Canada’s focus on aid delivery for women is smart – and will save money

Photo: Susana Vera for Action Against Hunger, Colombia
Photo: Susana Vera for Action Against Hunger, Colombia

Editor's Note: The following is an editorial originally published in The Globe And Mail and written by Danny Glenwright, executive director of Action Against Hunger's operations in Canada.

With a proud smile, Valentina Hernandez recently led me into her rudimentary kitchen and pointed to what she called her most valuable possession: two large plastic buckets to filter contaminated water coming from the taps in the temporary settlement where she lives in wartorn northern Colombia. The cheap and simple in-home system, installed thanks to Canadian government funding, means Ms. Hernandez can protect her five children from waterborne pathogens that cause a vicious cycle of illness and malnutrition.

Following the release of the federal budget this spring, many members of Canada’s international development community worried about this country’s long-term commitment to families like the Hernandez’s. The government did not increase foreign aid spending, even though a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found Canada among a handful of countries whose share of foreign aid declined last year, dropping from 0.28 per cent of GNI in 2015 to 0.26 per cent.

Thankfully, a practical new framework for Canada’s international assistance, released Friday by Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister for International Development, underscores Canada’s commitment to our sector and provides relief for those troubled by Canada’s stalled aid contribution in the 2017 budget. It also commits $150-million over five years for local women’s organizations in developing countries.

The plan, dubbed the Feminist International Assistance Policy, wisely shifts Canada’s development focus away from priority countries to a thematic and regional approach, based on assisting those in greatest need – families like Hernandez’s. Ensuring peace and security for women in places like Colombia will take precedence under the new strategy, along with mitigating the effects of climate change; innovation in aid delivery; building the capacity of local organizations; and addressing the Sustainable Development Goals.

The policy is also the government’s challenge to those of us it contracts to deliver aid: We must continue to identify less expensive ways to help the world’s neediest. Most importantly, it places women and girls at the forefront of this country’s development agenda.

This emphasis is itself a recipe for cost savings and transformative change. Research shows that the most significant way to build lasting solutions to global problems and achieve economic development is to enlist women like Hernandez in the cause, making them equal partners in all areas.

An example of this comes from Action Against Hunger’s work in West Africa, a region that has experienced recurring droughts that affect harvests and increase child malnutrition. The project, called Mommy MUAC, is named after the plastic bracelet (similar to a measuring tape) that we use to measure a child’s middle-upper arm circumference (MUAC) to identify malnutrition. Instead of employing more medical staff to regularly survey vulnerable children, this project trains mothers to use a MUAC so they can monitor their own kids. Early results show a significant decrease in kids with malnutrition compared with the previous year. Social pressure and regular checking means mothers are catching poor nutrition early and nipping it in the bud before it gets worse.

An underlying cause of malnutrition is poor sanitation. The lack of such simple sanitation facilities as latrines can have significant implications for family health. But latrines are expensive to build and reliant on functional infrastructure planning, which means 40 per cent of the world’s citizens do not have access to a simple toilet. In Pakistan, where open defecation is a serious public health issue, distributing Peepoo “toilets” to people living in crowded areas with no latrines has delivered transformative change at a low cost. These single-use, biodegradable bags prevent contamination and double as fertilizer packets that local farmers use to boost food security. Because Pakistanis can also use them inside the home, Peepoo use also increases safety in a country where women and girls are frequently assaulted while looking for an open space to relieve themselves.

These are just two examples of many innovative, gender-sensitive, low-cost solutions to chronic humanitarian challenges. Other ideas haven’t worked out so well, but we often don’t hear about these because of a resistance to discuss failure in the non-profit sector. In launching the new strategy, Ms. Bibeau called on our sector to share both its successes and failures. This also provides an opportunity for the government as it rolls out this new policy: Could it create and manage a platform to document (anonymously, if necessary) ideas that don’t work?

This monitoring service would be in line with the government’s aim to deliver more for less: it could save money and prevent duplication of ineffective aid delivery strategies. After all, it’s likely that Canada’s international assistance community will continue to require new money to support women like Hernandez. Enhanced collaboration amongst all Canadian actors will ensure we spend it wisely.