The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

The makings of feminist foreign aid

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The local school was destroyed by the same floods that displaced Shazia (far left) and her family. While a new school is under construction classes are held within the teachers home compound. The attendance of girls has risen with the parental knowledge that the location is safe and secure. (Photo: Irina Werning/Oxfam)

A small trend is emerging to bring a feminist approach to international affairs. This is good. But what does it mean?

I have always been flummoxed that anyone wouldn’t want to be a feminist.  It’s just so obvious: men and women are equal.  Women face social, political, and other obstacles that men don’t.  We should change that.  Done.

Everything else is noise and silliness.

But “feminist” is still a fraught word in mainstream political and policy circles. There are safer alternatives: “Women’s rights” is ok.  “Women’s empowerment” – especially economic empowerment – is safe.  “Prioritizing women and girls” is just fine.  Incorporating gender analysis and disaggregating data by gender is becoming mandatory.  But embracing feminism is still too edgy in most contexts.

Nevertheless, an exciting mini-trend has emerged in the international development sector: a feminist approach to aid.  Sweden started things off by proudly launching the world’s first “feminist foreign policy” in 2015.  More recently, Canada announced a “feminist aid policy” which will transform the country’s international assistance programs and strategy.

While there are some critics, these initiatives have mostly been received with applause, even enthusiasm.  So, we’re seeing some progress.

But what does it mean to have a feminist approach to policy?  Is it enough to promote women’s rights or to target women and girls as beneficiaries?  Or is there something more we should expect from a feminist approach?

Interestingly, I couldn’t find a definition in either the Swedish or Canadian initiatives.  They argue why a feminist approach is important and valuable.  But they’re not explicit about how a feminist approach differs from a conventional policy.  No discussion of underlying principles or concepts.  It’s assumed.  So, what constitutes a feminist approach?

Let’s start with a definition. Here’s what Merriam-Webster says:

Feminism, noun.

  1. the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes
  2. organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests

That’s simple.  Too simple, I think.  Feminist thought is not simple.  There are great thinkers and theorists; and many kinds of feminism. There’s 1st wave, 2nd wave, and 3rd wave feminism; Marxist feminism, ecofeminism, essentialists, and a myriad of social and intellectual movements and sub-movements.

Together, these feminist movements have been consequential and have re-ordered politics, academia, and other fields.

So, are we selling feminism short if we let rather simple – even conventional – policy proposals bear the “feminist” certification?

For the sake of discussion, and at the risk of generating a debate (actually, that would be a welcome outcome), I’d like to try to distill key ideas and principles that embody modern feminism.  Such a distillation could serve as a guide for evaluating the merit of a claim of “feminist” on any policy or initiative.

After consulting with some friends and colleagues, here’s what I’ve come up with:

  1. Feminism is equality:  not to ignore difference, but rather to embrace it and ensure there are systemic accommodations for it.
  1. Feminism is intersectional: recognize that power, status, and identity are multidimensional and that the lived experience can be very different based on these intersecting dimensions. Gender is critically important, but other identities and attributes inform and impact relations: race, social class, physical ability, sexuality, age, religion, ethnicity, and gender non-conformance.  Thus, as a matter of policy, solutions for some sets may not address the different challenges for others.
  1. Feminism is compositional: It’s not enough to target women, or to include women. Women must themselves be part of the design, implementation, and governance of structures, policies, and interventions.  Outcomes are important, but process is also important.  “Nothing about us, without us.”
  1. Feminism is empowering: women’s oppression exists within power structures and systems. Empowerment is not primarily a technical challenge, but a political one.  Women’s organizations and female leadership should be a central vehicle for delivering women’s empowerment and for implementing policies and programs.  And the political dimensions of issues should be central focus, not a side-issue.  If you’re not talking about power – and patriarchy – then you’re doing it wrong.
  1. Personal is political:  The distinction between what is public and what is private – or “domestic” – is arbitrary and prejudicial to women.  Likewise cultural norms and tradition are real and should merit respect – but not at the cost of women.  The long, slow progress in recognizing “domestic violence” as a bona fide crime and a serious social problem is an example. Intra-household power is not a “domestic” matter to be politely ignored by policy.  In fact, many poor and hungry people – mostly women and children – live in otherwise non-poor households as a result of gross power disparities.  “Poverty lines” run right through households.

