The Fraud of ‘Feminist’ Foreign Aid

In September of last year, two women clambered onto a stage in Montreal before a gaggle of reporters. The Canadian foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, spoke first, and her European Union counterpart, Federica Mogherini, followed. A mild frenzy of attention and excitement had trailed the two women in the days leading up to this “historic” press conference. Freeland had hosted a first-of-its-kind convening of the world’s female foreign ministers. In a generally dismal moment for world politics, the event was just the thing to gladden gloomy hearts: The man leading the United States may be championing fortress-like walls; but here were the world’s women leaders offering a positive vision for the future. Not many seemed to notice that Freeland had made only one specific promise about her country’s adoption of a Feminist Foreign Assistance Policy: to hold another meeting in 2020. Mogherini, for her part, did not have any such announcements.

For those who had watched Canada disingenuously label its international-assistance policy as “feminist,” the summit was depressing. The perfect rhetoric and substantive emptiness was another indictment of women’s empowerment efforts, which tend to view “feminist” as a branding tool rather than a realignment of power relations. A new report by Oxfam Canada (which partners with the Canadian government in the implementation of the feminist international-assistance policy) admirably attempts to lay out what women’s economic empowerment should look like; yet its failures reveal the limitations of an apolitical framing.

A Feminist Approach to Women’s Economic Empowerment: How Canada Can Lead on Addressing the Neglected Areas of WEE deserves credit; its attempts at a frankness are rare in paeans to the newly in-vogue feminist this or that. On page 7 (which is rather early in the realm of reports of this sort), it admits that the “dominant ‘add women and stir’ approach” has some “notable limitations”—the most significant being that there may be contradictions between the goals of increasing economic growth (the ostensible project of economic empowerment) and uplifting women, especially the poorest.

It’s a commendable admission. But even the correctives proposed by Oxfam Canada fall several steps short, suggesting ideas that sound radical, like “feminist collective organizing,” but which absent a political framework are easily tamed.

With an observable pallet of good intentions, the Oxfam report makes essentially no mention of politics in its strategies to push women’s economic empowerment forward. One of the few instances of it that I could find was embedded in a paragraph in which the authors are making a plea for investing in “feminist collective organizing” and understanding the “intersection of social, economic and political disadvantages that women face.

The near-erasure of the political from the text of the report is unintentionally its greatest truth. The authors present a rousing case for intersectional approaches, contextualized understanding, and investment and support of feminist and labor causes, but do so without barely a nod to politics; this reveals just how uncomfortable the world of women’s economic empowerment is with confronting power. The reasons are no mystery either; as my co-authors and I enumerated two years ago in our own report Emissaries of Empowerment, the language and world of economic development as it pertains to women has relied on de-politicizing its subjects and in reducing them to pliant receptors of whatever empowerment gimmick donor organizations or countries have for them. It is, as we noted, a recipe geared toward pleasing the givers rather than actually empowering the recipients.

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