Debating Ideas aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It offers debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
Why we fight for African Feminist Informed Foreign Policies at Home and Abroad
For nearly a decade, the idea of Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) has gained global prominence, with more countries adopting or stating their intention to adopt one. We have observed with both fascination and some scepticism the development of FFP across the world. Championed by civil society across many country contexts, it’s increasingly being established as a new way to govern foreign policies, especially towards the global South.
FFP has no single definition but suggests a normative shift in foreign policy that prioritised feminist principles around women’s rights and gender equality in the activities of states outside of their borders. While countries like Mexico and Chile are engaged in the FFP universe, the majority of these countries are in the global North, even when a couple of African countries have also shown an interest in their own FFP. Many of the states championing FFP often rely on claims about an internal identity that is feminist to justify its FFP. Consequently, it is our claim that any discussions of FFP in the African context should rely on the priorities and visions of African feminisms.
However, because knowledge production on FFP has been dominated by the global North, including civil society organisations, African perspectives in and on FFP are largely erased from the dominant narratives about the development of the concept and its practice. While we, as African feminists, have been engaged in some of those spaces of discussion, it has been mainly to respond to the priorities of the global North or contribute to an existing agenda.
The optimism around FFP notwithstanding, we are less convinced that any state truly embraces the feminist vision found within African feminisms. While proclamations of FFP as a framework by some in the global North suggest an emancipatory alternative at a time of great strife and multiple crises globally, African feminisms or indeed any significant feminist alternative demands a deep interrogation of historic structures and relations these countries have with the world. We believe that paying attention to, and integrating the priorities of African women and feminist movements can move us towards a more emancipatory model of the world. We accept that the new feminism impetus within foreign policy discourse and practice signals an opportunity to hold power to account. Discussions on FFP provide the opportunity for us to critique harmful racist, colonial authoritarian and masculinised power in the overall effort to attain gender justice.
It is our position that there is an African feminist absence in these attempts to rethink global politics through a feminist lens. African feminisms propose a decolonial way of thinking about domestic and foreign policy, situated within a broader vision of a new feminist foreign policy that is anti-imperialist and centres marginalised communities’ social and economic well-being and prioritises human security and dignity. Drawing on African feminisms, we contend that this is in part due to existing global power hierarchies and the reluctance to fully interrogate the arrangement of the global political system. We argue that the current neoliberal economic model is antithetical to the aims of radical policy changes informed by feminism. Indeed, the continued unequal global trade relations and arguments in favour of intellectual property rights made at the expense of the lives of the global majority is untenable.
In this view, FFP is an oxymoron since African feminisms reject the global power hierarchies that characterise the definition and function of foreign policies. In reconciling the inherent contestations within dominant claims around what is now dubbed FFP, and a world informed by African feminist visions, we instead articulate ways in which African contributions can enhance the conversations about transformative change in foreign policy practices of global North countries especially. But perhaps more importantly how to engender feminist informed policies and practices towards gender justice at home and abroad.
Our interlocutors here are African states but also existing FFP states and their agents, particularly civil society.
- Making Space – in the almost 10 years since the emergence of FFP, African and global South feminists have been consistently tokenised. Whereas Africa is often a reference point for feminist critique of mainstream foreign policies, African feminists are consistently erased as being capable of informing global politics. We note with worry that time and time again, the agency and autonomy of African people and feminist movements in shaping their own quest for liberation and freedom is ignored in favour of White saviourism. Inspired by the work of Olivia Rutazibwa on humanitarianism within claims of ethical foreign policy, it is our position that an African feminist alternative to the ways in which global North civil society currently engage with us and within the FFP space should be one of ethical retreat.
- Relying on the primacy of African feminist knowledges – Drawing on Black, pan-African transnational and de-colonial epistemologies, African feminism stresses that we move demands for equality and representation to actively interrogating global power dynamics, particularly between the global North and South. It advocates for African agency, its history and experiences in determining African futures within the international system. The inclusion of philosophies such as Ubuntu, which allow for a more humane approach to foreign policy, is also a path towards more agency and literation for Africa’s most vulnerable citizens.
- Funding research – If knowledge is essential and so is its application, then it is also important that African feminists have the resources needed. From experience, we find that when African feminist insights are excluded from ongoing discourses about feminist foreign policy can cause harm. Similarly, when the scope of contribution is determined by others. By grounding feminist informed policies in African feminist knowledge, African feminists are able to take the lead in developing concrete policy interventions towards a world that cares for the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised within African societies to be reflected in foreign policies. An important part of challenging hegemonic practices of knowledge production is to support research originating from this knowledge base as opposed to funding the same global North civil society organisations to inform on what is best for Africa.
- Challenging increased global militarisation – Militarisation in Africa has been consolidated in martial politics to the detriment of all Africans. An African feminist vision of security prioritises peace, equality and co-existence as the first alternative and necessary to attaining democracy. Moreover, moving away from militarism will mitigate the displacement of millions of people within and across countries, climate destruction and death. Feminist informed foreign policies on the continent call attention to victims of militarism and those benefiting from the global imperial military complexes. The proliferation of arms, proxy wars through states and non-state actors ensure the destabilisation of Africa today as it was a century ago. Military bases and military power continue to be used to kill bodies and aspirations of African people. Even as the FFP policies are being drafted we see escalation of armament and expansion of nuclear and other dominating military power.
