Where is Australia’s new gender equality aid budget?

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With the region currently facing multiple crises, from the Covid-19 pandemic to climate change, Australia’s new aid budget, announced by the Labor government on October 25, could not have been more timely. In particular, it is leading the shaping of the country’s international development policy, which is due to be launched in the middle of next year.

But how will Australia’s aid budget address the urgent needs of women and girls when gender equality is so negatively impacted by the current combination of crises?

Globally, the pandemic has significantly accelerated the gender poverty gap, pushing an estimated 47 million more women and girls into extreme poverty, increasing women’s unpaid care work and exposing women to increasing levels of violence. Added to this are the effects of climate change, which have adversely affected women and girls, particularly in rural and conflict-affected areas.

Goals are important – if gender equality is not measured and tracked, it will simply be overlooked.

The new aid budget offers an opportunity to fix some of these problems and reverse the damage done to gender equality over the past decade. Eleven countries have adopted Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) since 2014, including New Zealand, Canada, France and Germany. Australia has yet to adopt such an approach, but with the new international development policy being formulated, now would be an ideal time.

Budget wise, to start with the positive, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is committed to ensuring that all programs over $3 million include a gender equality goal, measured in reporting to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This builds on a pre-election commitment to ensure DFAT reintroduces its internal goal of having 80 percent of all aid programs address gender equality. These goals are important – if gender equality is not measured and pursued, it will simply be overlooked. While these goals are commendable, more can be done in the aid budget and in the new aid policy to ensure that gender equality remains a top priority.

It would be even more effective if DFAT set a target for programs aiming at gender equality primary objective. For example, France recently committed to ensuring that at least 20 percent of projects aim for gender equality primary Target by 2025. If gender equality is measured only as a significant objective, for example, there is room for broad interpretation and misinterpretation.

While women’s economic empowerment is important, it is only one component of holistic gender equality (Jeremy Weate/Flickr)

Although figures in Australia’s new aid budget appear positive, when inflation is factored in, aid spending will actually fall by five per cent in 2025-26. Although these cuts are smaller than would have been made under the coalition government, the funding does not adequately support women, who are bearing the brunt of the simultaneous health and climate crises. In addition, support for humanitarian emergencies remains low. From a gender perspective, this is problematic as women are often the hardest hit by disasters.

There is scope to do much more and learn from the takeover of feminist foreign policy abroad.

With a change of government and the development of a new aid policy, Australia is well positioned to develop its own FFP. This can guide Australia’s aid program and other areas of foreign policy such as defense and diplomacy. This approach is important for several reasons.

Addressing gender equality requires detailed work on preventing and combating violence, changing social norms and women’s rights.

First, gender equality should not be an “add-on” feature of the utility, but should guide programming. There is ample scope to expand and expand existing projects such as the Pacific Women Lead program ($170 million in 2021-2026).

Second, a feminist foreign policy goes beyond women’s economic empowerment, which is arguably the single theme that has garnered the most resonance in the aid program. The economic empowerment of women, while important, is only one component of holistic gender equality. Addressing gender equality requires detailed work on preventing and combating violence, changing social norms and women’s rights – it also requires an intersectional approach to ensure that the rights of the most marginalized women are taken into account.

Third, an FFP would allow the aid program to set ambitious goals for gender equality. Ideally, a target would be set for at least 20 percent of programs to have gender equality as a key objective, and a five percent target for funding for women’s rights organizations. This has proven to be one of the most effective ways to promote gender equality. It also recognizes that Australia doesn’t have all the answers, but plays a crucial role in funding programs that nurture local movements and help ensure local women’s voices are recognised. Given the impact of disasters and health crises on women, it is also important to simultaneously increase the aid budget for humanitarian emergencies and disability organizations.

Without addressing some of these issues, it is unclear how successful Australia’s aid program will be in tackling gender inequality in the region.

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