True transformation or cosmetic changes? Germany's pursuit of a feminist foreign and development policy


At the Feminist Development Policy Conference in Berlin, the German government showed progress toward a feminist engagement with international partners. Global Development Policy program director Philipp Kuehl reflects on his participation.

panel at feminist development policy conference

These days, we are once again painfully reminded that millions of women live under the threat of oppression, humiliation, and violence every day. Just one moment of rebellion against the status quo can have deadly consequences, as in the case of Mahsa Amini in Iran. “Women’s rights are always also a benchmark of the level of freedom in a society,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said a few weeks ago at a conference on Feminist Foreign Policy held by the German Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt, AA). Her statement reveals an understanding of feminism that is still not widely accepted: as long as women do not enjoy equal rights, representation, and access to resources (the three Rs that form the basis of Germany’s approach to Feminist Foreign Policy), no other social group will be free (and that includes men). Conversely, when we see a society begin to roll back hard-won rights for women, it is a serious warning sign of a drift into authoritarianism. There are good reasons to be concerned about the future of American democracy after the reversal of Roe v. Wade.

It was prescient that Germany has enshrined the goal of a Feminist Foreign and Development Policy in the new government’s coalition agreement, as fervently demanded by many voices in the Green Party. To those leading the charge within the government, feminist issues are not the soft issues, the “nice-to-have” extras that societies can afford to put off until after they have solved all their other domestic and foreign policy challenges. On the contrary, they are the lens through which we must view many of our global challenges if we are serious about inclusive, equal, and equitable engagement with the rest of the world.

What kind of feminism are we talking about here?

Just a few weeks ago, the German Foreign Ministry invited various feminist actors to discuss the cornerstones of a Feminist Foreign Policy. Now, at the end of September 2022, the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (Bundesministerium für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung, BMZ) followed suit. Two hundred participants in Berlin and another 1,500 virtual attendees met at a conference hosted by the BMZ titled "Feminist Development Policy - Transforming International Cooperation." They discussed the core points of a Feminist Development blueprint and the structures, actors, and processes necessary to achieve it. In her opening speech, Minister Svenja Schulze outlined the ultimate objective: "The goal of Feminist Development Policy is a society in which everyone lives in freedom; it is far more than 'just' a policy by women for women." According to Schulze, this includes, "a critical reflection on one's own power structures, an examination of issues like racism, inequality, and social justice. Feminist development cooperation therefore requires an intersectional perspective," that is, an effort to take into account multiple forms of discrimination. That was also one of the questions raised at the Berlin conference: whose feminism are we actually talking about? Is it "our" euro-centric, White view of feminism, or rather an approach that systematically incorporates the concerns of groups that experience multiple levels of marginalization, especially in the Global South?

Are we ready to break down power structures and work to eliminate inequality and injustice?

This may have been one of the most important insights (or demands) of the conference: participants emphasized that German feminist development policy will only be truly transformative if it remains engaged in continuous dialog with civil society groups and voices from the Global South, and if it is willing to radically challenge existing economic, political, and institutional structures. To its credit, the German government is formulating its Feminist Foreign and Development Policy in close cooperation with civil society and a variety of international partners. This close cooperation is perhaps largely due to civil society dragging the government along, thanks to the activists who have been championing feminist issues for decades. Yet this time, politicians—especially the two women ministers helming Germany’s foreign and development ministry—are genuinely ready to listen and learn. Civil society’s call for more co-creation, cooperation on equal terms, and a joint search for creative solutions is falling on fertile ground.

Of course, this initial openness to new and creative solutions will be tested: what will happen at the operational level when the political will to flexibly fund (local) feminist organizations meets the cold reality of German budget administration? These feminist groups and organizations often have no formal structures, some don’t even have a bank account, let alone the resources to write complex grant applications. And it goes on: how can the government flexibly support ad hoc movements that need resources on short notice to drive social change? This illustrates that the objective of Feminist Foreign and Development Policy must also be to transform institutional structures in Germany. And that’s just the beginning. Participants reminded the ministry that it also needs to take a hard look at the state of diversity and feminist issues across German government and network of implementing organizations. The phrase "feminism is a work in progress" was heard repeatedly at the conference. But how long do we have to be patient?

Any debate on the future of feminism must include young people

Speaking of patience: at some point during the Q&A session of the first panel, a young woman spoke up. She said that she may still be young, but she is committed to feminism in her professional and personal life, and she wants to know what role young people are expected to play in developing and implementing this new policy. She told the audience that she and her colleague had to "wrestle" their way into the conference. There was much applause. Including young people in the development of policies that will impact their generation should be a no-brainer, especially in the field of development policy: the average age in Africa, Germany’s most important partner continent in international development cooperation, is around 19. These young people not only want to have a say in the policies that are supposed to ultimately benefit them, but, with a little support, they will soon be in leadership positions and involved in implementing these measures. Moreover, their view on feminist development policy is often far more progressive. A key insight of the conference was that, to preempt diverging demands and goals within the feminist community, there has to be more inter-generational exchange.

The outlook for a German feminist foreign and development policy

So what comes next for Germany’s feminist foreign and development policy agenda? There is currently real political momentum in Germany for the issue. Strategic processes are being developed and implemented in the ministries at a dynamic pace. The topic is on the parliament's agenda. There are several auspicious aspects to this development: open discussions, a genuine desire for change, and a closing of ranks between politics and feminist civil society. But we would do well to retain a certain level of skepticism: will we end up with a "light" version of feminist foreign and development policy? Will its undeniably ambitious demands ultimately peter out into just a little "more of the same?" A little more support for women, a little more participation, a few more rights, a little more money? Or will this at least be the beginning of true transformation, which will challenge patriarchal power structures and afford participation to all social groups?

Those who believe that a feminist agenda is a frivolous concern in an era of war and multiple global crises would do well to remember the words of German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (and generations of feminist before her): women's rights are a benchmark of freedom for all people. In Russia, more and more women are currently protesting against partial mobilization. In Iran, too, women are spearheading the protests. In Belarus and Sudan, women led demonstrations against repressive regimes. All over the world, feminists are courageously fighting for a free and just society—for everyone. Germany, and other governments committed to the global defense of democracy, are on the right track when they start paying attention to their demands.