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Aid proponents worry low profile of multi-billion-dollar federal program could expose it to cuts

Federal government to raise awareness on feminist foreign aid policy
WATCH: Federal government to raise awareness on feminist foreign aid policy

Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy guides the distribution of close to $6-billion annually in federal foreign aid. Its aim is to  help women and girls around the world and even though it’s the been the centrepiece of the Trudeau government’s overseas development policy for four years, hardly anyone knows a thing about it, according to documents obtained by Global News.

“Recent surveys from the Privy Council Office reveal that only one per cent of Canadians can describe anything about the Feminist International Assistance Policy,” wrote Kevin Chappell, the manager of the public opinion research and evaluation unit at Global Affairs Canada, in a memo submitted on May 7 to the department’s deputy minister, Marta Morgan.

“Also only two per cent of Canadians can mention anything about the Sustainable Development Goals, which they believe are objectives to improve the environment,” Chappell said.

“Communications on development do not appear to resonate in the intended manner with the Canadian public.”

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Karina Gould on raising the profile of the Feminist International Assistance Policy and other programs
Karina Gould on raising the profile of the Feminist International Assistance Policy and other programs

READ MORE: Scheer proposes 25% cut to foreign aid, redirecting funds to kids in conflict zones

Aid workers and experts in the development community worry that the failure of foreign aid programs like the Feminist International Assistant Policy “to resonate” with the public makes them vulnerable to cuts by politicians who do not see their value.

Indeed, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives campaigned on a platform that included slashing Canada’s overall foreign aid budget of around $6-billion a year by 25 per cent, or about $1.5 billion.

“I, along with many Canadians, was very disappointed to see that,” Karina Gould, the new International Development Minister said in an interview with Global News this month.

“But I also think that …  it speaks volumes to the fact that we need to do a better job of talking about what it is we’re doing.”

Federal Election 2019: Scheer pledges to slash foreign aid spending by 25%
Federal Election 2019: Scheer pledges to slash foreign aid spending by 25%

“It is extremely important on a number of fronts,” said Saadya Hamdani, director of gender equality with Plan International Canada, one of several development organizations that runs aid programs using Canadian funds.

“Canada is and has been a global leader, particularly in the field of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls for quite a number of years, I’d say almost two decades. And now, with the feminist international assistance policy, the sharpened focus on women and girls is of note.

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“And so it is quite important that Canadians know their government is playing a lead role globally in this area.”

Global News has reviewed several “project memorandums” prepared during the last Parliament by Global Affairs Canada staff as they sought budget approval from one of Gould’s predecessors, Marie-Claude Bibeau, for several initiatives put forward under the Feminist International Assistance Policy — or FIAP (fee-yap) as its known in development circles.

Some of those projects include:

  • $10 million over five years to Plan International to help adolescents in rural Bolivia “achieve reproductive rights. GAC staff believed it would help 25,000 mostly women and young girls. Bibeau approved funding on Jan. 8.
  • $13.9 million over six years to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific to implement a project titled “Catalyzing Women’s Entrepreneurship: Creating a Gender-Responsive Entrepreneurial Ecosystem.” Project designers said these funds will help 20,000 female entrepreneurs in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific overcome barriers to accessing finance and business development technologies.
  • $18.5 million over seven years to Pathfinder International to support family planning and abortion services in Mozambique. This project, according to internal Global Affairs Canada documents, had the potential to reach 1.9 million people in two remote provinces in Mozambique and help early and child marriages by 10 per cent. Bibeau approved that project on Nov. 12, 2017.

The Trudeau government has funded dozens of projects like those over the last few years and, on Monday, announced it would provide the UN Population Fund and the Aga Khan Development Network with $21-million over the next five years to deliver a program to support family planning and sexual and reproductive health services in Pakistan.

