For a good while the world has known that Canada has a in . But now it has gone further and adopted a .
According to Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister, this new policy was developed after consultations with 15,000 people from 60 countries. In operation, it will refocus billions of Canadian aid dollars toward “advancing gender equality” and “the empowerment of women and girls”. In terms of scale and percentage, the change is tremendous. Canada has, in the years since 2010, spent only. With the adoption of this new policy that number will increase to 90% by 2022.
If it sounds too good to be true, it perhaps is. The reason isn’t the obvious one; is a reliable donor and sincerely intends to redirect the cash toward women and girls. The problem lies, instead, in the premise that underpins it: the idea that pumping foreign money into women’s empowerment and anti-violence programmes will deliver the advances that a “feminist” policy expects to produce.
One case against this sort of “trickle-down feminism” comes from , a country highlighted as a focus of the redirected Canadian policy. Since 2001, when the Nato alliance set about invading the country, an estimated $1.5bn (£1bn) has been directed toward women’s programmes in the country. The funds have been given to schools, women’s shelters, health programmes – in sum, to any and every kind of scheme that could deliver benefits to women. Most, if not all of it, has failed to deliver any benefits to Afghan women. A (page 23) released earlier this year said that violence against women has risen 400% in the past six years. A 2015 report by the UN special rapporteur on violence against women concluded that the aid “ in the lives of the majority of women, who remain marginalised, discriminated against and at high risk of being subjected to violence”. Women’s shelters, touted as the against crimes such as honour killings, are , with local populations making little effort to sustain them after the aid money is gone.
The Afghan example is not the only one. In neighbouring Pakistan, which has also been the recipient of millions of aid dollars for gender programmes, honour killings have not abated. Comparative numbers from 2004 and 2014 show , from 988 deaths to 1,276. While the USAid disbursement in the two countries was not officially labelled “feminist” foreign assistance, it has been supported by American feminist groups that saw the aid as a means of liberating Afghan women.
That recipe of top-down, foreign-funded feminism did not work, because while the funds position women as benefactors, they have been unable to produce the grassroots-level changes that are required for crimes to stop and girls’ schools to flourish. Instead, local women, those cherished allies of foreign funders, have been deemed traitors by local populations who see them as having colluded with invaders. Shuttering shelters and closing schools in turn has become political theatre, a reclamation of pre-intervention authenticity.
Feminist foreign aid, however, does not only fail because of conflict-related resentment and an inability to engender grassroots moral change. It also fails because development aid in general continues to be administered and disbursed along colonial-era models. Decision-making around programmes is largely, if not exclusively, in the hands of donor governments and grant-makers rather than recipients; expat staff sometimes make .
Present-day conferences on Afghanistan forget to include Afghan women or worse, reduce them to tokens
The solidarity of the imagined sisterhood is also not as solid as it could be. In the colonial era, British feminists held meetings discussing how Indian women could be “helped” without inviting any actual Indian women. Present-day conferences on forget to include Afghan women or, worse, reduce them to tokens. Much of it, then and now, is a tableau of dominance and subjugation, the saviour and the saved, each playing their role.
There are further difficulties, too. With a “feminist” foreign assistance policy in place, non-western others are compulsively measured against western standards of gender equality and found to fall short, and hence be deserving of assistance. When these others start to arrive in Canada or Sweden, as thousands of migrants and refugees have, their deficient commitments to gender equality often become the basis for legitimising their exclusion, or . With this, the circuitous geography of wanting and giving is complete. The world’s wanting are convicted twice: first for needing, then for leaving.
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If it wants to be “feminist”, foreign assistance cannot look away from this truth – its stark deviation from the equality that is feminism’s heart and centre. Devising a truly feminist foreign policy is not a matter of labels and programmes or even the diversion of funds, but an overhaul of a flawed system of aid that harms and hurts. To qualify as feminist, foreign assistance must first focus on eliminating all forms of inequality within the aid-industrial complex, discard colonial-era dynamics of exclusion and dominance and not permit the use of women’s empowerment as a pretext for war. It’s a hard task, and a tall ask underlining a truth feminists already know: while tacking feminism on to this or that is rather easy, actually embodying it is much, much harder.
• Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for Dawn in and writes the Read Other Women series at the Boston Review