Q&A: Joelle Tanguy of UN Women talks priorities, protests and funding struggles

Joelle Tanguy, director of the Strategic Partnership Division of U.N. Women. Photo by: JM. Ferré / UNHCR / CC BY-NC

Joelle Tanguy took on the new role of director of U.N. Women’s strategic partnerships division last September. She arrived with ample experience as former under secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and managing director of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, orchestrating a $12 billion replenishment in 2011. But this relatively new job marks her first foray into the U.N. system and the all-encompassing work of gender equality and mainstreaming.

Tanguy sat down with Devex in her New York office, one block away from the U.N. headquarters, ahead of International Women’s Day and the upcoming annual Commission on the Status of Women forum. There’s much at stake on all fronts, she explained. The level of women in the workforce has remained stagnant for the past 25 years, for example, and the global gender pay gap persists at 23 percent — an “unacceptable level,” she said.

Tanguy argues that U.N. Women finds itself in a “unique situation.” It has the largest number of member states supporting its work of all U.N. agencies but remains far from the annual budget goal of $500 million, which was set at its founding in 2010.

Tanguy spoke to Devex about how U.N. Women — and the work of civil society — is rising to the challenge. These are takeaways from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

How are you finding your experience at U.N. Women so far, especially considering that it has historically received less funding than other U.N. agencies?

It is a new agency and it lives with a very modern way of doing business, of trying to drive efficiencies — of trying not to reinvent the wheel if it has been done. For example, it outsources some of its administration to the U.N. Development Programme and some other agencies, as opposed to recreating another silo — so it is a very dynamic institution, which is actually not what I expected. I expected a more traditional U.N. setup.

Focusing on the women’s agenda — despite all the progress on the political side in recent years, it has not been accompanied with major funding increases, so we are looking at this as a particular priority.

The initial goal was to have a $500 million annual budget for U.N. Women, is that right?

The goal is to make this the century of gender equality. We need to find the right strategic plan and the right endeavors to deliver this. The initial creation of U.N. Women estimated it would take a $500 million commitment to deliver this, and it probably wasn't far off.

We are in the process of redesigning our strategic plans now, and we realize it takes a significant amount of resources to drive a consensus on new norms and standards. We have made great progress on that in recent years, but it takes also a different kind of effort related to mobilizing all U.N. agencies, both internally and through their own practices, of collaboratively responding, and finding a theory of change, and building on knowledge on how to address those issues.

We have a wealth of experience built over many years, but we actually think now is the time to bring all of it back together to a few strategic priorities. We call them “flagship initiatives.” They resonate with the normative work we do in terms of changing the norms and having governments agree on this, but fundamentally they are of a more operational focus.

The goal for $500 million is not the end-defining goal. It is important — in that we need to find those resources — but we are at the stage where we are defining the strategy. It is very clear to us that the direction that will be taken will remain very forceful. We will promote the work of ensuring that every country measures data and develops the data set with the assumption that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. We will continue with our work on violence against women, which is a major preoccupation, and our focus on women’s economic empowerment, which will be a mainstay of our future work and a focus for the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women in March.

How has your work been affected by U.N. Women not being able to reach these levels of core and noncore funding?

The work is already affected. We had hoped for $200 million in core and similar in noncore funding. We reached about $140 million in core and $170 million in noncore, so inevitably what we could deploy has been affected.

We are trying to find different and better ways of operating that save money and actually deliver more. When we started U.N. Women, we were the only agency that did not create its own administrative system. Now we are trying to look at the configuration in countries. Do we always need the same configuration in different countries. Depending on how we can rely on other institutions and other U.N. agencies, what is the national capacity?

That is the main change we are driving as part of an effort to demonstrate we are worthy of investment, because we are being very careful about the value of money and the investment of our work and as part of the strategy to pool as many resources as possible into the more proactive nature of our work.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has been trying to ensure that gender equality is an inherent part of the work it is doing.

He has made it a very significant agenda. His view is that the pressures against globalization are partly because what was missing in globalization was the attention to the most vulnerable, and basically the Sustainable Development Goals. He is well aware that in this powerful formula, this one particular achilles heel, which is gender mainstreaming, has to be there. The gender lenses on each of the goals have to be promoted or they won't be delivered. Practice says that gender is always the last looked at, so he has made it the first looked at. He is being demanding on seeing this progress.

With the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women forum, what do you think is most at stake? I understand there have been some issues related to participants and President Donald Trump’s travel ban?

The participation is an issue. This is where the real norms are being shaped and probably for all of [the forums] in the U.N. environment, this is the one where civil society has had most presence and is very engaged. It is a real challenge if we cannot have the sustained participation of civil society from all parts.

On the agenda itself, I think we will see a major push for equal pay. The other key issue is the high-level panel on economic equality, co-led by the president of Costa Rica. We will deliver its final conclusions on the work of the private sector in that context.

This year’s Women’s Marches were part of a real sense of affirmation that, for women around the world, the time is now for this agenda. No doubt, that gives CSW more importance, more meaning and it will make for more intense conversations. The resonance of this issue has never been so intense and I think it is not only in civil society circles, but the fact that new strategic goals were adopted with unanimous support of U.N. member states and there is a mainstreaming of gender on the development agenda. The development agenda is not just for developing countries.

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.