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Maria Jose Landeira Østergård, Chair of the (Danish) Women’s Council, argues in articles published in the Danish newspapers Information and Altinget in favour of the adoption by Denmark of ‘feminist foreign policy’ which makes “equality between the sexes the very focal point of foreign and security policy”. The government’s foreign and security policy strategy published in June is criticized for “not having an eye for a very central dynamic that worsens crises and conflicts in the world and creates further instability. Namely, inequality between the sexes”.

‘Gender’ has been an ingrained theme in international development policy since the 1980s, being a so-called horizontal criterion in the assessment of projects and in their implementation. .  As equality has not been achieved gender equality promotion efforts continue.  But despite modest changes in social norms in relation to gender, as shown in UNDP’s “2023 Genders Social Norm Index“, the progress made in the last 20 years in the position of women is quite impressive. That the marginalization of women in economic and political life slows down economic and social progress is now a global realization – which only types like the Taliban bristle against. Among the concrete results, education can be mentioned:  In all ASEAN countries, except for Cambodia, women make up the majority of students; and 42% of students at universities and colleges in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sweden introduced ‘feminist foreign policy’ in 2014 as part of Foreign Minister Margot Wallström’s (Social Democratic Party) effort to secure Sweden one of the non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council during the 2017-2018 period. The designation was abolished in 2022 by foreign minister Tobias Billström (Moderate Party), but adopted by France in 2019, Canada in 2017, Mexico in 2020, Luxemburg, Spain and Germany in 2021, Chile in 2022, the Netherlands in 2023.

How does feminist foreign policy differ from historical ‘gender’ and ‘poverty-oriented’ efforts?

The term was born as and continues to be an advertising slogan for which politicians and researcher-activists try to develop content. You first decide politically that you want to introduce a feminist foreign policy, after which you try to find out what that actually means. There is no generally accepted definition of the concept; a common basic ideology is that the oppression of women and other marginalized groups creates aggression internally and externally in a country, and that by opposing it one promotes a peaceful world. Canada does not even use the word, the country has a ‘Feminist International Assistance Policy’; a term that more precisely describes what the concept devised by Wallström is about.  How airy the foundation of the idea is can be visualized by reading the contributions that came in response to the German Foreign Ministry’s ‘call for papers’ in 2022; which were intended to be used to help develop guidelines for German feminist foreign policy.

Spotting new ideas and project concepts is like looking for a needle in a haystack. According to Wallstrøm, “the pursuit of gender equality is not a goal in itself, but a prerequisite for achieving broader foreign, development and security policy objectives“. This is not a new insight: in the year 2000, Security Council Resolution 1325 introduced the ‘Women, Peace and Security (WPS)’ agenda, which promotes women’s participation in peace processes, and for which 120 countries have since developed action plans.  That ’empowerment’ requires the transformation of power relations and social norms, and the strengthening of the legal rights of marginalized groups is central to the ‘rights-based approach to development aid’, which came about in the late 1990s. The same applies to the “three r’s” – representation, rights and resources – which, according to Østergård, was introduced by the Swedes in 2014 and which is a mainstay of the different countries’ feminist foreign policy.

The confusion surrounding the concept has a number of negative consequences. One of the minor ones is unnecessary clarification issues – such as that feminist does not equal pacifist, that LBGTIQ people are included, that an intersectional approach is used in project work. More critically, resources that could have been used to develop concrete solutions to complex and comprehensive global adjustment problems are wasted on forms, reporting, de-reporting and platitude development work that dresses the ministry in formal feminist folds.

The German Foreign Ministry’s “Guidelines for Feminist Foreign Policy” March 2023 provides an insight. The declared purpose, to combat the marginalization of women in the world, is old knowledge. For the ministry specifically, this means raising the embarrassingly low proportion of female ambassadors (less than a quarter). ‘Feminism’ must be mainstreamed in all the ministry’s business processes, which requires, among other things, that one must first find out what “feminist foreign economic policy” and “feminist energy foreign policy” are all about. The project examples in the document on the latter are reminiscent of projects which donors have financed under the “household energy” label since the mid-1980s; and if the contribution on the website about feminist climate foreign policy is any indicator, the final output will be rather fluffy.  “Gender budgeting” is introduced for all the ministry’s expenditure items. Until 2025, 85% of the funds abroad must be used on “gender sensitive” and 8% on “gender transformative” projects.  Human resource policy includes training courses for staff to impose a culture change which encodes a “feminist reflex” (not defined) in the employees.  Guidelines at the micro level dictate that employees only participate in public events if the panel is gender-balanced.

Feminist development policy is slogan-driven symbolic politics that, without contributing new ideas, pushes a wagon already in motion.  In short, what is good: the continuation of efforts to fight against gender bias is not new, what is new: generation of theoretical discussions, definitions and paperwork to satisfy the donor system’s internal needs is waste of resources.