- Taking climate crisis seriously as a feminist issue – African eco-feminist movements have been persistent in calling for recognition of systemic oppression that underscores both the drivers and consequences of climate crisis. African and indigenous people have long articulated the role that colonialism has played in driving the global climate crisis. The global majority is often left landless, displaced and denied the tools to adapt in the name of development. Moreover, colonial legacies and coloniality are still determining the scope of climate action with the worst polluters resisting proposals for radical shifts that could significantly turn the tide. The current neoliberal economic model is at the heart of the climate crisis and relies on extractivism, patriarchal structures and white supremacy that are harmful to Africans. We contend that any feminist alternative offered cannot exclude African feminist knowledge or African communities in designing environmental justice.
- Challenging carceral migration regimes of the Global North – Despite claims to FFP, when it comes to immigration from Africa, global North countries are not as progressive as the new inclusion of feminism suggests. Migration policies, both those imposed by our own governments and by others are literally killing us. Millions are forced to endure war, oppression, economic hardship, environmental crises and land dispossession. Even as they face these, our communities are subjected to martial politics through increased militarisation. Despite policy frameworks, freedom of movement in Africa is often hampered by demands made by the externalisation of European borders with dire consequences on migration and mobility options for Africans. Thousands are dying at borders, deserts and at sea. Feminist informed foreign policies should prioritise dismantling the impacts of colonial borders, securitisation of responses to migration and supporting African communities to thrive and exist not in confinement. Importantly, we believe that feminist informed foreign policies in Africa ought to pay attention to feminisation of labour migration, the challenges to women on the move both at home and in destination countries in Europe and the Middle East, in particular, and commitment to tackle human trafficking and modern-day slavery practices in ways that don’t seek to punish the vulnerable.
- Reparations and restorative justice must be at the heart of development cooperation – much of what necessitates development cooperation between African countries and development donors is a result of transatlantic slavery; colonialism and neo-colonialism upheld by the current neoliberal system. Simply promoting development cooperation as is to include concerns about gender equality cannot lead to the transformational change that several generations have fought hard for but still remains elusive. We challenge the cycle of cosmetic aid and ‘humanitarian’ foreign policies while the same forces facilitate forever debt traps that continue to impoverish the continent. Any efforts to reform foreign policy must seek first to redress the cycles of harm and continued legacies of historic injustices.
- Leveraging existing tools such as the African Feminist Charter and the Maputo protocol – There are existing feminist inspired tools on the continent that are often ignored in global discourses around FFP. These are tangible tools that African feminists have utilised in quest for rights and autonomy, they can be used to ensure that feminist principles are operationalised. African feminists have already positioned these as innovations for framing of FFP and not just recipients since they have been at the forefront of foreign policy in areas such as women, peace, and security. African feminists can build their narrative, hold governments accountable for their feminist foreign policies, and shape how resources are allocated.
- Strengthening women’s movements and promoting a feminist pan-African feminist agenda and South-South collaborations – Pan-Africanism has long been acknowledged as essential to the progress of the African diaspora. Yet, this has been dominated by masculinist discourses that reify the problematic Westphalian state model. A decolonial dimension of FFP offers the opportunity to rethink how funding is structured in terms of availability, flexibility and distribution so that threats to women’s organisations and queer communities can be swiftly addressed. We have long history of South-South resistance and organising which enabled the success of independence movements and beyond. Today in a multi-polar world, South-South feminist networks are crucial to realising the aspirations of driving feminist-informed policies in ways that deconstruct white supremacy and advance more community, people-centred approaches.
We see this as an essential start to an aspirational alternative of a more just world. In the tradition of African feminism, we seek to work with other African feminists to hold states to account for their actions within and outside the African continent leveraging our strengths in research and advocacy. We are committed to ensuring that the burden of solutions for global politics is not transferred to women, queer communities and their movements. At the heart of moving towards more feminist-informed (foreign) policies across the continent is the need to build knowledge and awareness, using intersectional approaches, aimed at translating feminist frameworks into practical actions.
We believe the only way forward for feminist-informed policies to work for Africans is to reclaim feminism within African policymaking spaces beyond tokenism as essential to social justice. Technocratic demands of gender equality within this unequal system are not enough. We want an end to the extractivist exploitation of African people, labour and resources that serve growth elsewhere even when the majority of Africans are stuck in cycles of impoverishment. We maintain that for any fruitful engagement in this global discourse of change that feminist foreign policy ostensibly brings must account for us to tell our own stories.
We thus call on governments and regional organisations to support and work with African feminists to dismantle colonial, masculine hegemony and patriarchal notions informed by feminist analysis in decision-making.
 In June 2021, Libya’s Minister of Foreign Affairs announced an FFP as a mean towards stabilisation and peace in Libya and the region. Libya’s FFP relies mainly on the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda in Libya. Scholars and civil society have suggested the possibilities of FFP for South Africa although there has been no formal declaration forthcoming.
 Ethical retreat for Rutazibwa means stepping back ‘NOT as doing nothing, not caring but as a starting point for decolonial reflection on international care and solidarity’.
 Sylvia Tamale captures African feminist thought effectively in Decolonization and Afro-feminism.
 In 2022 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change named colonialism as a cause of the current crisis.