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Rethinking Canadian Aid

Stephen Brown
Molly den Heyer
David R. Black

Section III: Canada's Role in International Development on Key Themes

Chapter XI. Gender Equality and the “Two CIDAs”: Successes and Setbacks, 1976–2013

Rebecca Tiessen

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  • 1 While references to gender equality can still be found on the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade (...)
  • 2 It is important to note that the Muskoka Initiative and subsequent speeches and policy documents r (...)

1For more than four decades, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) played an important role in promoting women’s rights and gender equality in development projects around the world, albeit with several setbacks that I document in this chapter. Over the forty-seven years of its existence, CIDA progressed from a “women in development” (WID) approach to a gender equality approach to development programming. However, between 2009 and 2013, two key developments set back the progress CIDA had made in this area: (1) the partial, but significant, erasure of the term “gender equality” from official policies and government speeches when the Harper Conservatives shifted their language to “equality between women and men”;1 and (2) the introduction of the Muskoka Initiative on maternal health, signalling a further retreat from gender equality programming by targeting mothers as “victims” and beneficiaries of development services rather than active agents in the design and implementation of development programs.2 These initiatives heralded the return of a WID approach, at best, and the increasing prevalence of a charity model under which the government assigns money to solve development problems without the active participation and engagement of local communities in the design and implementation of their own development projects. Under the Harper Conservatives, the government has thus fundamentally retreated from Canadian best practices in the promotion of gender equality.

2Notwithstanding these steps backward, mid-level CIDA officials found ways to continue to promote gender equality in their development programs, even if the official discourse of equality between women and men did not allow them to articulate it as such. Of central importance to this analysis is the way this language shift and new policy approach played out in what I refer as the “two CIDAs.” An important distinction must be made between the first CIDA, the public face of CIDA and the projection of specific policies or approaches to gender equality by senior CIDA staff and government officials, and the second CIDA, comprised of mid-level professionals working within CIDA, many of whom made gender equality a priority in their work, despite shifting and/or disappearing commitments to gender equality in official policies and programs. As such, mid-level bureaucrats (the “second CIDA”) continue to carry the gender equality “torch” in ways that may allow it to survive in the newly formed Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD). A record of resilience, combined with staff commitments to promoting gender equality, has the potential to serve as a platform for a renewed commitment to gender equality in DFATD. However, the individual commitments of those working in government rest on their continued, often surreptitious, efforts to support the advancement of gender equality. If these dedicated individuals leave CIDA/DFATD, as several individuals interviewed for this study have indicated is happening, and if they are not replaced with practitioners equally committed to gender equality, it will be increasingly difficult to keep gender equality on the official, and unofficial, agenda of DFATD’s development programs.

3In order to gain insights into the perspectives and experiences of mid-level bureaucrats, seven interviews were conducted between 2012 and 2013 with individuals who were working or had worked for CIDA or the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) on development programming prior to the merger. Of particular interest to this study was how the shift in language from the internationally accepted term “gender equality” to the Harper government’s language of “equality between women and men” translated into practice in development programming generally, and projects designated as part the Conservatives’ flagship Muskoka Initiative specifically.

Putting and Keeping Gender on the Agenda

4CIDA made a formal commitment to support equality between women and men through a “women in development” (WID) approach in 1976. Leading up to this approach was a growing understanding among CIDA practitioners of how gender relations affected development project success. Quite simply, mid-level CIDA staff members who completed evaluations of development projects in the early 1970s quickly realized that development projects that had not addressed gender relations were likely to fail (interview response). In the 1970s, awareness of gender inequality and the gender division of labour became a central feature of CIDA’s development programs, a commitment that was sustained in subsequent decades by dedicated mid-level CIDA staff.

5On the international stage, women’s contributions to development were also becoming a topic of great interest. By the 1970s, several important feminist critiques had emerged, documenting the failure of development projects to incorporate the needs of women (Boserup 1970, for example). By the mid-1970s, international policy attention shifted to the role of women in development, as evidenced in the 1975 First World Conference on Women in Mexico City and subsequently the UN declaration of the Decade for Women (Karl 1995). This new interest in women in development led to a critique of the presumed gender-neutrality of development policies and programs (Karl 1995). Development had been anything but neutral in terms of its impact on men and women, targeting women for specific reproductive and community-oriented tasks (such as craft-making or food preparation), while the “real” development work of productive activities (such as agricultural projects) were designed with men in mind (Escobar 1995). Over time, failures in development projects brought into question the efficacy of a gender-neutral development approach and CIDA was one important player on the world stage in identifying this important oversight. In recognizing the significance of gender relations to development project success, CIDA issued its own WID strategy in 1976, focusing on providing guidance in the promotion of women’s participation in the design and implementation of development projects.

