Countering violence against women and girls: Is UK aid a 'litmus test'?

By Molly Anders 02 June 2016

A program funded by the U.K. Department for International Development encourages communities in Ethiopia to talk about child marriage. The U.K. is a leading donor on efforts to counter violence against women. Photo by: Jessica Lea / DfID / CC BY

The United Kingdom is a leading donor on efforts to counter violence against women and with many promising results so far, the U.K. Department for International Development is now at a crossroads, according to a recent review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, the watchdog tasked by Parliament with overseeing U.K. aid.

Following an increase in funding in recent years and renewed political backing from U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening, DfID’s work on gender-based violence needs to scale up across sectors and better integrate learning from its own pioneering work in the sector, the report said.

Meanwhile, U.K. aid recipient and a cross-sector VAWG implementer, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, has elevated gender equality to the highest level in its new strategic framework and is encountering many of the same challenges in scaling up VAWG programming, and seeing huge potential for knowledge-sharing across sectors.

“Gender-based violence has always been a big part of what we do at the Global Fund,” Heather Doyle, senior technical advisor for the gender, strategy, investment and impact division at the Global Fund told Devex in a phone interview.

“So we’re also really looking at how we can scale up, to understand how that funding fits into a broader package of services,” she said.

Some of the challenges — such as the need for more adaptive tools in monitoring and evaluation — mean countering VAWG will need a rethink in traditional practices. And while the report lauds the U.K. for its leadership in the field, it also calls on DfID to share its learning on VAWG with others working on related issues, and build knowledge-sharing into its global campaigns to sustain the success of initiatives like the Girl Summit in 2015, and it's work around gender in the formation of the Global Goals. This will allow DfID to serve not just as a leader on VAWG, but as a litmus test for what works in global efforts to counter gender-based violence across the industry.

DfID currently invests 184 million pounds ($265 million) in VAWG-focused programming, up from 20 million pounds in 2012, a more than ninefold increase in only four years. Along with its youth agenda, VAWG is the fastest growing area in DfID’s portfolio. More importantly it’s one of the newest, not just for DfID but across the donor landscape, on average making up less than 3 percent of national aid budgets globally.

“It’s very much the U.K. government in the lead [on VAWG issues]” said Tina Fahm, lead commissioner for the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s recent learning review on DfID’s work on VAWG.

“Now is the time to scale up, and what we must see is how this new learning translates into programming on the ground,” she said.

Where to scale

DfID hasn’t yet defined a strategy for how to scale its programs, the report said, and opinions among stakeholders vary. 

Scaling up at the local level, with local groups in mind, should be the priority, said Diane Abbott, member of the Parliament and shadow secretary of state for international development.

“The projects [DfID] implements are all top-down, which means that they are not owned by communities in the ‘global south,’” she told Devex.

“OECD figures for 2013-2014 show that, of the $39.9 billion in aid committed to supporting gender equality on average per year, just 1 percent was reported as direct funding for women’s and girls’ equality organizations. This simply isn’t good enough,” she said.

So far, DfID has not been as adaptive in its programming at the local level. “There are limits on DfID’s ability to manage small and innovative programming at country level. Because of monitoring and assessment requirements, running pilot programs is a time-consuming activity, staff constraints and the pressure for larger programs leave limited space for this at country level,” Fahm said.

Programs operated centrally, from DfID’s base in London or through contributions to multilateral funds, via the United Nations or World Bank for example, make up less than a third of VAWG expenditure, and yet Fahm found these centrally managed pilots to be the most promising at this early stage.

New M&E tools

The challenge at a local level may have less to do with poor program design than the need for new monitoring and evaluation methods that suit the dynamic and context-specific outputs of early VAWG programs, said Fahm.

For example, randomized control testing, the lingua franca in monitoring and evaluation, she said, is proving inappropriate for VAWG. “Although RCTs have a place, there are questions as to their appropriateness for this agenda,” she said.

“What we’re dealing [in VAWG] is largely behavioral change, so there is a need for engagement very early on and regularly throughout the trial,” she said. A more flexible alternative to RCTs would be better suited for monitoring and evaluating VAWG, she explained.

“Once a standard [RCT] is set up, there’s very little scope for intervention outside of the agreed period.”

Doyle agreed that RCTs are not always the best choice when tackling VAWG.

“What [the Global Fund] is interested in is contributing with other key partners, with DREAMS, with DfID, with the Gates Foundation, around looking at research in a different way, not just through RCTs, but how the programmatic and operational research can really contribute to our knowledge basis about what we need to do, how we need to shift programs,” she said.

The challenge of measuring impact has meant that DfID, and donors in general, are struggling to formulate strategies for growing VAWG programming out of early and pilot stages, particularly at a country-level.

The time might be ripe, Doyle said, for a knowledge symposium among VAWG practitioners to learn from each other and share best practices.

“I think there’s been a real attempt. UNAIDS for example, has been playing a helpful role trying to bring people together. I think there’s definitely scope for better coordination and better learning,” she said.

“It would be helpful to have a research symposium right now, as we’re seeing some of these programs being financed, to understand what research is being funded, what programs are already underway, and to understand where we want to see learning come out of the scale-up investments,” she said.

Key findings from ICAI’s report on VAWG:

• DfID has found through its VAWG programming that so far, advocacy and media campaigns are less effective in isolation than initially thought, bringing DfID’s older VAWG programming into question.

• Awareness of DfID’s WhatWorks program and other external learning resources, such as the “VAWG Help Desk” and “How To Guides” is still limited outside of DfID, despite their potential for knowledge-sharing among other donors and implementing partners.

• Targeting violent behavior and perpetrators of VAWG so far appears less effective at countering VAWG than initially thought. Instead, “promoting alternative versions of masculinity and working to transform unequal power relations,” the report says, are more effective.

• Sectors with the greatest potential for scaling VAWG components include health, education, WASH and economic empowerment.

Crossing sectors to scale up

The exception may be VAWG-component programs that integrate VAWG prevention into other development projects, for example in the health or education sectors. DfID’s Sectorwide Approach to Strengthening Health in India, for example, partners with the Indian government to improve health systems at the local and national levels, and trains health staff to identify signs of domestic abuse during routine care.

Still, DfID has yet to articulate a strategy for scaling VAWG across sectors, the ICAI report notes. Programs remain “insufficient to the scale of the problem,” it says.

DfID’s youth agenda, which saw a similar financial and political buy-in in the last year, could offer a model for how VAWG programming will scale. Established in early 2016, the agenda sets out targets for all U.K. government departments to meet for the period ending in 2020. DfID’s VAWG agenda could use a similar strategy to mainstream its programming across sectors.

To do so, DfID will need to better explain how learning about best practices will be made available to those outside the department, the report said. DfID’s WhatWorks research program — an open source platform for DfID practitioners to provide feedback on current programming — has already proven an effective medium for knowledge sharing across government departments on countering VAWG domestically. The question now is whether DfID can open these resources to the wider development community — with other donors, multilaterals and development practitioners, for example — in order to share lessons learned.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DfID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

About the author

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Molly Andersmollyanders_dev

Molly is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in London, she covers U.K. foreign aid and trends in international development. She draws on her experience covering aid legislation and the USAID implementer community in Washington, D.C., as well as her time as a Fulbright Fellow and development practitioner in the Middle East to develop stories with insider analysis.

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