global politics, relationally

A Feminist Foreign Policy? Sweden Steps in Where the US Steps Out

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This is a post by Denise Horn, who is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Simmons College in Boston, MA. She is a Feminist International Relations scholar currently focusing on women and democracy in Indonesia, as well as US foreign policy that impacts women’s democratic participation globally. 

On July 12 2017, Sweden’s development agency, SIDA, announced that it would no longer offer funding to family planning organizations that abide by the US’ latest iteration of the Mexico City Policy, announced by the Trump administration in January. Sweden’s latest policy move suggests it has become more confident in the strength of its feminist foreign policy approach.

The US has historically shaped the international discourse around family planning (originally an effort to control global resources), and has used family planning funding as a carrot as well as a stick. That Sweden feels it is in a position to make credible promises to support family planning and reproductive health programs (FP/RH)—and that organizations would make the decision to take Swedish, rather than US funding—says a great deal about Swedish influence where women and women’s health are concerned.

The latest incarnation of the Mexico City Policy (now referred to as the “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance” policy by the US State Department) relates to funding for all agencies and I/NGOs that receive US health funding, not just family planning organizations. It forbids funding for organizations that offer or counsel on abortion, or seek to influence their own government’s policies on abortion (US funding for abortion is already prohibited by the Helms Amendment). Further, the new policy essentially forbids these organizations from receiving funding from other sources that do not have such restrictions, such as SIDA.

For the past fifty years, the US been the largest provider of aid for FP/RH. Much of the aid is distributed through USAID as well as programs in  the State Department and US funding to the UN Population Fund. For FY2017, total funding for FP/RH was $608 million. The allotted funding for UNFPA has been suspended under the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, and is to be transferred to the Global Health Programs account at USAID, to support family planning, maternal, and reproductive health.

The proposed US FY 2018 budget provides $0 for FP/RH. The Office of Global Women’s Issues in the State Department, with a paltry $8.5m budget in 2016, would also be zero. Total spending on global health programs would be reduced from $8.7 billion to $6.5 billion, affecting funding for fighting malaria, HIV/AIDS, and other pressing transnational health issues.

The consequences of this policy for women’s health, development, and poverty reduction could be devastating. PAI estimates that, if the US budget is cut so drastically in FY 2018, there will be 3.3 m more abortions, 15,000 more maternal deaths, 8m more unintended pregnancies, and 26m fewer women and couples receiving reproductive services. Marie Stopes International reports that “the loss of its services during Trump’s four years in office could cause 6.5 million unintended pregnancies, 2.2 million abortions, 2.1 million unsafe abortions and 21,700 maternal deaths. It also would be prevented from reaching 1.5 million women with contraception every year.”

The international response has been swift, particularly from Canada, the Nordic states, the Netherlands, and NGOs such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. On March 2 2017, 45 countries convened in Brussels for the “She Decides” conference, resulting in a pledge of 181m Euros (approximately $214m) from both states and foundations. The connection between women’s health, access to contraception, and human security was reaffirmed by the official statements released by the various parties. Further, Sweden, already the largest contributor to UNFPA’s core programs, pledged to increase its contribution in FY2018 by $22m, bringing their total to approximately $61m. Norway and the Netherlands follow Sweden in terms of contributions to core programs.

Sweden’s move is particularly interesting. First, it confirms Sweden’s stated commitment to a feminist foreign policy. Although there is much debate over what a “feminist foreign policy” entails, improving women’s health and protecting reproductive rights is a crucial component. (We’ll save discussions around arms sales for another post). While the US Congress will likely not cut as much from global health programs as the Trump administration has requested, the proposed aid budget (and the gutting of the State Department) indicates that the US is no longer interested in being the torch bearer for human rights or promoting human security strategies.

Second, Sweden is sending a clear signal that it is moving into a space long maintained by the US, at least rhetorically. Indeed, the US has historically used FP/RH aid as an important part of its foreign policy in the developing world. If Sweden is successful in undermining the US’s latest iteration of the Mexico City Policy, the US loses an important component of its global leadership.