  • 3 Interviews with former CIDA staff members who were involved in the early years of CIDA’s WID progr (...)
  • 4 Clark-Kazak (this volume) provides additional background to – and a critical reflection on – the W (...)

6CIDA’s WID approach of the 1970s not only acknowledged men’s and women’s different roles and development impacts, it provided a comprehensive framework for involving women in all stages of the project cycle.3 Subsequently, in 1981, Canada ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); in 1983, CIDA established a WID Directorate in order to develop and support the agency’s 1984 Policy on Women in Development; and in 1986 CIDA launched the five-year WID Plan of Action (DFATD 2013a). Over time, development practitioners and scholars shifted their focus from women’s participation in development to a better understanding of gender inequality: how development paradigms supported unequal treatment of women and men (Mukhopadhyay, Steehouwer, and Wong 2006),4 and an advanced understanding of gender roles as socially constructed (Karl 1995) and dependent on social, cultural, and political settings (Young 1997). These new feminist insights marked the transition from a WID approach to a Gender and Development (GAD) approach (Jacquette and Staudt 2006).

7In 1994, CIDA re-established a WID and Gender Equity Division after a series of reorganizations within the agency (Srineevasan 1999). Following Canada’s participation in the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, CIDA revised and expanded its 1984 WID Policy to include the concept of gender equity, effectively laying the groundwork for the 1995 Policy on Women in Development and Gender Equity (DFATD 2013a). The pivotal commitment to gender equality for CIDA came in 1999 with CIDA’s Policy on Gender Equality (GE), which offered guidance on using gender equality as a crosscutting theme and an integral part of all CIDA policies, programs, and projects. The 1999 GE Policy acknowledged that women and men have different perspectives, needs, interests, roles, and resources, and that development programming must address these differences (DFATD 2013b). The hard work that went into developing the GE Policy can be attributed to a commitment to gender equality among mid-level CIDA staff members.

8Over time, critiques of CIDA’s 1999 policy and programs began to emerge. In particular, CIDA’s official evaluation of the implementation of its Gender Equality Policy (Bytown and CAC 2008) and the civil society response by the Informal CSO Working Group on Women’s Rights (WGWR 2009) identified a number of areas for improvement within CIDA’s gender equality efforts. CIDA was criticized for having a tendency to compartmentalize its gender equality processes; a propensity to spread the responsibility of gender mainstreaming too thinly across the organization; and a lack of clarity from CIDA to its stakeholders and development recipients regarding their gender equality documents and programs.

9CIDA staff members and critics alike attributed the shortcomings on the gender front to the lack of funding for GE programming. Indeed, the official evaluation of CIDA’s gender policy noted that the agency, while recognizably committed to long-term GE initiatives, had not committed resources to GE-designated programming initiatives that were commensurate with its stated GE policy objectives (Bytown and CAC 2008). It attributed the failure largely to senior management officials who had not made gender equality a priority and so allocated insufficient financial and human resources to GE in programs and projects (Bytown and CAC 2008). The WGWR took stock of this lack of gender funding within CIDA, noting that in 1998–2005 CIDA’s total gender equality expenditures represented only 4.7 percent of CIDA-managed official development assistance, combined with an ongoing reduction in GE funding between 1999 and 2006 (WGWR 2009, 5). This trend within CIDA led to a number of lost funding opportunities for NGOs and CSOs intimately connected with CIDA’s gender equality initiatives (Plewes and Kerr 2010).

10Furthermore, though CIDA attempted to make gender equality a crosscutting issue throughout the organization, it suffered from a lack of consistent leadership at the highest management levels, an inconsistency of expertise and approaches across organizational branches, the multitasking of gender equality specialists and focal points, and the lack of a coherent strategy for rolling out gender equality initiatives, with no concerted plan of action clearly defining roles and responsibilities across all management levels and in the field (Bytown and CAC, 2008). CIDA, like many international agencies and development organizations, was criticized for integrating gender equality – or gender mainstreaming – “everywhere but nowhere” (Tiessen 2007). Maneepong and Stiles (2007) note in their evaluation of CIDA project monitoring that some of the major challenges of integrating gender included ingrained institutional attitudes that regarded GE as unimportant. They found that senior managers failed to appreciate the importance of gender dimensions and achieved relatively little in advancing women’s equal participation in decision making and reducing gender inequities in access to – and control over – resources. Similarly, Kelleher and Stuart (2008) identify CIDA’s organizational culture as a significant barrier to progress on gender equality.

