A feminist approach to strengthening global democracy

Canada’s international assistance policy fails to transform the democratic institutions that sustain the oppression and exclusion of women.

By: /
17 February, 2021
TOPSHOT - A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Jalalabad on September 28, 2019. - Insurgents worked to disrupt Afghanistan's presidential election on September 28, with a series of blasts reported across the country as voters headed to the polls and troops flooded the streets of the capital. (Photo by Noorullah SHIRZADA / AFP) (Photo credit should read NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on September 28, 2019. Noorullah Shirzada/AFP via Getty Images

Since launching its “feminist international assistance policy” in 2017, Canada has transformed how it operates as a development assistance partner by prioritizing its assistances in ways that benefit women and marginalized groups. In 2019, Jacqueline O’Neill was appointed as Canada’s first ambassador for women, peace and security to advance feminist foreign policy and reinforce “efforts to ensure more inclusive, gender-equal and peaceful societies” at home and around the world.

When it comes to democracy promotion, however, these efforts have faltered. Canada’s commitment to supporting democracy abroad has declined, and it has not framed the support it does give using a feminist approach.

Canadian funding for democracy support is only two to four percent of overseas development assistance today — down from as much as 14 percent a decade ago. Canada cut aid from democracy support abroad during the decade that needed it most. A parliamentary review in 2019 indicated broad support on the need to redress this situation, but little has changed.

“While democracy support in general has been overlooked, the adoption of a feminist approach to international democracy assistance is virtually non-existent.”

Even more concerning is the apparent cognitive dissonance around a supposedly feminist international assistance policy and support for democratization in other countries. While democracy support in general has been overlooked, the adoption of a feminist approach to international democracy assistance is virtually non-existent. Under the feminist international assistance policy, feminist approaches to democracy support are weakly defined, and investment in women’s political participation and empowerment is underfunded.

The trickle of democracy support programs that continue to operate under the feminist international assistance policy have taken a piecemeal, ad hoc approach to advancing women’s political participation and leadership. In its 40-page report on recommendations for feminist foreign policy in late 2020, the Feminist Foreign Policy Working Group, which supports Global Affairs Canada’s public consultation on feminist foreign policy, doesn’t mention democracy at all among its goals or strategies. Yet without building democracies rooted in feminist values, how can we expect to see feminist reforms in target areas that rely on government, such as economic, security or environmental policy?

A feminist approach to democracy development must be more than a simple numbers game to increase the number of women and minority groups in democratic institutions that sustain existing power structures. A feminist approach must instead involve people of all genders working together to advance democratic institutions, processes and values that disrupt those patriarchal power structures and prioritize gender equality across diverse populations and partisan lines. It is measured by the extent to which those institutions and processes are transformed by feminist principles and feminist actors (male and female), not just by the percentage of seats held by each sex.

A feminist vision for democracy has never been more critical than right now, both at home and abroad. In its annual report for 2020, Freedom House, an NGO that tracks global democracy, describes a “leaderless struggle for democracy” in the world. America, reeling from the damaging administration of Donald Trump, has faltered in its leadership role. Canada is well placed to step up and fill that gap.

Revitalizing democracy support through a feminist lens will advance Canadian interests by shoring up friendly, democratic governments and promoting Canadian values more broadly. To meet this challenge, Canada’s feminist foreign policy needs to address two priorities.

First, it’s time for a feminist definition of feminism in public policy (especially in democracy support). As I argue above, a truly feminist approach is one that works to disrupt patriarchal power structures.

The way we define feminism in public policy matters because it impacts the resulting outcomes. An old, neo-liberal approach is still with us. Neo-liberal feminism, according to Catherine Rottenberg of the University of Nottingham, focuses on individual women’s “empowerment” to promote their market value, but it denies the socioeconomic and cultural structures that drive inequality. In terms of democracy assistance, that often means programs with an “add women and stir” approach to legacy institutions such as parliaments, political parties and the civil service that are rooted in patriarchal power structures. It promotes equality before the law ahead of social equality. This ultimately perpetuates exclusion and inequality.

Instead, gender equality must have equal footing with other core democratic values such as transparency, electoral integrity and civil liberties. It should not be sequentially positioned after other demands of democratization. Peace, justice, democracy and gender equality need to advance in step together or they will stumble and fall. A truly feminist foreign policy would hold states accountable for their gender equality commitments and not accept democratic “progress” on any other terms. This includes leveraging the tools of diplomacy and international relations — preferential trade status, arms sales, sanctions — to achieve equality goals. 

Although Canada’s feminist international assistance policy is light years ahead of what came before, it doesn’t break with the past or articulate a bold feminist vision in this way. As a result, it falls short of its potential to transform the so-called democratic institutions that sustain the oppression and exclusion of women.

Second, Canada should prioritize its support for upholding democracy in the world by re-investing in international democracy assistance. It is crucial that democracies lead by example and, when they run into trouble, redouble efforts to get back on the right track by ensuring democratic institutions are strengthened as we go. This is one of the best traits of democracy. It is not a destination but a process in need of continual nourishment and renewal.

Bringing Canadian support back up to levels where it can advance lasting change will offer a return on investment. Canada’s history of human rights defence and its current engagement in feminist policy responses provide a unique opportunity to support global democracy and global feminism and strengthen both.

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