What do you think?  What am I missing?

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    It’d be great if you could highlight tangible examples of past or current policies that are feminist in application (and, not just in intent or by branding). I’m wary of referring to any policy as “feminist” but I’m open to learning about them if they do exist.

  2.'Marc Wegerif

    A question to you Gawain: can you give us a reflection on how the Swedish and Canadian policies stack up against your definition? I thought that was coming.

    In answer to your question: What about feminism being transformational and involving consistent and explicit actions to address patriarchy? As we are in patriarchal societies we need action and we need transformation, otherwise we will not be addressing patriarchy.

    Related to my question and my answer: Isn’t the notion of “a feminist approach to aid” an oxymoron?


    I like a lot of what you said, but think you’re missing something in your very first point: “Feminism is equality: not to ignore difference, but rather to embrace it and ensure there are systemic accommodations”
    *Yes, it is equality, and should be embraced. When it’s not, the approach shouldn’t just be to accommodate, but rather to transform the norms that prevent that ‘equality embrace’.
    So I’d modify to say “ensure there are systemic, transformative approaches”
    It would also be great to see you cite and acknowledge the women (colleagues, friends etc) that you consulted with to reach some of your conclusions!

  4.'Sam Rosmarin

    I see a divide between the “hard” and “soft” side of feminist development. Feminist development policies are generally focused on the intangibles — rights, access, empowerment, voice, etc. They are much less often focused on industrial policy, FDI, employment, etc. This creates a disconnect between the donors and the developing countries — run by governments that focus on traditional macroeconomic and labor trends. Thus, feminist development often plays at the margins of development — i.e. helping a community of Ethiopian women get empowered through bee keeping instead of finding ways to transform the entire financial ecosystem for both men and women in the honey sector.

    One notable exception to this has been the strategy of the AfDB to make “the business case” for women’s empowerment. Their 10 year gender strategy is really worth a read because it builds a pragmatic and tangible financial strategy on a foundation of rights:


    Great piece, but how can this be put in practice. Practice requires commitment (passion) and resources to reach the grassroots, the level, in my experience, actors avoid, esp. when it comes to “nothing about us, without us”.

  6.'Kristi Tabaj

    Great piece! I especially like the opening paragraphs which pulled me into reading it in full.

    What about “Feminism is a Western concept?” I would even argue that, actually. Your stripped down “men and women are equal” is straight forward and an agreeable definition. However, we know feminism is layered with social and cultural norms. For example, while Canada and Sweden present feminist policies, I’m almost certain there are nuances indicating social norm distinctions. As you know, in some places around the world, people will argue whether or not the concept of gender exists. They know it and see it, sometimes subconsciously, as something different.

  7. thomasmachinga82@gmail.c'thomas nkhonde

    İt is the pivot of development but women or girls should work had to fix themselves in this rather than just putting them for the sake of eguality

  8.'Laura Groggel

    I’m a feminist and think it’s an important approach, but how is this different from the movement from Women in Development (WID) to Gender and Development (GAD). My fear with this new push is that we may still ignore one of the fundamental causes of gender inequality – namely the unequal power relations between men and women. In order to have truly gender transformation projects and policies, we have to include targeting explicitly men as allies, but also as needed change agents. This is also especially true in areas with changing power dynamics (without subsequent addressing of m/f power relations) can put women and girls at risk for gender based violence.

    1.'Astrid Vreys

      This seems very coherent with our analysis also. We need to empower men and women, to work on power relations.

      Do you have concrete examples of succes storries of empowerment of men leading to change agents?

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  10.'Carolina Maldonado

    Great piece Gawain. We’ve been thinking about this but from the perspective of emerging economies. If countries like Canada and Sweden have feminist foreign policies, where does that leave countries like Mexico? Do we have a “macho” foreign policy? What would a feminist apporach to international cooperation look like from the global South? We hope to have some conversations around this in Mexico in the next few months, would love to share our findings!

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