11Despite the committed efforts of many CIDA staff members, implementing short-term, technical projects rarely resulted in the agency addressing the political and attitudinal changes necessary for advancing gender equality. Nonetheless, the 1999 GE Policy was noteworthy for its advanced work in promoting gender analysis as a crosscutting tool for project design, since it helped planners identify constraints and structure projects so that objectives could be met and measured (CIDA 1999). Critiques of CIDA’s GE policy, however, argued that attention to GE weakened during implementation (Bytown and CAC 2008). This “front-ending” of CIDA’s interest in gender, combined with a failure to allocate sufficient resources for the promotion of gender equality, led some NGOs to lessen their focus on gender equality throughout the process as well, adding to the difficulty of effectively implementing CIDA’s gender equality initiatives (Kelleher and Stuart 2008).

12A second important set of critiques of CIDA’s development programs centres on the government’s obsession with results-based management (RBM), formulaic approaches, and technical fixes, rather than tackling the root causes of gender inequality (see Tiessen and Tuckey forthcoming). As such, the focus on aid effectiveness through RBM does not always equip practitioners to deal with complications arising from difficult cases, nor the scope to create programs with gender equality as the outcome. Some of the problems CIDA officials encountered in the employment of RBM included an “oversimplification and misunderstanding of how development outcomes occur and confusion over accountability for results; overemphasis on results that are easy to quantify at the expensive of less tangible, but no less important outcomes; … and mechanical use of results indicators for reporting purposes in ways that fail to feed into strategic thinking and organizational practices” (Lavergne 2002, 3–4). CIDA had placed a greater focus on development results than on processes, inputs, and efforts (Bazinet, Sequeira, and Delahanty 2006), a trend that has been highlighted in CIDA’s own review of its gender policy and frameworks as well (Bytown and CAC 2008). In spite of the challenges brought about by an RBM approach to development, mid-level CIDA officials fought to keep gender equality on the agenda by making RBM work in their favour. If the focus of senior government officials was on results, then CIDA mid-level management staff members were able to find ways to make gender equality a priority by ensuring that gender equality was an outcome of development programs (interview with CIDA official).

  • 5 Claims of individuals leaving CIDA over the change in language from gender equality to equality be (...)

13The challenges faced by mid-level CIDA officials took a new turn in 2009 as they slowly realized that the language of gender equality had largely evaporated and been replaced with “equality between women and men.” The shift in language can be traced to Canadian ministers’ speeches and official government material beginning in 2006 (see Carrier and Tiessen, 2012). Mid-level CIDA officials were told by senior managers at CIDA to replace the term “gender equality” with “equality between women and men” (Collins 2009; Tiessen and Carrier 2013), and reports were returned with “gender equality” erased and replaced with “equality between women and men.” A more obvious and concerted attempt to make the shift in language more clear occurred in 2009 at a time when the Conservative government was attempting to distance itself from language it deemed too similar to that of the Liberal Party. It changed several terms used in foreign policy material, replacing “child soldiers” with “children in armed conflict,” removing “humanitarian” from “international humanitarian law” and changing “gender-based violence” to “violence against women.” The new language signalled more than a departure from Liberal Party terminology; it demonstrated a move away from international discourse widely used and accepted within the United Nations and constituted a departure from Canadian best practices in the promotion of gender equality (see Carrier and Tiessen 2012). The change in language also created a dilemma for mid-level professionals working at CIDA who understood the value of the policy and practice of gender equality. The shift was sufficient to cause some CIDA staff to leave the agency in protest.5 Other staff members at CIDA expressed their confusion over the change in language and resisted the policy shift in their day-to-day work. While the official CIDA no longer addressed gender equality, some mid-level CIDA officials continued to promote GE in their work. I examine this resistance and dedication in the section that follows.

The Contributions of Mid-Level CIDA Officials to the Promotion of Gender Equality

14Despite the challenges noted above, CIDA continued to play an important role in promoting gender equality in development programs, and many mid-level CIDA officials kept pressing for gender equality in development outcomes. When asked whether host communities were familiar with Canada’s shift in language from “gender equality” to “equality between men and women,” interview participants noted that the shift in language was not apparent to development beneficiaries. Mid-level CIDA staff considered the shift significant, nonetheless, because of how the discourse translates (or has the potential to translate) into practice. Interviews with current and former CIDA staff members highlighted the struggles they faced in promoting gender equality in their work, while reporting in a language of “equality between women and men.” Only one of the interview participants said the change in language had little impact on how things were carried out. “It’s just a word, it’s just wording. It didn’t change anything … [in their own work].” This interview participant notes that it did, however, affect how CIDA staff members wrote up their memos to the minister, but they remained committed to doing “the same type of programming,” even if it had to be done surreptitiously. This CIDA official’s comments and those of other CIDA mid-management staff confirmed that the “two CIDAs” were indeed at work.

