Three questions for a more feminist humanitarian strategy

Author: Megan Daigle
Date: 27. July 2023

As we speak, Germany’s Federal Foreign Office (GFFO) is drafting a new humanitarian strategy for 2024–2027, coming fast on the heels of its new feminist foreign policy (FFP) launched in March.

Over the last year, the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at ODI has been examining whether and how feminist foreign policies are shaping humanitarian response in Canada, and soon we will be doing the same in Germany and Spain. This research is part of an HPG project called Remaking Aid, examining the narratives – like FFP – that underpin, motivate and shape humanitarian response. We are starting from the position that, as more and more countries adopt explicitly feminist foreign policies, what this means for humanitarian response remains largely unknown.

Here, drawing on the global movements that have championed feminist transformation in the humanitarian system for years already, I offer some questions that might help GFFO’s humanitarian specialists to foment a more meaningfully feminist humanitarian strategy.

Applying feminist principles to humanitarian action

Sweden launched the world’s first FFP in 2014, and since then a further 13 countries have done the same, albeit with varying degrees of conceptual clarity and commitment. Despite Sweden’s withdrawal of its FFP in October 2022, following the election of a new, more conservative government there, Germany has mirrored the Swedish approach by focusing on rights, representation and resources. While arguably none of the countries in the current FFP cadre can be said to be pursuing a truly feminist approach, Germany’s framing is certainly more expansive than its predecessors, including Canada’s 2017 Feminist International Assistance Policy. Released in tandem with a Feminist Development Policy, the German approach encompasses not just development and humanitarian assistance but also peace and security policy, human rights policy, climate diplomacy, foreign trade and investment policy, and cultural and societal diplomacy.

Germany’s feminism is not itself explained in any great detail, as the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) has also noted. That said, the policy takes an inclusive position on gender. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock argues in her introductory remarks,

Feminist foreign policy is not foreign policy for women, but for all members of a society. It is inclusive rather than exclusive. It takes into account the fact that discrimination is never one-dimensional. And therefore it stands up for everyone who is pushed to societies’ margins because of their gender identity, origin, religion, age, disability or sexual orientation or for other reasons.

Similarly, GFFO has taken the notable step of acknowledging its colonial history, positing that, ‘A self-critical look at one’s own history is part and parcel of feminist societal diplomacy.’ However, as the Berlin-based Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy writes, there is no statement of anti-racism here. The policy falls short of explaining how coloniality continues to shape Germany’s relationships to former colonies (its own or others’) or its understanding of the roots of conflicts and crises.

Ultimately, Germany’s take on feminism still associates gender explicitly with the foreign and makes little effort to link it to domestic concerns. And while it positions gender across an admittedly wide variety of foreign policy concerns, it is still very much focused on gender and women’s rights – important objectives, without a doubt, but they do not amount to a feminist agenda on their own.

On humanitarian response specifically, Germany’s feminist foreign policy offers its Guideline 2:

Our aim is to deploy 100% of our humanitarian assistance in, at the least, a gender-sensitive manner, and wherever appropriate in a gender-targeted manner. We systematically include women and marginalised people in crisis prevention, stabilisation and peacebuilding measures and take into account gender-specific risks and intersectional vulnerabilities. We utilise our crisis management efforts to make progress towards more gender-equitable societies. In the course of regular monitoring, we review the use of all funding deployed.

By all accounts, this commitment will be upheld in the new humanitarian strategy – but little else is known about how exactly GFFO plans to operationalise a supposedly feminist approach for the particularities of crisis and response, and many fear it will fall well short of such a label.

Indeed, German and global voices are already calling for GFFO to raise its objective from merely gender-sensitive to gender-responsive or gender-transformative, in keeping with the ambitions of the overarching policy document. The FFP also commits to ‘increasing structural consideration for gender in the humanitarian system’, but it stops short of characterising that system as patriarchal (or, indeed, colonial) or explaining what this consideration will look like.

Where does gender-responsive become feminist?

In our interviews in Canada, there has been considerable uncertainty around what distinguishes a feminist approach from one that attends to gender – a tension that is reflected elsewhere in the sector, even amongst champions of FFP, given the lack of a settled definition. That said, in conversations with a variety of advocates, civil servants and researchers, it’s clear that proponents understand feminism along two main axes – that is, feminism can be found first in the quality of gender work undertaken, and secondly in structural transformation of the humanitarian system.

On the first point, proponents argue that interventions and programmes are feminist when they are not just sensitive but responsive to gendered power dynamics. Interventions may even seek to transform those dynamics by tackling root causes and structural conditions – this, as noted above, is the approach championed by many German advocates and civil society organisations for the new strategy. However, a note of caution: transformation must be led by place-based movements and informed by their self-defined priorities, rather than prescriptive, top-down or one-size-fits-all. In Canada’s case, scholars Sheila Rao and Rebecca Tiessen have found a real need for greater dialogue with partner organisations and communities on what feminist responses can and should look like, avoiding top-down approaches and leaving space for ‘converging and diverging perceptions of gender equality, women’s empowerment, and feminism’.

Transformative work also necessitates longer-term investments of time and resources, beyond the usual humanitarian programme cycle, to confront backlash and support sustainable change. With that in mind, transformation may indeed be unattainable for humanitarians on their own, but they can set the stage for transformative change through partnerships with civil society and cultivating greater awareness of the intersectional realities amidst which they operate.