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READ MORE: Canada a trailblazer in helping women in conflict zones, but ‘more needs to be done’: UN official

These projects all aim to bring the Trudeau government’s overseas aid program in line with the following metrics, outlined in a heavily redacted memo, also retrieved via an access-to-information request, published by Global Affairs Canada on Dec 8, 2017:

  • 50 per cent of bilateral international development assistance to be directed to sub-Saharan African countries by fiscal 2022
  • 15 per cent to specifically target gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls by 2022
  • 95 per cent of bilateral international development assistance will either target or integrate gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls by fiscal 2022
“We’ve wanted to see a feminist international approach to the work that we do, in part because it helps move the international development assistance away from targeting women and girls to a much more strategic approach that involves engaging men and boys and talking about gender relations, gender issues and inequality, power and inequality in those [partner] communities,” said Rebecca Tiessen, an international development professor at the University of Ottawa.
Liberals unveil new ‘feminist’ foreign aid, but not much new money
Liberals unveil new ‘feminist’ foreign aid, but not much new money

And while those in the development community have praise for this focus, there is broad agreement more needs to be done to convince Canadians not only of the value of this aid focus, but that overall aid itself should be increased.

“We have to start to think about how to reinvest in Canadians and engage the Canadian public in a way that they want to commit to foreign aid, that they understand how much it is —  how little it actually is — and are interested in increasing that spending,” said Tiessen.

“The challenge is to ensure that we’re not talking about zero-sum gains, that international development assistance is not at the expense of other work we do in Canada or our domestic priorities. We need to do both.”

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And, as a global middle power, Canada’s overseas development budget is a key way Canada can extend its influence and project its own values overseas.

“We’re doing all of these really great projects that are making really important differences for people around the world. But also, it’s something that Canadians care about. And, when we talk about Canadian values, we get to express those and show them around the world as well,” Gould said.

Canada is spending about $6-billion a year on overseas development assistance, the distribution of which is guided by Feminist International Assistance Policy. And of that, $650-million over three years is targeted specifically for programs involving sexual and reproductive health.

Aid organizations have also been pressing Ottawa for years to boost Canada’s overall aid budget. Relative to its peers, Canada contributes a small amount of aid every year when measured against the size of the country’s economy. Norway and Ireland, two countries that are competing in 2020 against Canada for a vacant United Nations Security Council seat, contribute the equivalent of 0.7 per cent of their gross national product, the UN-mandated objective for all OECD countries.

READ MORE: Canada falls 4 spots, now ranked 11th best country for women’s equality, well-being

But Canada, in 2018, contributed less than half of that or 0.25 per cent. Indeed, for all the “Canada is back” rhetoric from the Trudeau government, its overseas development assistance budget was lower in 2018, as percentage of GDP, than any year during the Harper decade and the lowest in about five decades.

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“While the funding towards gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls has been historical in Canada, we’re also seeing at the same time that overall … spending has been historically low,” said Plan International’s Hamdani. “So we need to build on that side.”

“I think that’s a message that’s heard loud and clear, particularly for those who care about development. But I also think that we have to work together. So [to] those that care about development, I need to work with you to talk to Canadians, because it also has to come from Canadians,” Gould said.

Chappell’s memo from last May was obtained by Global News using an access-to-information request. The department took 89 days to process the the five pages of records and released it last month. In the memo, Chappell is seeking approval to spend about $84,000 on additional public opinion research as part of a step in learning how the department can boost the profile of its aid program.

That request was approved, the research was done, and last week, was posted online. And, sure enough, the pollster, Narrative Research Inc. found “that there is limited awareness or specific knowledge of Canada’s international assistance and international humanitarian assistance initiatives, despite positive opinions regarding the Country’s involvement at a general level.”

Narrative Research based its findings on 10 focus groups it conducted across the country in July. The contract it won for the work was valued at $78,964.40.

Ed. Note: This article has been update to clarify the amount being spent on all overseas development versus the amount being distributed via Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy.

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David Akin is Chief Political Correspondent for Global News