Better Evidence is Needed to Achieve Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Aims

Strengthening the evidence-base on women’s empowerment is critical to ensure effective spending of existing resources.

by Feb 22, 2018

A female farmer in Dali, Sudan. lbert Gonzalez Farra/UNPhoto

In June 2017, the Canadian federal government announced its Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), which rightly aims to “build a more peaceful, inclusive and prosperous world… by promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls” (Bibeau 2017, p. 3). The announcement of FIAP generated high praise from the international community. Indeed, the Trudeau government’s feminist approach to foreign policy bore much continued fanfare at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month. But among Canadian development scholars and practitioners, the announcement of FIAP has been met with something closer to cautious optimism. With no new funds being dedicated to support FIAP’s mandate, it remains to be seen, as Liam Swiss has argued, how Global Affairs Canada will meet its ambitious gender equality targets.

In lieu of new funding to scale-up Canada’s work in this area, strengthening and expanding the evidence-base on what works, and does not work, to empower women in developing countries is critical to ensure effective spending of existing resources.

Last May, McGill University’s Institute for the Study of International Development, in partnership with Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), launched the GrOW Research Series (GRS) to advance scholarly research on women’s economic empowerment and economic growth in low-income countries. The GRS is also the official research platform for the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) program, a multi-funder partnership between the UK Government’s Department for International Development, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and IDRC.

Through the dissemination of working papers, policy briefs and other original scholarship, the GRS serves as an autonomous open-access platform for current research on women’s empowerment, with a view to promote evidence-based programming and policy-making. This is especially valuable and timely work as Canada seeks to position itself as a leader in promoting a more progressive, feminist international agenda.

Research featured in the GRS shows that existing approaches to empowering women in development are less effective than previously imagined, and demonstrates the potential of new, innovative strategies.

For example, research conducted by Bipasha Baruah and included in the GRS examines opportunities and constraints for women’s employment and entrepreneurship in India’s renewable energy sector, as part of a growing trend in development promoting women’s entry into emerging or traditionally male-dominated job markets. Baruah finds that “women can gain optimal traction from employment in the renewable energy sector only if there are wider socially progressive policies in place,” otherwise, “transitioning to renewables may exacerbate existing gender inequities and hinder human development goals” (Baruah, 2017, p. 2). The need to approach women’s empowerment interventions more holistically is sage advice for development practitioners and policy makers, and not just those promoting women’s employment in renewable energy, but also other, widely-used, economic interventions, like microfinance and cash transfer programs.

Research included in the GRS is also producing surprising results that challenge existing ideas about empowerment.

Evidence from a McGill University-led study featured in the GRS shows that access to subsidized daycare in an urban informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, can promote women’s employment. Researchers Shelley Clark and colleagues explain that until recently research on the benefits of subsidized daycare has been near exclusively limited to the North American, European and Latin American contexts; while in sub-Saharan Africa, assumptions about the availability of kin support and “child care compatible” employment for women are widespread, preventing support for government- or NGO-subsidized daycare (Clark et al., 2017, p. 1). Challenging such perceptions, this study found that the demand for subsidized child care is strong in Kenya, and that mothers who access subsidized child care are more likely to be employed than mothers who do not, and able work fewer hours than those who do not, without any loss to their earnings. Additional research coming out of this study demonstrates that the costs of providing subsidized child care in Kenya are far outweighed by the economic and social returns it brings.

Finally, the GRS team at McGill, led by Sonia Laszlo, is producing research that identifies new and better strategies to measure the impacts of programs and policies aimed at promoting women’s wellbeing globally. The ability to evaluate development interventions properly is necessary to reduce spending on ineffective programs and (re)distribute existing resources efficiently.

Initiatives like the GRS are committed to strengthening and expanding the evidence-base on women’s empowerment in developing countries. This work is critical to doing development effectively and to achieving Canada’s feminist international assistance aims, particularly in the absence of increased government spending on gender equality.

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Kate Grantham
Dr. Kate Grantham is a Research Associate at McGill University’s Institute for the Study of International Development. She is also the Managing Editor of the GrOW Research Series. Her research is focused on gender and development, women’s economic empowerment, international volunteering and the internationalization of Canadian higher education.