In September last year, Prime Minister Ardern appeared in the United Nations with her new baby.
It was a strong symbol, but it’s one that hasn’t been converted through New Zealand’s attitude to foreign development in the Pacific.
Symbols need to be backed up with coherent policy, or they turn into shallow memes real fast.
Now, the Prime Minister has had a bit on, so there’s no heavy critique going on here.
However, the Pacific is one of the worst areas in the world for how it treats women.
New Zealand delivers the majority of its aid and development funding to this area.
The legacy policy framework for New Zealand’s aid and development is economically focused:
The purpose of New Zealand’s aid is to develop shared prosperity and stability in the Pacific and beyond, drawing on the best of New Zealand’s knowledge and skills. We support sustainable development in developing countries to reduce poverty and contribute to a more secure, equitable and prosperous world.”
The treatment of women in countries that we provide substantial funding to has some pretty common really negative themes, including:
“Feminist” may feel like a leftie buzzword to stick over a bunch of funding.
But the poorest people in the Pacific are women. Our framework is well overdue to fundamentally respond to New Zealand’s new political leadership, including how it frames aid and development funding.
You get a sense of the Australian development (‘AusAid’ as it was formerly known) approach to gender in development here:
There’s also some lovely case studies of useful change occurring in this Australian evaluation report.
Australia has an explicit women’s empowerment strategy in its development programme.
So does France.
The question is: what would a gender-focussed framing of state development look like if our Prime Minister could convert her massive symbolic gender capital into real change with real state money?
Well, one answer comes from Sweden.
Sweden has a feminist foreign policy. That’s what they call it. It’s led by the returned Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. It puts the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights at the centre of its diplomatic agenda. The policy consists of three laudable R’s:
Now, the symbolic capital of one Prime Minister can get spent on a limited set of policy tasks. I get that. But if Ardern is to get a good few terms, this government needs a bunch more policy wins than the very few it is getting out of transport, housing or health.
Development in the Pacific is also good for the Labour voter base, and Ardern has the capacity to gently build that “Pacific Reset” to sound political and development ends, not just keeping Winston busy imbibing Pina Coladas on tropical islands. Soft capital needs to be built, and spent, with values that are more than economic. We don’t just need to stick to the old primarily economic development framework to get good happening.
Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom explained in an interview in the New Yorker in March 2015 that a feminist foreign policy meant “standing against the systematic and global subordination of women.”
Anyone can do cute rhetorical aphorisms. Few back it up with policy frameworks that direct the cash. But that is what Sweden have done.
The approach has been critiqued, as it should, in a paper called: “Hiding Behind the F-Word”.
It has also been criticised for not being consistent. For example, Sweden’s government facilitating arms exports to authoritarian regimes with records of human rights abuses and its temporary suspension of the right to family reunification for refugees.
The true test of Sweden – or any country’s – feminist foreign policy will only be answered with further implementation and evaluation, which requires consistent and sustained support.
But it does turn upon New Zealand’s accidental newly-found global positioning on all things liberal in the world. Our Prime Minister is explicitly trading on its global banks of empathy and emotion and gender equality – as only a female Prime Minister can.
Her time to focus on this kind of stuff is so constrained now that she even cut her China trip down to one day.
But every PM has a lot on.
Even with other countries showing the way, it’s time to convert Ardern’s massive global symbolic capital into a lasting legacy for the Pacific. It’s time for a feminist international development policy.