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Canada’s Policy for Civil Society Partnerships for International Assistance – A Feminist Approach


Global Affairs Canada’s policy on Civil Society Partnerships for International Assistance (referred to as the Civil Society Partnerships Policy or the Policy) sets out the Department’s approach to enhancing effective cooperation with Canadian, international and localFootnote 1 civil society organizations (CSOs) to maximize the impact and results of Canada’s international assistance and foster a strong and vibrant civil society sector. To that effect, the Policy outlines the guiding principles for and overall objectives of Canada’s engagement with CSOs.


Canada’s objective is to reduce extreme poverty, and build a more peaceful, inclusive and prosperous world. Consistent with its Feminist International Assistance Policy, Canada sees the empowerment of women and girls and gender equality as the most effective way to achieve this objective. Fostering strong partnerships with civil society and a safe and enabling environment in which they can work are essential to achieving these objectives. Civil society organizations have their own diverse purposes, priorities, capacities and constraints. They bring valuable and unique experience, and they make important contributions to achieving more effective results, fostering new ideas, building local capacity and engaging with Canadians as global citizens. Global Affairs Canada will therefore work with CSOs and other actors to implement a feminist approach across all its international assistance programs, prioritizing those partnerships, innovations and advocacy activities that have the greatest potential to close gender gaps and advance the government’s priority objectives. Thus, during the lifespan of this policy, the Department commits to continuous dialogue with CSOs on what it means to have a feminist approach to partnerships. A feminist approach challenges us to assess how we do things and recognizes the many interconnected factors that affect women, men, girls and boys differently.

Canada’s commitment to advancing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, at home and abroad, is a key entry point for partnerships with CSOs. Canada views making progress under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5, Achieve gender equality and empowering all women and girlsFootnote 2, as essential in driving progress on the other SDGs.

The Civil Society Partnerships Policy is built upon lessons from international best practices and a long history of partnership between the Government of Canada and CSOs involved in international assistance.

What is civil society?

The term “civil society” refers to a wide range of non-government, non-profit, and voluntary-driven organizations, as well as social movements, through which people organize to pursue shared interests, values, and objectives in public life. These actors are found at the international, regional, national and community levels and are recognized as independent actors in their own right.Footnote 3

Civil society contributes to Canadian international assistance in diverse ways that complement the roles and functions of governments, the private sector and multilateral and global organizations. For instance, CSOs pursue advocacy to drive change, provide valuable insights regarding conditions on the ground and contribute to poverty reduction, including through socioeconomic development and the delivery of services. Canada benefits from its engagement with members of civil society, who possess valuable expertise and understanding of the local context in which they operate, as we seek to effectively utilize our international assistance. Global Affairs Canada engages with Canadian, international and local CSOs through policy dialogue, consultations, program design and implementation. The overarching goal of these efforts is to advance gender equality, and the empowerment of women and girls to reduce poverty and build a more inclusive, peaceful and prosperous world for all.

In Canada and around the world, civil society:

Guiding principles

Global Affairs Canada’s engagement with CSOs in international assistance will be guided by its Feminist International Assistance Policy, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act (where applicable to Canada’s international assistance programming), a human rights-based approach and recognizing the Istanbul Principles for CSO Development Effectiveness.

Feminist International Assistance Policy: Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy identifies six action areas as drivers of transformative change to reduce poverty for everyone and build a more inclusive, peaceful and prosperous world:

  1. gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, which is the core action area;
  2. human dignity;
  3. growth that works for everyone;
  4. environment and climate action;
  5. inclusive governance; and
  6. peace and security.

In placing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls at the heart of its international assistance priorities, Canada recognizes women and girls as powerful agents of change, driving stronger economic growth, encouraging greater peace and cooperation, and improving the quality of life for their families and communities.

2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: Canada recognizes that inclusive, multi-stakeholder partnerships are essential to achieving sustainable global development, and that resources from all sectors need to be mobilized to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. SDG 17, Partnerships for the goals, clearly articulates the importance of this critical element.

