BANGKOK — Within the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the common refrain is that gender mainstreaming is so integral to the organization that “it’s in the walls,” said Anna Collins-Falk, senior policy specialist for gender equality at SIDA.
Collins-Falk, who recently returned to Sweden after years with the United Nations, noted that it would be easy to assume that the agency has all the answers it needs when it comes to funding gender equality, considering the Scandinavian country’s globally recognized feminist foreign policy under Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström.
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“Everyone is so positive towards it, everyone wants to do it, but it doesn’t always mean you know how,” Collins-Falk said of SIDA’s gender contributions. “There’s a certain complacency in saying well ‘we’re good at this, we’re already doing it.’ Whereas you can never forget you have to keep working at it because there are always new challenges that emerge, whether on gender-based violence, or in conflict settings or protracted humanitarian crises.”
Collins-Falk traces SIDA’s commitment to gender equality in development cooperation to “our own long hard work we’ve been doing in Sweden to change social norms and equality,” she said. “It’s still a challenge at home sometimes as well.”
Swedish development cooperation, which stipulates gender equality as one of its eight focus areas, features a strong emphasis on sexual and reproductive health and rights — one of the six subobjectives of its feminist foreign policy. The third-largest donor in terms of official development assistance in proportion to the size of its economy, Sweden has stepped in to fill the gap after United States President Donald Trump defunded the U.N. Family and Population Fund. It also contributed to the “She Decides” initiative to support women's reproductive and sexual health and rights around the world.
In 2017, 20 percent of SIDA’s aid was specifically targeted toward the goal of gender equality, up from 18 percent in 2016, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee policy marker system. SIDA assistance that is tied to at least one gender equality objective within a larger contribution constitutes 69 percent of the agency's work, while the proportion of aid without a gender equality objective stands at 11 percent.
Following recent criticism of the limitations of women's empowerment projects due to donor orchestrated “one-size-fits-all” approaches, Devex caught up with Collins-Falk to find out what has allowed SIDA to build and maintain a commitment to targeted, long-term gender interventions.
A commitment to staff and internal gender equality
“The way we do development cooperation is informed by having women’s empowerment and gender equality at the heart of it, so we see that as both an end result and a driver for overall sustainable development, the same way it is in the Sustainable Development Goals,” Collins-Falk said.
Still, SIDA’s commitment is only as good as its Ministry for Foreign Affairs, which issues the agency’s instructions and strategies, “and Swedish foreign policy has been very strong, on an annual basis, in identifying priorities for gender equality and women’s rights,” she said.
That commitment provides SIDA leverage for their gender-focused work at headquarters, and “at embassy level, it’s being brought up in policy dialogue with governments much more than before,” Collins-Falk said.
Being a member state of the European Union is also an important dimension for Sweden’s development cooperation. The EU’s second Gender Action Plan, which identifies “pivotal” areas to transform the lives of women and girls, is a “strong accountability tool because it encompasses all of the different institutions, not only those that are development focused,” she added.
One key element of GAP II is a pillar focused on shifting institutional culture to more effectively deliver on EU commitments — in order to “walk the talk” and implement gender equality strategies within their own walls, Collins-Falk said. Including these dimensions in the GAP II means their own gender equality is something agencies must measure and report on, which more effectively guarantees involvement of senior management and other leaders in making it happen, she said.
“Before, you had program officers identifying various projects, but the right level policy dialogue that could really make an impact wasn’t informed by that, or it was up to individual ambassadors — if that ambassador was gender sensitive and cared for the issues and was interested in promoting those issues, it would happen. If they decided not to, they weren’t held to account,” Collins-Falk said of the atmosphere prior to having reporting measures in place.
It’s also important to maintain gender advisers as full-time staff, she noted. Two gender policy experts, Collins-Falk included, sit at headquarters, while SIDA’s Africa, Europe, and Latin America departments have their own gender advisers to support regional strategy, along with focal points in country embassies. SIDA employs a senior adviser for women peace and security as well as a special adviser for women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.
“We see this when we go to global meetings to meet other donor countries, there are very few gender experts there,” she said. “You can mainstream it and have that perspective, but you also have to maintain the specific expertise to develop it.”
Supporting women’s movements is development in itself
When it comes to funding civil society organizations and implementing partners, SIDA provides core support that isn’t earmarked for specific areas.
“When we do [earmark funding], it’s still not something we just decide, it’s a process and we can still build in long-term support for capacity development and strategy building and then fund the implementation of their strategy,” Collins-Falk explained.
In particular when it comes to funding women’s rights organizations, which are often underfunded or weak in planning, reporting, and results frameworks capacities, SIDA considers helping strengthen these core functions as a crucial piece of democratic development.
“I think that is very key to this whole understanding: We don’t operationalize women’s movements or organizations by saying, ‘We will support this organization because X number of women will be better off,’” Collins-Falk said. “No, we are going to support this organization because they are important to hold their government to account or to raise the voices of marginalized groups at this level. So it’s a different way of thinking.”
Another key aspect of successful gender equality funding is length and flexibility — two aspects criticized as missing from many donors in the recent “Emissaries of Empowerment” report, which referenced too many short-term, non-context specific women’s economic empowerment projects around the world.
“We have to have an understanding that especially when it comes to women's empowerment and gender equality, attitudes and behavior change actually takes generations,” Collins-Falk said. “I’m not saying that we can commit to generational projects, but still it’s not one year at a time.”
SIDA’s longer term investments mean the inclusion of capacity development and the flexibility to adapt to changing risk or new opportunities. If an organization promoting the rights of the LGBTI population finds itself at risk, for example, they might need to change their way of working, who they align with, or how they advocate — and they need the flexibility from the donor’s end to do that, Collins-Falk said.
Informed decisions on what to fund require analysis no matter what
Collins-Falk sees “an emphasis on economic empowerment, often to the determinant of a women’s rights perspective,” she said. “That’s what we’re making sure at SIDA that we have that perspective in all our work when we do economic empowerment — it’s not in isolation as such.”
Aside from placing gender equality at the heart of their understanding of what poverty is and how they address it, SIDA has made gender analysis mandatory when conducting initial strategy operationalization for any contribution.
With the help of the gender analysis framework, “you can select whether you want to have the contribution specifically targeting gender or whether it’s mainstreamed or maybe it’s not relevant — but at least at that stage you can’t mark it as not relevant by default because you haven’t done that analysis,” Collins-Falk said. “Before, a lot of our work might have been saying ‘gender isn’t relevant’ because we hadn’t done the analysis.”