15However, the shift in language to “equality between women and men” was not the only challenge facing CIDA practitioners. Under the Harper Conservatives, projects that Bev Oda approved while minister “were things that were specifically for women” (interview participant) and were not about promoting gender equality. Other discussions with CIDA officials confirmed this observation. Anything that had to do with gender equality sat on the minister’s desk for long periods of time without obtaining approval for funding (interview participant). Other studies have noted that removing the words “gender equality” from funding proposals was essential if NGOs wanted to improve their chances of having their projects approved (Caplan 2010; Carrier and Tiessen 2012; Plewes and Kerr 2010). The kinds of projects that CIDA funded under the Conservative government were those that demonstrated service delivery and outputs such as “health care services to so many women, getting so many girls to school … [because] that’s something you can count and it was what could be promoted and approved” (interview participant). Several interview participants noted that the Harper Conservatives did not support projects that might not have numbers attached, such as gender mainstreaming or capacity building, because they believed these approaches to development would not resonate with Canadian taxpayers. In a related critique, a former CIDA staff member reflected on the short-term thinking that characterized the political decision making of senior officials. Under previous governments, there was a higher tolerance for transformational projects that would take fifteen years to complete. The Harper government did not want transformation in terms of gender equality; instead, as the interview participants noted, it was interested in measuring progress and outputs and meeting predetermined short-term goals (a charity model), rather than the development transformation aimed at increased participation and empowerment of marginalized people (Black and Tiessen 2007).

  • 6 DFAIT spearheaded Canada’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, but the latter faile (...)

16Other mid-level CIDA officials remarked that there were few people in senior management advocating gender equality and that expertise on gender equality was not a requirement for them. A lack of leadership on gender equality means that the language could easily change with little official resistance. However, a commitment to GE among those who deliver development programs kept the implementation of gender equality a priority in many development initiatives. Some programs, however, faced greater difficulty keeping gender equality on the agenda. The Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Initiative (MNCH, also known as the Muskoka Initiative) is one such example. At around the same time that Canada witnessed a shift in language from “gender equality” to “equality between women and men,” the Muskoka Initiative became a touchstone of the Harper government, which introduced the MNCH program at the Muskoka G8 Summit in 2010. Initially, Canada’s commitments to the initiative were vague. Over time, the commitment to nutrition for women and babies became one of the key projects in this program, with much less attention to sexual and reproductive health education, family planning, abortion, and treatment for victims of sexual and gender-based violence (for which Canada had expressed a commitment in its National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security6).

17The Muskoka Initiative became highly contentious, characterized by selective praise for its efforts to address the fifth Millennium Development Goal (MDG), namely to improve maternal health and to increase health services available to women and newborns, and by deep criticism for its failure to adequately address sexual and reproductive health, pregnancy prevention, and abortion (see Carrier and Tiessen 2012). Among the criticisms was the gender essentialism that exemplified the MNCH programs and, in effect, conceptualized mothers and pregnant women as helpless victims. Some even argued that the initiative had little to do with women, let alone gender equality, treating women like “walking wombs” (interview participant) rather than active agents in the development of policies, programs, and projects to promote improved maternal health options and to address the reasons why women are unable to access maternal health services. The Muskoka Initiative further solidified the shift from a development model to a charity approach, as it lacks any direct reference to gender equality and fails to address root causes of women’s disadvantaged position in society relative to men, factors that might indicate whether or not women will access health services in the first place. Brodie and Bakker (2008) refer to a trend towards the “progressive disappearance of the gendered subject, both in discourse and practice,” a process we have witnessed in Canada’s foreign policy commitments since 2006 under the Harper Conservatives (Carrier and Tiessen 2012). In sum, the Muskoka Initiative failed to penetrate the gendered societal norms that prevent women from accessing health services even when they are available and has limited potential for improving the quality of life for women who still have little or no say over reproductive rights and child spacing. A focus on gender equality in development programming has the potential to correct for this shortcoming by involving education programs and including women in the design and implementation of development projects. While some CIDA mid-level officials have been able to continue to address gender inequality in their day-to-day work with development communities, several of the participants noted that the MNCH initiative made it exceedingly difficult to address gender issues, since the MNCH projects did not lend themselves to gender equality approaches.