This commitment to partnerships builds upon previous commitments made by government and civil society, such as the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, the Istanbul Principles for CSO Development Effectiveness, the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States and the Principles and Good Practice of Humanitarian DonorshipFootnote 4. Canada recognizes CSOs as independent actors in their own right, acknowledges the importance of supporting an enabling environment for civil society and supports CSOs in achieving greater development effectiveness. The partnership principles of inclusivity, transparency and accountability, results and ownership, as well as mutual respect and a commitment for learning, will form a foundation to achieving these international commitments.

Official Development Assistance Accountability Act: The majority of Canada’s international assistance is composed of Official Development Assistance (ODA) and is subject to the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act. Where applicable, Global Affairs Canada’s engagement with CSOs will align with the Act’s requirements to contribute to poverty reduction, consider the perspectives of the poor and be consistent with international human rights standards. To ensure sustainability of results, Global Affairs Canada’s international assistance programming will continue to support CSO-led initiatives that produce enduring results, that is, results that can be locally sustained when external funding comes to an end.

Human rights-based and inclusive: Canada is committed to supporting international assistance policies and programs that are grounded in a human rights-based approach. Human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination, participation and inclusion, and transparency and accountability are integrated in Canada’s international assistance. These rights must be protected in both physical and online spaces, and Canada will continue to support CSO partnerships that advance these principles in all areas. Civil society promotes inclusion, protects human rights and provides a voice to hold governments accountable for delivering public services, defending the rule of law and promoting participation and inclusive decision-making at all levels.

Istanbul Principles for CSO Development Effectiveness: The Istanbul Principles form part of the International Framework for CSO Development Effectiveness. The eight principles, developed by and for civil society to assist organizations in achieving greater development effectiveness, address:

  1. a commitment to human rights and social justice;
  2. gender equality and equity;
  3. people’s empowerment, democratic ownership and participation;
  4. environmental sustainability;
  5. transparency and accountability;
  6. equitable partnerships and solidarity;
  7. creating and sharing knowledge and committing to mutual learning; and
  8. realizing positive sustainable change.


Global Affairs Canada’s civil society partners are recognized as essential actors in helping advance Canada’s feminist international assistance priorities. Guided by the above principles, Global Affairs Canada will work with CSOs in collaboration with national governments, the private sector, multilateral organizations, the research community and other actors to pursue the following policy objectives and achieve gender transformative change that reduces poverty and contributes to building a more inclusive, peaceful and prosperous world.

1. Empower women and girls, promote gender equality, and reach the poorest, most vulnerable and most marginalized as the most effective means to reduce poverty: Recognizing that women and girls are diverse and powerful agents of change, Canada’s partnerships aim to support and build on their strength and innovative contributions to reduce poverty for all. Canada will work with CSOs, including local women’s organizations and other partners, to tackle the root causes of gender inequality and address the systemic discrimination that prevents women and girls from realizing their human rights and reaching their full potential, recognizing that inequalities exist along intersectional lines.

To reduce poverty and ensure sustainable and transformative change, all members of society must be empowered to reach their full potential and exercise their human rights. Greater gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls can deliver strong economic growth, reduce chronic hunger, help cut down extreme poverty, lead to longer-lasting peace, benefit entire families and help empower those who face discrimination. Men and boys must also be engaged in the fight for greater gender equality, take opportunities to advocate and lead by example by respecting the rights and interests of women and girls. Civil society provides a vehicle for the voices of the poorest, most vulnerable and most marginalized–including children and youth, seniors, persons with disabilities, refugees, internally displaced people, Indigenous peoples, religious groups, ethnic communities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, two-spirit and intersex (2SLGBTQI+) people–to be heard by their governments and for individuals to hold their leaders to account.

