Feminist concerns must be tackled effectively in multiple policy areas to ensure that governments do not simply pay lip service to feminist foreign and development policy. These encompass gender justice, countering erosion of public-sector services, and moving beyond both Thatcherite and colonial perspectives.
A growing number of countries are jumping on the bandwagon of what they refer to as “feminist foreign policy.” Sweden, Canada, Mexico, France, and now Germany have either already put forward their various approaches to feminist foreign policy or stated that they are in the process of developing such a policy. In principle, that is good news. For decades, feminist movements have highlighted the relevance of feminism and gender equality to the overall functioning of societies and economic systems. We have insisted on the need to recognise that there is no such thing as gender neutrality in public policy. Governments’ normative pro-feminist stances are welcome declarations of good intentions that require further analysis. What do these declarations really mean in terms of content and funding? Unless these questions are fully addressed, defining a government’s foreign policy as feminist might become a form of virtue-signalling.
Feminist foreign policy should address structural concerns and urgent issues that arise from the current context. Against the backdrop of decades of dismantling the public sector, the COVID-19 pandemic encountered a global system with a depleted public sector. That is nothing new in the Global South, where emerging nation-states were deeply enmeshed in the legacies of colonialism and often deeply indebted from the outset. This depletion continues to be exacerbated by extractive practices and an unfair financial system that keep low and middle-income countries structurally indebted and in vulnerable positions. While depletion of the public sector is framed as a cost-reduction strategy, cuts are buffered by the unpaid and poorly paid labour of women, girls, and racialized communities. Costs do not disappear because privatising public services is inevitably cost-effective, but are simply transferred to others who bear the brunt of such measures.
Acute accumulation of private wealth is the counterpart of an impoverished public sector. In the UK, for example, public wealth dropped from 60% of national income in 1970 to -106% in 2020. That should come as no surprise after decades of privatisation, erosion of social policies, and regressive tax policies. The private sector’s disproportionate growth in contrast to the public sector is not accidental but is the product of global and national policies that continue to reproduce this phenomenon. It is manifest in the corporate capture of development and the imposition of various privatisation models under the evergreen Thatcher-era mantra that “there is no alternative.” Not only is unscrupulous private-sector growth taking place at the expense of the commons: it rests on the shoulders of women, girls, and racialized communities whose unpaid and underpaid labour is required to sustain the status quo.
We know, however, that Thatcher’s mantra has not been applied uniformly, with most of the Global South kept with extremely limited room for manoeuvre and a Global North able and willing to mobilise resources to sustain itself and its economic elites. This has never been as clear as during the current pandemic. By October 2020, governments had rolled out significant financial emergency packages corresponding to twelve per cent of global GDP. This sizeable response was distributed unevenly, with richer countries assigning 20.3 per cent of GDP to wage subsidies and liquidity support for businesses, while emerging markets allocated only 6 per cent of GDP to measures such as job retention schemes and wage subsidies, and low-income countries only managed to assign 1.8 per cent of GDP, directing just 0.3 per cent to the health sector.
Figures from Oxfam (2022) indicate that the world’s 10 richest men have doubled their wealth, while projections indicate that over 160 million have been pushed into poverty during the pandemic. Those that have benefited the most from this tragic period are concentrated in technology, one of the least taxed economic sectors. Along the same lines, the pharmaceutical sector has seen skyrocketing profits thanks to vaccine sales in what has arguably been the worst global crisis since the Second World War. These huge profits were mostly garnered through economic protectionism in the Global North, which gave rise to poor vaccine distribution globally. Only 15.2 per cent of the population in low-income countries has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 78 and 77 per cent in the UK and the USA (ourworldindata.org, status on 25th April 2022). Economic protectionism produced poor vaccine distribution; as well as being counterproductive to the goal of ending the pandemic, this exacerbates depletion of already weakened healthcare systems. This care deficit is mostly experienced and buffered by women and girls in poor and racialised communities.As part of this development it should come as no surprise that for example the pandemic caused a setback of 10 years in labour participation gains among Latin American women.
As if that were not enough, we are plunging into a pandemic of austerity. In 2021, over 150 countries are expected to have implemented budget cuts and the trend continues into 2025. It is reasonable to expect that this new wave of budgetary cuts will become a perfect storm for further privatisation and roll-back of public services. Such erosion of services costs lives and overwhelms already burdened communities and households, particularly affecting women. Our recent study on discontinuation of the School Feeding Programme during the first months of the pandemic in Ghana demonstrates once again how women’s unpaid labour is the default buffer to government cuts. It also underlined how fatalities are triggered by these cuts, as is further revealed by Oxfam’s Inequality Kills Report.
If a government is serious about making its foreign policy “feminist”, it needs to account for structural inequalities that reproduce cycles of intersectional exclusions. It is not enough to call yourself feminist (or even go the extra length of calling yourself an intersectional feminist) if you do not effectively address structural concerns.
Feminist foreign policy should
Masaya Llavaneras Blanco (Venezuela) is Assistant Professor of Development Studies at Huron University College in London, Canada and Executive Committee Member of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era, DAWN.