Opinion: Challenging international development to get out of its comfort zone on gender equality

Despite self-described feminist aid policies and equality initiatives, funding in the development sector continues to fail women. Photo by: Olivier Le Moal / iStock

The language around gender equality in development and global health has changed greatly in the 25 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Despite self-described feminist aid policies and equality initiatives, however, funding in those sectors continues to fail women.

Too little is changing too slowly because women do not have an equal role in decision-making and because many donors have misunderstood risk in this context.

Funds allocated to gender equality increased in 2016-17, but women’s organizations received only 1% of gender-focused aid. That meager 1% is made even less effective by the fact that the bulk of it remained in donor countries and did not reach the feminist organizations that need long-term funding to work with their own communities.

To put it bluntly, donors consider it riskier to go outside the constraints of their own understanding of the sector, to go beyond the people they see at the same conferences month after month, year after year, with the same calls to action.

As Vanessa Daniel, executive director of Groundswell, has pointed out, “it’s far easier for a young affluent white man who has studied poverty at Harvard to land a $1 million grant with a concept pitch than it is for a 40-something black woman with a decades-long record of wins in the impoverished community where she works to get a grant for $20,000.”

Why? Because the affluent white man is a recognizable figure, seen as less risky. He is part of the boys’ club in international development.

He is also less of a challenge. Earmarking aid as gender-focused, but then keeping it in the club, is also perceived as safer. Donors are less likely to be challenged to analyze their own organizational and governance inequities. His application fits well with their traditional funding model and ticks all the boxes. Attempts to force grassroots organizations to fit with these models are as wrongheaded as the prevailing view of risk. Why should an effective grassroots organization change or spend limited time and resources meeting a donor’s bureaucratic demands? Why shouldn’t it be the donor that adapts to reality?

This “risk” is not specific to women — all social change requires an element of investment risk. Ultimately, it might be that women are not perceived to be worth the risk.

Continuing with this mindset is, of course, by far the riskier option. The current status quo of risk analysis means that we are not going to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and at this rate, it will take us over 100 years to achieve equality. Our sector should see that as an urgent reason to change — not through lip service, but at a fundamental level.

Implicit bias also means that the prevailing understanding of risk will not change until leadership in the sector does. In 2016, only 0.6% of foundation giving was targeted to women of color. That figure alone should be seen as an indicator of a sector in crisis.

Why isn’t it? Could it be that the sector is too comfortable with the status quo and is shying away from the wholesale change that would transform its own leadership?

Female leaders also have an opportunity, striving for gender equity, to change the way they act. Five years after launching Women in Global Health, we are growing a global platform for women to be heard, especially women from the global south whose voices are underrepresented in global health decision-making. And we are challenging leaders of all genders to be gender transformative leaders.

For many years, we have had similar conversations with women working in the sector. We all know the reality: small organizations in resource-poor countries forced to apply for grant after grant to the detriment of their long-term work, tied into funding that is inflexible, or struggling to jump through hoops that detract from their impact.

We’ve decided to call it out and burst the bubble: to say that the sector is failing and that it must be transformed. We are determined that 2020 will not pass as another year in which global attention is focused on gender equality, but action falls well short of what is required.

We have three key asks:

1. That 20% of gender-focused aid go to women’s organizations by 2030, up from a mere 1% currently.

2. That at least 70% of gender-focused aid be spent in recipient countries by 2030.

3. That 2020 — the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action — be used to identify key actions to accelerate progress and achieve SDG 5: “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” by 2030.

It is time for uncomfortable questions to be asked and for solutions-focused conversations to take over. It’s time for us to take the lead.

This article is part of our op-ed series #GlobalDevWomen, where we hear from leaders in the sector on key themes around women’s leadership, #AidToo, and empowerment in practice, in the run-up to International Women’s Day.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Rachel Firth

    Rachel Firth is the founder of Women in Dev, an international development conference taking place in London on March 5, 2020. She is the managing director of Global Office Consulting, which works predominantly with women-led or gender-focused development organizations and initiatives. She has been involved in policy formation for global health initiatives in accordance with the Sustainable Development Goals, supported in the development of national strategies for maternal and child health, and delivered advocacy and programmatic work in health, education, and gender equality globally.
  • Roopa Dhatt

    Dr. Roopa Dhatt is the executive director and co-founder of Women in Global Health. She is a practicing internal medicine physician, implementing partner and steering committee member of the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference, and on the Advisory Council of Global Health 50-50. Dr. Dhatt is focused on advancing gender equality, youth engagement, women’s leadership, and multisectorial work.