The second point pertains to how change will happen internally, in terms of the humanitarian architecture and its ways of working. In our interviews, independent experts in Canada have pointed to a need for structural shifts within Global Affairs Canada in order to be more responsive, less bureaucratic and more effective in how it implements its feminist policy, which will then facilitate more direct working relationships with grassroots women’s organisations that do not burden them with onerous reporting and administration. Helpfully, this puts a feminist approach squarely in line with other agendas for more inclusive, participatory and accountable humanitarian response. For Germany, this strategy therefore represents an opportunity for GFFO to learn from that experience and consider what changes are needed in its architecture – for example, resourcing the humanitarian department with capacity to deliver more consultative, participatory programmes.

First on the list might be providing direct support to women’s organisations in crisis settings, which are positioned to deliver the kind of contextualised interventions described above but are surprisingly absent from Germany’s feminist foreign policy. HPG’s own research during Covid-19 has shown that women’s organisations in crisis settings are agile and tuned into the needs of their communities, including the most marginalised groups, but the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) has found that only 0.4% of Germany’s gender-focused funding went to women’s equality organisations between 2014 and 2020.

In a similar vein, feminist thinking might also inspire some introspection about how humanitarians can work with rather than for crisis-affected communities. Instead of business as usual, GFFO has the chance to define a less hierarchical and self-contained humanitarian remit, with more coordination and less duplication of efforts. It can start by moving away from working through large multilaterals and towards direct relationships with place-based, women-led organisations, which will facilitate opportunities to listen to civil society in crisis settings and take their lead.

How will feminist impact be generated – and captured?

Impact has been a perennial point of criticism for countries with FFPs to date. This is not just a matter of properly evaluating funded programmes – it is also a question of what those evaluations will look like. Traditional models of evaluation have been hierarchical, without an eye on power or building an inclusive, participatory model that allows stakeholders to speak for themselves.

Greater emphasis is needed on qualitative data and process over quantification of outcomes. When it comes to social phenomena like gendered norms and power dynamics, research demonstrates that change is not linear. Especially in crisis settings, it may also be either progressive or regressive, and it may be small-scale and incremental. And it takes time. All of these are a tall order for humanitarians operating under pressure with limited budgets and timescales.

Indeed, measuring impact is an area where Canada has certainly struggled, despite setting out new methodologies for the express purpose of capturing their feminist approach. In a recent audit, Global Affairs Canada was unable to demonstrate improved outcomes for women and girls as a result of its programmes and funding, despite dedicating considerable funds and setting indicators (which Germany’s policy currently lacks). That audit did not cover Canada’s humanitarian work, but the nature of crisis programming means the results are unlikely to differ.

Anticipating these problems may already explain why Germany’s ambitions for its humanitarian strategy are so muted. They do, however, highlight the importance of a humanitarian strategy that is innovative, both in the targets it sets and how they can be evidenced. Potential avenues include investing in longer timelines for both programmes and evaluations, adjusting expectations for immediate or quantifiable results, capturing backlash and failures as well as successes, and designing evaluations collaboratively with partner organisations, grantees and programme participants. Positionality of evaluators is also key, as defining indicators is not a neutral or objective process – it is a set of choices that determine what matters. Donors have pivotal role to play as the arbiters of funding and reporting structures, so a thoughtful approach to impact here could make Germany an agenda-setter in gender-responsive humanitarian action.

How does feminism relate to principled humanitarian action?

In an era of shrinking funding pots, proliferating crises and heightened politicisation of their work, humanitarians must align their work with calls for efficiency, effectiveness and flexibility, while also maintaining conformity to core humanitarian principles. Where a feminist approach sits relative to these demands is still up for debate.

Humanitarian response has long tended to instrumentalise gender in pursuit of other goals like aid effectiveness and efficiency, targeting women and girls while avoiding the complexity of their experiences and the structural barriers they face, according to scholars like Elizabeth Olivius. Supporting gender justice may well help to achieve ends like prosperity, stability and health for wider societies, but it is not especially feminist to do it for that reason alone – and it does not negate the need to consider questions of rights and politics in humanitarian response.  

This is a tension that troubles humanitarian work, as principles of neutrality and impartiality are often used to dismiss feminist approaches as too political, or to short-circuit calls for better attention to gender for running counter to an impartial approach. In reality, as I have argued elsewhere, such qualms around principles frequently mask gaps in commitment, leadership and political will. While there are multiple readings of the core principles, their purpose is surely weakened if they are understood as constraints on ensuring people with the most urgent needs can access protection, support and resources.

This is a tension with which advocates in Canada do not seem to have grappled openly, and as such, it continues to bubble up. With this new strategy, GFFO has the chance to articulate its own position on humanitarian action that is principled and feminist openly – and to tackle concerns head on.

Defining the contours of feminist humanitarianism (or feminist humanitarianisms) is still very much an open question – and one that defies easy answers or tick-boxes. These questions are therefore intended to offer openings rather than a hard-and-fast formula for feminist action. For a strategy that makes meaningful steps towards delivering on feminist aspirations, though, that openness – to diverse and context-specific experiences of crisis, to new methodologies and paradigms for humanitarian work, to rejecting cookie cutter solutions – is entirely the point.

Dr Megan Daigle is a Senior Research Fellow in the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI. Her research focuses broadly on gender, sexuality, race, and disability in humanitarian contexts.

This blog is part of the “Strategy Snacks” with which CHA is accompanying the German Federal Foreign Office’s renewal of its humanitarian strategy.
The “Strategy Snacks” are on the one hand a series of articles on this blog and on the other hand an online event series in the “Out of the box” format at lunchtime.

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