Marie Josef helps Remonde Moise up a hill after weeding a carrot field in Furcy, Haiti. Both women are members of the Furcy Association of Women Farmers. Photo by: Chemonics 2013

Have you ever heard the phrase, “women, youth, and other vulnerable groups” in a development context? If the answer is yes, you probably recognize that this phrase is common across development programs. Usually, it is used to show that we’re advocating for the needs of communities that are most underrepresented.

“Failing to address the diversity within and among groups weakens our ability to ensure those most underrepresented are being included in development programs.”

As development practitioners, we can easily fall into the habit of using a phrase like “other vulnerable groups” to refer to multiple social groups, such as persons with disabilities, ethnic and religious minorities, and LGBTI populations, but the reality is that using general language to describe groups of people often has negative consequences.

We know we should strive for solutions that recognize the unique needs of different social groups and the diversity that exists within each group. Failing to address the diversity within and among groups weakens our ability to ensure those most underrepresented are being included in development programs. If the development community fails to identify the social groups most underrepresented in each country context, we cannot craft effective solutions to the challenges that context presents.

To inclusively design, we have to define

A recent study led by Chemonics suggests that using the phrase “and other vulnerable groups” does not lead to inclusion. In fact, correlational evidence suggests it could lead to greater omission and exclusion during project implementation. The study examined the inclusion of four social groups: LGBTI populations, persons with disabilities, youth, and minority groups — including ethnic, religious, linguistic minorities, and indigenous peoples.

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Our study found that when the U.S. Agency for International Development solicitations designate different social groups under the umbrella term “vulnerable groups,” the majority — 82% — of reports from the corresponding projects continue to refer to those groups with that phrase — without clarifying how their individual needs were addressed — or do not mention them at all.  

Conversely, when solicitations specifically reference one or more social groups by name — in a targeted activity, for example — only half of the reports from the corresponding programs stop referencing those groups. Further research should be done to examine why this happens. There are a couple possible scenarios we considered based on gender equality and social inclusion assessments and responses to project surveys: using “other vulnerable groups” does not effectively include those underrepresented groups in implementation and/or we are not reporting on activities designed for these specific groups.

Regardless of the intention, the impact is what matters. If we are not effectively including the most underrepresented groups in our development programs or if we are failing to mention how we include specific groups in reports, we in the development community cannot build upon successes and lessons learned regarding inclusion.

How specific social groups are included in USAID program reports. Photo by: Chemonics

The study further suggests that specific social groups, such as LGBTI populations, persons with disabilities, and ethnic or linguistic minorities are disproportionately impacted by this general approach. We found that gender and youth were often specifically referenced in solicitations and program reports on their own, suggesting that the different needs of men, women, boys, and girls — along with youth — were more frequently addressed in programming than the needs of “other vulnerable groups.”

If the most underrepresented social groups are missing from reports, it’s unclear whether the development community is leveraging their skills or meeting their needs during the course of implementation.

Inclusion within program reports categorized by social group and extent of language within quarterly or annual reports. Photo by: Chemonics

Donors and implementers alike should commit to greater inclusion of underrepresented groups and apply best practices in our programs.

Recommendations for donors

1. Improve the likelihood of social groups’ inclusion in program design and implementation by using clear, specific language to discuss those groups in solicitations.

Donors should describe specific interventions for specific groups within solicitations and throughout program design. They should recognize that using the umbrella term “other vulnerable groups” does not lead to an impact for those groups. For example, objectives or intermediate results that relate to the inclusion of specific groups could increase those groups’ visibility. Purposefully including different social groups in programming signals to stakeholders that the donor prioritizes inclusiveness in all development activities.

2. Increase accountability for implementing partners to ensure that programs benefit all individuals.

Promoting inclusion in solicitations is necessary but insufficient on its own. To realize inclusion, donors must hold partners accountable by following up with them and monitoring work plans, budgets, activities, and reports. Support for inclusion must be holistic from program design through implementation, which means that donors should evaluate and require implementing partners to measure progress toward greater inclusion to realize sustainable change in this area.

Recommendations for implementing partners

1. Increase advocacy and awareness of the benefits of inclusion.

As a first step, implementing partners should raise awareness of inclusion and advocate for behavior change with their own staff. We are uniquely positioned to provide our program staff with the training and support they need to successfully implement inclusive programs.

For example, at Chemonics we offer an all-staff gender equality and social inclusion training to program staff during startup that introduces the topic, underscores its importance, and provides guidance for incorporating inclusion throughout our work. As another example, the USAID and PEPFAR-funded Health Policy Plus project developed a gender and sexual diversity training to mainstream gender and sexual diversity competencies into the global HIV response to help PEPFAR staff combat discrimination toward gender and sexual minorities.

2. Develop and manage sectoral tools to better guide staff in designing and implementing inclusive programs. 

Global staff need adequate resources and tools to design, implement, and monitor inclusive programs from the start. To meet this need, implementing partners need to create and share tools — such as the Universal Design for Learning to Help All Children Read and TAAP toolkit — to define underrepresented social groups and train staff on how to design appropriate interventions to effectively respond to specific needs. Partners must also take ownership of the roles they play in realizing inclusion for all by using participatory and evidence-based practices and working alongside donors to improve inclusion from the beginning of the solicitation phase.

3. Integrate sound industry practices to achieve inclusion within organizations. 

Inclusive development must be integrated within an organization’s internal systems and structures and within programmatic work. To ensure inclusion is intentional, an organization’s internal policies and systems must be inclusive — for example, providing accessible workspaces and using non-discriminatory hiring practices.

There are also sound practices for achieving inclusion in program activities that the entire industry should adopt, such as conducting a GESI assessment at program startup, budgeting for accommodations, and applying universal design principles to project design.

We cannot address the needs of all underrepresented groups while simply referring to them with the umbrella term “other vulnerable groups.” We will not achieve our goal of inclusive development unless we become more knowledgeable about the needs of the specific groups that make up the communities we serve and call them by name — in our solicitations, our responses, our work plans, and our reporting. Without this intentional inclusion, we will leave behind some of the most underrepresented, specifically those who could benefit the most from development assistance.

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

About the authors

  • Shauna Caria

    Shauna Caria is a senior manager on Chemonics’ Gender Equality and Social Inclusion practice. With more than eight years of international development experience in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia, South Africa, and Eastern Europe, Caria is an expert on disability inclusion, women’s empowerment, mainstreaming gender and social inclusion, combating gender-based violence, gender and inclusion in conflict, and youth engagement.
  • Anne Hayes

    Anne Hayes is the chief operating officer of Inclusive Development Partners, an organization with more than 20 years of experience focusing on disability-inclusive development in more than 30 countries. As an independent consultant, Hayes supported disability-inclusive development programming for various civil society organizations, disabled persons organizations and United Nations agencies.