America’s neighbors to the north are mounting an experiment.

Last week, Canada announced its “first feminist international-assistance policy,” following comprehensive public consultations which took place last summer in more than 300 sessions involving over 15,000 people in about 65 countries. A wide range of stakeholders also contributed over 10,000 written submissions to this process, resulting in what is very likely the first explicitly feminist aid policy ever officially launched by a donor country.

A “feminist approach, solidly anchored in the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, is the best way to reduce poverty and create a world that is more inclusive, more peaceful and more prosperous,” said Marie-Claire Bibeau, Canada’s Minister of International Development.

This policy fundamentally reorients Canada’s foreign aid….

From 1995-2015, only approximately 2 percent of Canada’s bilateral international development assistance was allocated to projects whose primary objectives were gender equality and the empowerment of women. After a decade of Conservative leadership in Canada, and given how much thinking around the empowerment of women and girls has evolved since the turn of the century, the Trudeau government began an extensive consultation process to rethink the way in which Canada was delivering aid. The resulting policy shift signals a fundamental reorientation of priorities.

Through this initiative, Canada hopes to position itself as a “global leader in gender equality,” and support women and girls not just through direct programming, but by making women and girls’ empowerment a criteria for receiving Canadian funding. Minister Bibeau hinted that the new policy would also mean that Canada will set “aside the rigid list of countries of focus to adopt a more flexible and efficient approach” – though no specifics were discussed, this highlights the profound changes that are afoot for Canada’s aid policy.

…While preserving the existing diversity in programs

Practically speaking, the shift doesn’t intend to upend existing relationships with local partner organizations or end programs. “This [policy shift] does not mean we will suddenly close some bilateral programs to open others somewhere else,” Bibeau explained. Instead, the new policy means that beneficiaries of Canadian aid will need to demonstrate their commitment to women and girls, no matter what the issue or initiative is. Bibeau explained that, “from now on, to obtain Canadian funding, all [of Canada’s] partners must consult women locally, involve them in decision making and ensure they are significantly engaged in project implementation.”

It’s a unique approach among donor countries…

Over the last decade or so, it has become increasingly accepted that investing in women and girls is an effective way to improve socio-economic conditions overall. Globally, we have come to better understand and recognize that greater gender equality can enhance economic productivity, improve development outcomes for the next generation, and make institutions and policies more representative.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the overarching international framework for reaching the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – recognize that women and girls’ empowerment cuts across all the SDGs, with targets on recognizing and valuing unpaid care and domestic work, women’s equal rights to economic resources, full and productive employment and decent work, and equal pay for work of equal value – in addition to targets focused on maternal health, educational attainment and other social sectors.

Yet, despite the fact that women and girls’ empowerment is being increasingly mainstreamed in the international development agenda, the OECD found in 2016 that there is “persistent underinvestment in women’s economic empowerment.” Indeed, while our philosophical understanding of the drivers of development is shifting, the reality in programming and financing does not reflect a full commitment to this approach, and to the mainstreaming of women and girls’ empowerment throughout all areas of aid programming – which is what Canada is attempting to do.

…But there is no new money

The ambitious new policy, however, does not benefit from any new injection of funds. Instead, the Minister announced an initial reallocation of $150 million, or about 15% of spending, in the short term, towards a fund targeting women in the development. Various media reports suggest that by the 2021-2022 horizon, somewhere between 80 and 95% of Canada’s aid and development budget will “target the advancement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls,” though those details remain somewhat sketchy at this stage.

Canada still only spends approximately 0.26% of its GDP on international aid, compared to the 0.7% benchmark established in 2005, and critics have said that calling for a new era and a fundamental shift without allocating any new funding seems disingenuous. “Feminism should not be used as a buzzword or a way to easily brand a political policy. And if you are going to label it as feminist, it must have real substance. Unfortunately the Liberal budget did not provide a single penny for international aid,” said Robert Aubin, a Canadian MP and international development critic from one of the main opposition parties.

Meanwhile, others have pointed out that Canada announced just last week a dramatic increase in military spending – by approximately $13 billion CAD, or a full 73% – and find it difficult for the government to claim that not even one additional dollar of aid will be available to implement the policy changes. What does this mean about how serious the Canadian government is with their new approach?, critics argue.

On this point, Minister Bibeau made the point that marginal funding increases at the national level will not bring the game-changing financial resources required to meet the ambitious development goals laid out in the 2030 Agenda. “On a global scale,” she said, “official development assistance represents $140 billion annually. To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals globally by 2030, between $5 trillion and $7 trillion are needed.” While Canada should of course strive to meet the 0 .7% target and support this fundamental policy shift with new money, Bibeau’s comments remind us that, ultimately, much more than that will need to be done to raise the money required – and not just in Canada.

So how does a “feminist” foreign aid policy resonate in the world today?

The Trudeau administration is getting praise for this approach, unsurprisingly in an era where international cooperation is weakened by populism. Since Donald Trump became President of the United States, the social and political climate around feminism and women has been as tense as it’s ever been in recent years. With the reinstatement of reactionary policies such as the global gag rule, the timing for Canada’s new policy to launch couldn’t have been better – the sharp contrast with the current American approach makes it appear all the more bold and ambitious.

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