DFID faces 'wake-up call' on gender equality strategy

Photo by: DFID / Rich Taylor / CC BY

LONDON — The U.K. Department for International Development is facing criticism from the country’s influential public-spending watchdog over the poor implementation of the department’s gender equality strategy.

A report by the National Audit Office found that DFID’s 2018 Strategic Vision for Gender Equality was “ambitious” but not designed “in a way which allowed it to assess overall progress and value for money.”

It said the department’s estimate of how much it is spending on gender programming is not accurate.

Sarah Champion, chair of the International Development Committee — DFID’s parliamentary watchdog — called the report a “wake-up call” for DFID.

But the Gender and Development Network, a group of U.K.-based specialists, defended DFID’s work on gender equality and said the report was “overly critical.”

Despite a strong performance in researching the Strategic Vision — which saw DFID consult widely with experts and gather evidence of what works in bringing about change — the department lacked a way of putting it into practice or measuring progress, according to NAO.

“There is currently no overall long-term implementation plan for the Vision, nor has DFID published a thorough assessment of its progress to date, other than limited information in its annual reports and accounts and the Single Departmental Plan,” NAO said in a statement.

However, GADN said a “core strength” of DFID’s work on gender was how it “is responsive both to local context and to evolving best practice. The NAO report runs the risk of criticizing DFID for supporting innovative programs because they are difficult to measure, rather than recognizing that traditional evaluation techniques ... are no longer fit for purpose and need developing,” according to a GADN statement.

NAO also found it was “likely that DFID is inaccurately assessing the degree to which its spending has a focus on gender equality.”

The department had estimated that two-thirds of its bilateral aid spending in 2018 — amounting to £4.2 billion ($5.2 billion) — went to programs for which gender equality was an objective. But an NAO analysis found that at least 33% of DFID’s stated bilateral aid spending on gender equality programming that year was classified “incorrectly” and said DFID needed to improve its estimate.

“Inaccuracy in DFID’s gender-marked data means that DFID does not have an accurate grasp of which of its programmes have a gender equality focus and how much it spends on them, limiting its ability to monitor progress against its 2018 Strategic Vision,” the report states.

DFID also had difficulty “mainstreaming” gender — ensuring that gender equality is considered across all its projects, regardless of the main objective of the work — despite it being central to the Strategic Vision. NAO found challenges to mainstreaming included a lack of commitment from some staff, insufficient training and guidance before 2019, and weaknesses in quality assurance. The report recommended measures to improve the management of the Strategic Vision’s implementation.

“DFID should be congratulated for setting an ambitious vision to tackle gender inequality by 2030. However, good intentions are not enough.”

— Meg Hillier, chair, Committee of Public Accounts

Politicians called on DFID to make the necessary changes. “Empowering women and girls to reach their full potential and break through the glass ceiling is crucial if we are to end extreme poverty,” IDC’s Champion said. “If DFID is truly committed to equality, investment must be holistic, long-term, and considered.”

She added that “the NAO’s findings should be a wake-up call, leading DFID to revisit its Vision for Gender Equality in some of its programs and boosting transparency where discrepancies of funding exist.”

Meg Hillier, chair of the influential Committee of Public Accounts, said: “DFID should be congratulated for setting an ambitious vision to tackle gender inequality by 2030. However, good intentions are not enough. DFID hasn’t set milestones to check if it is on the right track or assessed how its local offices balance competing priorities. It doesn’t even have accurate information about which projects are supposed to be reducing gender inequality.”

A DFID spokesperson said: “The NAO rightly recognizes the department’s work to promote girls’ education, challenge child marriage, end female genital mutilation, and tackle sexual violence around the world.

“Our evidence-based approach allows us to quickly respond to constantly changing global challenges, such as coronavirus, so we can direct our lifesaving support to wherever it is needed most.”

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.