Conclusion: Several Steps Backwards

18The shift in language from “gender equality” to “equality between women and men” between 2009 and 2013 provides an interesting case of a diminishing commitment to internationally recognized development priorities such as gender equality. As the Harper Conservatives set themselves apart from previous governments by changing the policy rhetoric and announcing new initiatives such as the Muskoka Initiative, a fundamental shift from a development model to a charity approach can be observed – one that is concerned with “saving women” through modern, technological advances without understanding the underlying causes of gender inequality and how they contribute to women’s reproductive health.

19It is perhaps both ironic and fitting that CIDA’s demise has coincided with a return to the language of equality between women and men – a language that reflects more of a 1970s WID approach. However, CIDA’s efforts to promote gender equality, such as the pioneering work of CIDA’s GE policy in 1999 and the struggles of mid-level CIDA officials to keep gender equality on the agenda since the early 1970s, are significant and worthy of celebration. Certainly, CIDA has faced numerous challenges in its efforts to promote gender equality over the decades, many of which are documented in this chapter.

20It is not clear, however, how gender equality (or equality between women and men) will play out in the context of the newly amalgamated Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD). As this chapter has demonstrated, there has been a retreat from gender equality efforts, as evidenced in two key Conservative government initiatives between 2009 and 2013: (1) a deliberate and notable shift from the internationally recognized language of gender equality to equality between women and men; and (2) a move away from development programming to charity projects through the Muskoka Initiative on maternal health, for which gender issues are ignored and pregnant women are treated as the objects of policy attention rather than active agents in the design and implementation of projects. Both of these constitute a step back to WID thinking and language at best.

21In spite of these regressive policy initiatives driven by senior bureaucrats (or the “first CIDA”), mid-level CIDA staff members (the “second CIDA”) demonstrated a longstanding commitment to the promotion of gender equality and continued to promote gender equality in their work even when RBM tools, bureaucratic obstacles, or shifts in official policy approaches threatened their efforts. This record of resilience, combined with staff members’ commitments to promoting gender equality, has the potential to serve as a platform for a renewed commitment to gender equality in DFATD. However, organizational restructuring at DFATD and the exodus of CIDA personnel who have made gender equality their life’s work will make it increasingly difficult to keep gender on the official and unofficial agendas of DFATD’s development programs. Furthermore, the changing landscape of Conservative programs that increasingly promote charity towards mothers and children (such as the MNCH), rather than human rights, equality, and development, is narrowing the programmatic scope within which committed staff members are able to promote gender equality. The events between 2009 and 2013 under the Harper Conservatives, therefore, highlight the erosion of CIDA’s best practices in the promotion of gender equality.


22I would like to thank the CIDA/DFATD staff members who agreed to be interviewed for this study under condition of anonymity. I also want to thank Krystel Carrier and Sarah Tuckey for their excellent research assistance and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for providing funding to carry out this research. I am also deeply indebted to Diana Rivington for her helpful comments on an earlier version of this chapter and for many insightful conversations about the successes and setbacks in CIDA’s efforts to promote gender equality in development.



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1 While references to gender equality can still be found on the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) website and in some official documents, the language of “equality between women and men” became the official discourse of the Harper Conservatives in 2009. This shift in language was remarkable and significant from a foreign policy perspective, for practitioners who struggled to report on gender (in)equality without using the term “gender” and for translating policies into programs. However, the discursive turn was not exhaustive, and by 2013 the government reintroduced some references to gender equality into official documents. This chapter focuses on the implications of this change in approach under the Harper Conservatives, both discursively and in terms of specific policy and program commitments, such as the MNCH initiative.

2 It is important to note that the Muskoka Initiative and subsequent speeches and policy documents rarely, if ever, use the term “women” on its own, referring instead to “mothers” or “pregnant women.”

3 Interviews with former CIDA staff members who were involved in the early years of CIDA’s WID programs.

4 Clark-Kazak (this volume) provides additional background to – and a critical reflection on – the WID approach.

5 Claims of individuals leaving CIDA over the change in language from gender equality to equality between men and women arose on several occasions. Interview participants noted they knew colleagues who had left the agency over this discourse shift. In informal discussions, former CIDA staff members and consultants working on gender equality also said they knew colleagues who had left CIDA for this reason.

6 DFAIT spearheaded Canada’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, but the latter failed to address the reason women and girls are at risk of insecurity and thus lacked coherent gender equality analysis.


Associate Professor at the School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on Canada and Canadians in the world, with a specific emphasis on gender equality, youth abroad, and development assistance. Her research includes a study on the impact of Canadians volunteering in international development, as well as research with civil society actors and non-governmental organizations in the global South to understand the perceptions of contributions made by Canadians and Canadian aid “on the ground.”

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