foreign aid could actually be. If feminist foreign aid unleashed its full potential, they argue, it could change the way we think about aid in the first place, with enormous implications for everybody.

What Feminist Foreign Aid Looks Like Right Now

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Gender equality is a huge part of the way in which societies can develop, according to feminist thinkers who work in development, but the breadth of its reach means that just talking about "feminist aid" can get a bit confusing. Looking at the major example, Canada, and its forbearers gives us some clue of what it might mean in practice.

According to an article in The Conversation, the Canadian approach is basically threefold: It's committed to spending the vast majority of its aid budget on projects that explicitly involve gender equality, increasing the amount of projects that prioritize gender, and putting a lot of money into women's organizations and local activism. Aid targeted at gender equality, UN and World Bank experts explained in the Journal of International Development in 2016, has been popular with NGOs since the 1970s, and has generally taken two prongs. "Donors," the experts noted, "have moved to a twin-track approach — supporting direct investments in activities for women and/or girls in specific sectors, and ‘mainstreaming’ a gender perspective in all donor policies and programs."

The interesting thing about the relationship between the pursuit of women's equality and foreign aid is that it can involve so many different elements of society, from the obvious (educating girls) to the less apparent. And in that sense, some critics think, it's not covering the full gamut of the problems faced by women. In the world of finance, for example,  the Association for Women's Rights in Development notes that corruption and "illicit financial flows" tend to disproportionately affect women in multiple ways: unpaid taxes mean taxpayer-funded measures to support women go unsupported, for instance, and some of the biggest asset and money-laundering in the world around comes from the business of human trafficking, which impacts women and girls far more than it does males. The association argues that developmental organizations should view corruption as a violation of women's rights along with other, more direct abuses. A truly feminist foreign aid policy would take these and other major issues into account.

How Feminist Thinking Could Reshape Aid As A Whole

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Gawain Kripke, Oxfam's director of policy and research, has been looking at the ways in which foreign aid and feminism intersect, and noted something interesting: many places simply take the definition of "feminism" for granted. Getting a handle on some of feminism's lesser-recognized elements, he told Bustle, could have real implications for how foreign aid works in the world.  

Number one on the list? Intersectionality. "Some of the most important and dynamic debates in feminism have been around intersectionality in recent history," he told Bustle — but it's rarely, if ever, present in policy documents for aid. And that's a big loss. "The Sustainable Development Goals," he explained,  "set out very clearly that nobody should be left behind. I don’t think that’s feasible to do without taking an intersectional approach, because if you deal with people in blocs, as categories, I think you’ll be inherently missing the nuances and intersections of marginalization and oppression."

This has particular repercussions for one of aid's largest traditional targets: poverty. According to Kripke, the nature of poverty is changing. "As the world advances, and hundreds of millions of people come out of poverty, there are very resilient pockets of poverty," he said, and old approaches to getting them out aren't proving particularly helpful. "Understanding why those people remain in poverty, the structures and systems in place that are keeping them there, is important," he said. Intersectional approaches to how those groups are systemically disadvantaged may be the key to helping those people more effectively.

The second element presents another question whose answer changes with the application of feminist thought: how aid organizations and governments look at their targets, their data, and their goals. He highlighted that, in most data, poverty is all about the household — but that actually doesn't reflect the complexity of what's happening to every individual. The feminist edict that "the personal is political" can unpack that complexity, by encouraging a different perspective on poverty. "Most poverty is in non-poor countries, and then a huge fraction live in non-poor households," he told Bustle. "There’s a study about hunger and malnutrition that finds that a huge fraction of malnourished people are living in households that aren’t poor. A lot of malnutrition [comes from] intra-household distribution: women and kids not getting enough food in households that have enough food." To take a truly feminist approach to alleviating poverty, he argues, aid has to actually change the way it looks at its own numbers.

The other question, for Kripke, is success and how we measure it. In the development sector, success tends to be quantified in things like household income, number of girls enrolled in school, or vaccination rates. "All of these are not bad," he says, "but they’re inadequate to realizing human potential and being happy. Part of the big debate that feminism can bring to development is around what we measure as success." Diversifying what happiness and excellence can actually mean, he says, could be one way feminism changes what foreign aid actually seeks to accomplish.

As an example, Kripke cites unpaid domestic labor by women, who are often responsible for taking care of children and elderly relatives. While a lot of aid is often focused on freeing women from that obligation, he explains, aid organizations and governments view the idea as "successful" if the women decide to do paid work instead. He says, "Success is measured in increased income. But it turns out that women have more time, away from unpaid care work, they don’t always want to spend that time in paid work. They don’t necessarily want to get a job. They want to participate in the community in other ways: sleep, take care of their own health, pray at the mosque, take social time."

According to traditional measures of aid, he says, people would view that project as a failure, which goes against feminist ideals of female empowerment. Restructuring these ideas entirely, away from income and towards "permitting women to spend their time doing the things they prioritize over income," as Kripke says, is one way in which feminism's nuances could completely reshape aid.

The Issues With Feminist Foreign Aid

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Beyond an over-simplistic idea of feminism, there are other issues with the concept of feminist foreign aid. Members of an international think tank, speaking on condition of anonymity to prevent professional reprisal, told Bustle that the Swedish and Canadian models of feminist foreign aid weren't being more widely adopted among other governments in part because of political sexism, but also because neither governments have necessarily put their money where their mouth is yet. They also noted that feminist foreign aid might not actually qualify as properly feminist if the government behind it doesn't have a gender-equal foreign policy as a whole.

What would a feminist foreign policy actually look like? There's some disagreement about this: some experts think it needs to involve more women involved in peace processes and in political discussions more generally, while others applaud the Swedish decision to cancel an arms deal with Saudi Arabia because of the Middle Eastern country's human rights record. Bina Shah at Quartz notes that feminist foreign policies exist in parts around the world, from American-Pakistani leadership exchanges to Dutch funding of Pakistani female health programs, but prioritizing female equality in the entirety of foreign policy aims, from trade talks to delicate diplomacy, remains elusive.

This worry about rhetoric being the driving force behind feminist foreign aid initiatives, at least recently, is easy to understand. But it's not the only issue. Reflecting on intersectionality in feminism is extremely relevant for aid, because aid itself can still veer into being a top-down practice that disempowers or alienates people on the ground. Rafia Zakaria, criticizing Canada's aid ideas in The Guardian, noted that feminist-influenced aid projects haven't necessarily translated into better treatment of women in deeply gender-unequal countries, and that colonial models of "help" that exclude the voices and priorities of women on the ground are unfortunately common. Even the best of intentions can end up going awry.

The power dynamics of aid, government, and local priorities can be a tricky one. In Africa in particular, women's groups have expressed concern that NGOs with feminist agendas actually end up disempowering local feminist activists because they make themselves necessary to accomplish the local feminist's aims. A focus on intersectional feminism invites these kinds of nuanced conversations about the power structures created by foreign aid — and it may lead to shifts in the way aid is given to local women on the ground.

Feminism more than just a buzzword in foreign aid and development in general. The people who are using it as a guiding principle might just find that it reshapes many of the ways that they look at the world. Foreign aid affects the lives of millions of women worldwide, directly and indirectly: since 2008, the U.S. Agency For International Development estimates that its initiatives focused on maternal mortality alone has saved the lives of 5.6 million women. Feminist foreign aid can get more girls into school and raise women out of poverty — and it can also give us better tools to help empower female populations worldwide, from understanding their intersectional issues to prioritizing what women around the globe really want.