The Need for Inclusive Feminism to Achieve a Just and Sustainable Foreign and Development Policy


By unpacking the dimensions of power in interconnected structures of inequality, intersectionality can contribute to profound social change.

women holding hands over a work desk

A recurring question during our study tour was what could be different with the implementation of a feminist foreign and development policy (FFDP), when global leaders already disregard existing international frameworks for human rights and women’s rights. Women of the “Global South,” in particular, bear the brunt of deepening poverty, systemic inequalities, and structural economic exclusion. And those patterns, in turn, have been – and continue to be – amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as by perpetual conflict, food and energy insecurity, climate injustice, and domestic and other gender-based violence. Furthermore, all of this disproportionately impacts Brown and Black women and girls, who remain largely marginalized across the world.

The implication of living in a globalized and interconnected world is that political and economic choices made in one part of the world directly impact others, and too often in negative ways that are not always immediately identifiable. While there is no single definition of what constitutes an FFDP, nor a standard approach to its implementation, the primary purpose of such a policy is to place gender at the center of foreign and development policies on issues including humanitarian intervention, economic reform, climate and energy policy, and more. All of this requires close collaboration and a recognition of the complex ways that issues and policy impacts intersect.

Since Sweden’s innovative adoption of a feminist foreign policy in 2014, Canada, France, Mexico, Spain, Luxembourg, Germany, and Chile are among those that have followed. The feminist approach to foreign – and development – policy has been promoted as a more inclusive, holistic, and ultimately effective alternative to simply promoting gender equality, as it more fully captures the needs of women, girls, and gender-diverse individuals.

The conceptual underpinnings of FFDP aim to provide a unifying political framework that brings together the diverse aspects of gender-related strategies through coordination at the highest levels of state leadership, making it easier for the public and civil society to hold states accountable for rights violations. Importantly, a feminist foreign and development policy compels a government to prioritize spending, including political and economic interventions in other countries, in ways that promote gender equality and protect the rights of women and girls in society, thereby helping equalize gender-power relations both within and between countries of the Global North and South.

Yet, despite these laudable intentions, there has already been an anti-feminist backlash in Sweden, with its new conservative government announcing in October 2022 its intention to abandon the country’s feminist foreign policy. To reduce the risk of similar potential backlash in other countries, an intersectional approach may help in developing and implementing FFDP. The term “intersectionality” has come into common use by those who aim to transform institutions of power to advance substantive equality – that is equality in systemic practice and reality, not just recognition. Intersectionality highlights how all marginalized groups and individuals are disregarded – effectively erased from narratives and conversations – as a consequence of multiple forms of structural discrimination. Applying intersectionality also presents a framework to analyze and express the complexity of human experience, rooted in the struggles of disenfranchised peoples; it opens up new forms of inquiry with the aim of making policies more effective for those on the margins.

Despite the value of such an analysis for disrupting exclusionary power dynamics, the term intersectionality, too, has encountered backlash. Opponents have misrepresented it as a multiplier of identity categories, as opposed to a tool of political critique. To the contrary, by acknowledging complexity in how humans experience our diverse identities and by unpacking the dimensions of power in interconnected structures of inequality, the concept of intersectionality in policymaking can contribute toward the construction of emancipatory narratives with the potential for profound social change.

As liberal democracies contend with the social and political contestations that rattle their foundations, programs such as the inaugural FFDP fellowship of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Washington DC, illustrates the concept of intersectionality in practice. By recognizing the crucial role of young people in the Global South and North and their initiatives to advance equality in their societies, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung’s approach aims to promote the essential objectives of FFDP collaboratively, on the basis of dignity and mutual respect. Irrespective of the numerous structural barriers young people continue to confront, they espouse a “politics of hope” and are guided by a solidarity of purpose to advance and protect our common humanity, which is intimately dependent on the well-being of our natural environment. Indeed, an effective and impactful FFDP must not only embody an intergenerational commitment to its implementation, but ought to be led by young people committed to advancing a socially just and equitable world for everyone.