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Ottawa unveils new feminist foreign-aid policy

Canada's International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau speaks in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Dec. 9, 2015.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

The federal government has unveiled what it is calling "Canada's first feminist international-assistance policy," with plans to eventually ensure that at least 95 per cent of the country's foreign aid helps improve the lives of women and girls.

International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau launched the policy during a speech at Global Affairs Canada headquarters in Ottawa Friday morning, capping off a week of international-policy updates.

But while the government committed to more than $62-billion in new defence spending over 20 years, there are no plans to increase foreign aid to fund the new feminist policy.

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Related: Ottawa has no plans to bump up foreign aid, minister says

"Our new feminist international-assistance policy is the most ambitious and progressive in the history of Canada's diplomacy. It will make Canada a global leader in promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls," Ms. Bibeau said.

Video: New foreign aid policy focuses on women (The Canadian Press)

The policy, which comes after more than a year of consultations, allocates $150-million from the department's existing budget to establish the Women's Voice and Leadership Program, which will respond to the needs of local women's organizations in developing countries.

The policy also says that at least 95 per cent of Canada's international assistance spending will focus on equality and empowerment by 2021-22. Ms. Bibeau said Canada will stop working with partners who are not willing to put women and girls at the heart of their policy, but she would not say which countries or organizations the government would cut off.

Canadian NGOs welcomed the government's feminist agenda but said new money is needed to fulfill that promise. The government currently spends just 0.26 per cent of the country's gross national income on foreign aid – a far cry from the UN target of 0.7 per cent.

"I think it hinders the potential that this policy holds. We think this policy is bold and progressive and we're excited about what it promises … but we don't understand how this is going to be realized without new funding," said Julia Sanchez, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation.

NDP international development critic Robert Aubin echoed those concerns.

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"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," Mr. Aubin said in a statement.

Ms. Bibeau said a significant shift in Canada's international assistance policy was needed after a decade of Conservative leadership. She accused Stephen Harper's government of muzzling Canada on the international stage and failing to champion women's rights.

"Only 2 per cent of our bilateral assistance was allocated to projects whose primary objectives were gender equality and the empowerment of women," she said. "It was high time to take a good, hard look at the situation and adopt a new plan, a more ambitious plan, a more feminist plan."

Conservative foreign-affairs critic Peter Kent rejected Ms. Bibeau's criticisms as "spectacularly wrong," saying she failed to mention the Harper government's $3-billion pledge to global maternal, newborn and child health.

The government has also promised to ensure that at least 50 per cent of Canada's bilateral assistance is directed to sub-Saharan Africa, which has been hit hard by severe drought and conflict. The Harper government was criticized for turning its back on Africa by closing diplomatic missions and redirecting development aid to other parts of the world, such as Latin America.

The new international-assistance policy will apply a "human-rights approach" to six focus areas: gender equality, human dignity, growth that works for everyone, environment and climate action, inclusive governance and peace and security.

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The public consultations took place from May to July of last year, when the government held more than 300 sessions in about 65 countries. More than 10,000 written submissions were made by Canadian and international stakeholders, including NGOs, experts, donor and partner governments and people living in developing countries.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Michelle Zilio is a reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau. Previously, she was the associate producer of CTV’s Question Period and a political writer for CTVNews.ca. Michelle has also worked as a parliamentary reporter for iPolitics, covering foreign affairs, defence and immigration, and as a city desk reporter at the Ottawa Citizen. More

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