In support of its Feminist International Assistance Policy, Canada launched the Women’s Voice and Leadership Program. This targeted initiative allocates $150 million over a five-year period (2017 to 2022) to respond to the needs of local women’s organizations in developing countries that are working to advance the rights of women and girls, and promote gender equality.

Action Area examples:

2. Facilitate a safe and enabling environment for civil society: In Canada and other countries, an empowered civil society is a crucial component for championing positive transformative change, including gender equality, inclusion, respect for diversity and human rights, peace and security, and development. The sustainability of international assistance investments, and consequently effective contribution to poverty reduction, depends on the ability of populations to hold governments to account over the long term. For civil society to thrive, it must operate in a safe and enabling environment that promotes inclusive, transparent and accountable institutions, respects human rights and where the rule of law protects and promotes the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Increasingly, it is important that this enabling environment extends from physical to online spaces as well, which are often the locus of public debate and mobilization. Many actors, including governments, have a role to play in creating an enabling environment for civil society to operate effectively and independently. This includes understanding and mitigating the distinct barriers and risks faced by civil society entities, including human rights defenders and women’s, 2SLGBTQI+, youth and Indigenous organizations and networks.

Action Area examples:

3. Protect human life and dignity: Global Affairs Canada’s humanitarian assistance programming aims to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain the dignity of people affected by conflicts, acute food insecurity and natural disasters by providing principled, timely and needs-based responses. Global Affairs Canada recognizes the need for complementarity between security, humanitarian action and development programming in protracted and complex crises. The Department also recognizes the importance of international humanitarian law and the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, independence and humanity.

Humanitarian CSOs are an essential element of Canada’s response to humanitarian crises around the world, and women’s organizations play a unique role in addressing the needs and rights of women and children, and their communities, in humanitarian situations.

Action Area examples:

4. Foster CSO leadership in innovation: InnovationFootnote 7 presents tremendous opportunities to maximize the impact of Canada’s international assistance and advance Canada’s priorities. Global Affairs Canada, therefore, looks to CSOs to collaborate within and outside the sector to propose and adopt innovative approaches to international assistance, to deliver results more effectively and efficiently. This includes local CSOs, given their important role in generating locally driven, innovative solutions that reflect local priorities and approaches and that are, therefore, often most enduring.

Action Area examples:

5. Integrate the role of CSOs as independent actors into international assistance programming: Global Affairs Canada recognizes CSOs as independent actors that provide resources, expertise and networks that help achieve Canada’s international assistance objectives. Canada understands the importance of considering a diversity of perspectives in international assistance programs and strategies, and is committed to deepening, extending, and operationalizing principles of democratic ownership.

The International Assistance Review (IAR) provided an opportunity to discuss how Canada can establish more productive partnerships with a broader range of stakeholders, and ensured that Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy was informed and shaped by CSOs. Canada commits to building upon the networks strengthened during the IAR and to leveraging new and diverse partnerships with CSOs to support Canada’s international assistance.

Action Area examples:

6. Establish more predictable, equitable, flexible, and transparent funding mechanisms: To support a robust CSO ecosystem, Global Affairs Canada is committed to working with CSOs of diverse size and scale, sector and region to achieve Canada’s international assistance priorities and empower women and girls and promote gender equality. While the Department engages with civil society in many forms, funding is recognized as a component of this engagement.

The Small and Medium Organizations for Impact and Innovation initiative allocates $100 million over five years (2017 to 2022) in dedicated funding for small and medium-sized Canadian CSOs. This pilot initiative sets aside $76 million for thematic programming, $18 million for development innovation and $6 million for capacity-building/knowledge-sharing and public engagement.

Global Affairs Canada recognizes the importance of providing a variety of merit-based selection mechanisms to allow for diverse Canadian, international and local CSO partners, to plan and deliver international assistance initiatives. At the same time, Global Affairs Canada encourages CSOs to be financially independent and to seek funding from multiple sources, as this enables them to better secure their own sustainability.

