The Africa Study Group in partnership with Open Air hosted a panel discussion at the University of Ottawa campus titled: “What Could a Canadian Feminist International Assistance Policy Mean for Africa?”
The discussion centred around the $150 million proposed by the Canadian government as financial aid over 5 years to support feminist movements across developing nations. This is in-line with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 5.
The panel speakers included women with vast experience in African topics, as well as human rights relations across the continent.
Ketty Nivyabandi (Nobel Women’s Institute) and Mariam Diallo (founder of the Malian NGO Femmes, Leadership et Développement durable), Jane Parpart (Adjunct Professor at University of Ottawa and Carleton University), chaired by Marcia Burdette.
Nivyabandi began the discussion by commending Canada’s intentions, highlighting, “Canada is the single largest donor to the gender equality movement.” However, she called for a change in the way Global Affairs gives money to big NGOs.
“Instead, funds should target grassroots movements. And, importantly, African women should not be seen as second-class citizens or beneficiaries but rather as agents of change and as partners”, she said.
Although Mariam Diallo also welcomed Canada’s role in promoting gender equality in Africa because “Malian women are among the poorest and marginalized women on the continent”, she voiced concern over the receptiveness of feminism in Mali.
“The word ‘feminist’ in Mali is a problem because aid agents are often perceived as spies attempting to topple the dominance of men in society”, Diallo said.
She also expressed concern that in Mali, aid workers face more resistance from women when feminism is brought up. Hence, the need for “better education on feminism, even among women.”
Nonetheless, she was particularly pleased that attention would be given to gender equality and not restricted to regional conflict, which has been the case in Mali since 2012.
Dr. Jane Parpart focused on the decline of women in America’s technology industry.
“Only 25 percent of jobs in the tech industry in America are occupied by women. And this has declined from a decade ago”, she said.
While the speakers agreed on the commonality of challenges facing women in Africa, the audience appeared less in unison about the proposed solutions by the Canadian government.
A member in the audience highlighted that “social transformation is long-term and we need to take into account gender issues vis-a-vis African governments.” He expressed pessimism that “things are not going to change in African countries just because Canada decides to get involved.”
His distrust was echoed by another member in the audience who asked if the Canadian policy supply driven? “Is there a database showing that people on ground request the assistance?”
“$150 million over five years divided among 55 countries amounts to a little over $1 million per year for each country. That’s nothing when we consider the size of some countries like Nigeria (180 million people). We could be wasting taxpayers’ money.”
Nivyabandi responded by highlighting “a majority of people in power in African states are men. Of course, they will not request for assistance on gender equality and we will not wait for direction on these issues from male-dominated governments.”
An important question that was, however, left unanswered was asked by a former Nigerian diplomat: “Are people of African descent, who have studied in Canada and acquired required expertise, being involved in these policy making decisions?”
With the discussions promoting engagement between the speakers and the audience, a pertinent viewpoint was that Canada’s foreign policy should genuinely reflect its values.
The big question, however, is where do we draw the line? If we claim gender equality is a human right but recognize African governments are often dictatorial, is Canada committed to risking relationships in order to push gender equality? Is it considered THAT important?