Politics of Poverty

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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