Global Affairs Canada understands that equitable access to a mix of short-, medium-, and long-term funding, appropriate to the context, can enhance the achievement of international assistance outcomes and support a thriving civil society sector. Global Affairs Canada also recognizes that responsive selection mechanisms and more flexible funding can provide the impetus for innovative approaches, and that CSOs require time and effort to plan their programming.

Action Area examples:

7. Foster multi-stakeholder approaches to international assistance: All relevant actors, including CSOs, the private sector, the research community, multilateral organizations, national governments and other actors (such as Canadian youth and cultural communities), contribute to development in distinct and complementary ways. Global Affairs Canada is committed to supporting multi-stakeholder approaches and seeks to foster effective partnerships among these actors. Global Affairs Canada recognizes the important role that dialogue plays in facilitating mutual respect and accountability, particularly in the context of multi-stakeholder approaches.

Action Area examples:

8. Engage Canadians as global citizens in international assistance: Canadian CSOs are globally recognized leaders for their expertise in the areas of peace and security, humanitarian action and sustainable, transformative development. They also have a unique and positive approach to supporting local CSOs to build capacity and take ownership of their programming and results. Their strong relationships with local CSOs, including women’s organizations, strengthen Canada’s engagement at the community level and enhance Canada’s networks abroad. Global Affairs Canada is committed to engaging with diverse Canadian CSO partners, to build their capacity and maximize the global impact of Canada’s CSO community. Establishing new Canadian CSO partnerships can increase the effectiveness of the Department’s and CSOs’ own international assistance efforts, and ensure that Canada’s investments yield lasting results.

Canadian CSOs play a key role in expressing Canadian values and telling Canada’s feminist international assistance story, which can foster global citizenship, particularly among youth, and help inspire Canadians to engage in transformative action to reduce poverty and overcome gender inequality. CSOs engage Canadians in a broader and deeper understanding of international issues, including promoting global citizenship and mobilizing citizens to participate actively in Canada’s international assistance efforts.

Action Area examples:

9. Promote sustainability, transparency, accountability, and results: Canada is committed to sustainability, transparency and accountability. Access to comprehensive, timely information about international cooperation facilitates the coordination, monitoring and accountability necessary to achieve sustainable results. Canada is committed to being a model publisher and user of open data regarding its activities and results. It also aims to improve access to information about the activities and results of its CSO partners, including those of the local organizations supported by Canadian CSOs. Global Affairs Canada looks to all of its development partners to uphold similar transparency and accountability standards, and increase the impact of Canada’s development investments.

Action Area examples:

Implementation and monitoring

The Partnerships for Development Innovation Branch will coordinate Global Affairs Canada’s response to the implementation of this civil society partnership policy.

While this policy identifies specific areas for action, it seeks to maintain flexibility to adapt and enhance objectives and action areas as the context warrants over time. In this vein, an implementation plan will be produced, in consultation with civil society, to enhance the effectiveness of the Policy.

Global Affairs Canada will engage with CSO representatives on an annual basis to review mutual implementation of the Policy against its objectives and action areas, discuss the evolving global and domestic CSO challenges and opportunities and exchange knowledge and good practices. The Department will work collaboratively with CSOs to establish the outline of these annual meetings and determine the priority areas for focus each year.


Cooperation with civil society greatly improves Canada’s ability to reduce poverty and achieve transformative results with its international assistance, including the empowerment of women and girls and the achievement of gender equality. CSOs are important partners in promoting inclusive engagement and sustainable change, particularly through their work to increase the participation of individuals in the decision-making processes that affect their lives and to empower poor, vulnerable and marginalized people and communities.

Canada’s support for an enabling environment for civil society helps ensure that CSOs can function effectively and independently in ways that complement the efforts of governments and other actors and facilitates the aspirations outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Global Affairs Canada will regularly engage with CSOs, including through an annual implementation meeting, to ensure the objectives outlined in the Policy are met. Together, the Government of Canada and its CSO partners will continue to be global leaders in international assistance.

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