Feminist Foreign Policies must acknowledge the continuing legacies of colonialism

In calling on our governments to adopt Feminist Foreign Policies, we must ensure that these are truly transformative, not a watered-down pink but a feminist deep purple and ecological green.

The danger of ‘purple-washing’

As more and more governments commit to pursuing ‘Feminist Foreign Policies’, there is of course a very real danger that the term becomes watered down; a  ‘purple-washing’ that just adds a faux feminist label to whatever decision-makers were going to do anyway. How then do we ensure that the concept contributes to real and lasting change? In the context of Black Lives Matter and a growing awareness of the continuing legacy of harm caused by European colonialism, any foreign policy worthy of the name feminist will have to include an honest reflection both of the damage already done and also of the ways in which colonial legacies continue. Most obviously, it will have to address the ways in which international economic policy-making continues to be heavily dominated by former colonisers, at the ongoing expense of those who were colonised. A foreign policy will not be feminist until it decolonises policy and practice in areas such as aid, trade, investment, sovereign debt, and the international financial institutions, and acknowledges the need for restorative justice and reparations.

It’s a good time too for those of us who work in international development organisations based in the Global North to interrogate our own roles and mandates. This will require us to understand better the power contexts created by neo-colonialism and white supremacy that frame and shape the sector in which we work. As a contribution to this reflection, the Gender and Development Network (GADN) has produced a new discussion paper. The report, written in consultation with 31 advocates from around the world, is aimed primarily at those with Global North power and privilege – a term used to describe the advantages an organisation or individual derives from their affiliation with the Global North, wherever they are located, avoiding the problematic binaries of ‘Global South’ and ‘Global North’ that are further complicated by the decentralisation of INGOs. 

‘Distributer’ and ‘challenger’ roles

In playing primarily a distributive role, as a conduit for funds or political access, many Northern agencies risk perpetuating colonial relationships and siphoning off resources as overheads which could have gone directly to the Global South. The paper explores the way those with ‘Global North power and privilege’ may be part of the problem, extracting information from partners for our own fundraising or branded reports, or using negative images that re-victimise Black people and People of Colour.

Instead, the paper suggests that if we are serious about a feminism that recognises the legacies of colonialism, those of us benefiting from ‘Global North power and privilege’, have a clear responsibility and even duty to act and atone. Our role then becomes one of challenger: holding our governments to account for past harm and present damage. As Theo Sowa, former CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund says: “Northern organisations must not just abdicate their roles, as they have been beneficiaries of these unequal systems. And we should not expect the Global South to just step up and fix global messes. The Global North has a responsibility to do its part in fixing the messes they have made.”

For international development organisations based in the Global North, the paper argues that becoming more feminist and decolonial implies recognising and challenging the power contexts in which we operate. Honest reflection on what motivates us to do the work that we do and how we benefit - whether that be charity, solidarity or the responsibility to atone for past wrongs could be a start, as long as reflection then leads to a change in our operations. What being ‘Southern-led’ really means in practice also needs addressing. It could include for example challenging the ‘division of labour’ where strategic wisdom and global analysis is only recognised when it comes from the Global North, while Southern advocates are expected to supply the ‘stories’. It may also imply being bolder in our advocacy, ensuring we root our work in the political analysis and demands from the Global South, even if it means losing access to decision-makers. It will certainly mean considering what roles can better be taken on by the Global South and resisting the imperative for growth that so many international development organisations share.

A feminist deep purple and ecological green

In calling on our governments to adopt Feminist Foreign Policies, we must ensure that these are truly transformative, not a watered-down pink but a feminist deep purple and ecological green, acknowledging and atoning for the legacies of colonialism and addressing the international economic systems that perpetuate this injustice. And while doing so, those of us with Global North power and privilege must also reflect on our own roles and challenge ourselves to do better. 


The Gender and Development Network (GADN) brings together UK-based expert NGOs, consultants, academics, and individuals committed to working on gender, development, and women’s rights issues. Our goal is to ensure that international development policy and practice promotes gender equality and women’s and girls’ rights, so that all women and girls can realise their rights free from discrimination.

Twitter: @GAD_Network
Facebook: @gadnetwork
LinkedIn: Gender and Development Network

The views in this article are not necessarily those of FES. 

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