Will more donors ‘go Dutch’ to achieve gender equality?

The women of Kweigbein Farmers Association meet to divide their savings. Promoting gender equality means supporting local partners, particularly women-led grassroots programs. Photo by: Nico Parkinson / USAID Food and Enterprise Development Program for Liberia /  CC BY-NC

Leaders at large bilateral donor agencies and the word “powerless” aren’t a common combination, but it’s how Sally Gear sometimes feels after a meeting with an impressive small organization.

Gear, head and strategic lead on gender for the Sustainable Energy Unit at the U.K. Department for International Development, shared why a good meeting can be frustrating at Thursday’s FHI 360 Gender Summit in Washington, D.C.

“It’s very hard for us to give small grants,” she said. “We are in a world where the incentives are to give big amounts of money — ideally to one organization — so there is less staff needed to operationalize … Great organizations will come and I’ll have a meeting ... I feel quite powerless [to help].”

Gear certainly isn’t alone. The trend across the board is for bilaterals is to provide larger grants to fewer organizations. But Theo Sowa, chief executive officer of African Women's Development Fund, contended at the summit that many donors and implementers have double standards for women's organizations, asking them to meet higher standards or jump through hoops for small amounts of money. She challenged the panel and summit participants to examine the fact that donors and direct practitioners do not sufficiently and directly invest in global south women's and women's rights organizations.

Gear recognized the importance of adaptive programming, but noted it has to be balanced with political funding constraints. She cited that the U.K. aid budget isn’t extremely popular among British citizens, which requires the agency to constantly justify its spending. Yet she admitted that many barriers were being created to prevent DfID from funding women’s organizations whose work could be transformational.

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That’s not to say there hasn’t been progress overall. Over the last seven years, women and girls have been embraced at the heart of development efforts, Gear told Devex. Following the U.S. Agency for International Development’s 2012 Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy, in 2014 the U.K. “enshrined in law” the international development act — which mandates that any overseas aid must take into account the promotion of gender equality.

The new law is understood to be the first to place a commitment to reduce gender inequalities on aid disbursements. But with just a little creativity and partnership, donors can do even more.

There are ways around funding restraints, as well as the view that large bilateral or multilaterals aren’t best suited to make small grants, Emily Esplen, lead policy analyst for women’s rights and gender equality at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, told Devex.

Instead of what can’t be done, the focus should be on what can be done — building donor capacity to engage and support local partners, particularly women-led organizations with grassroots connections.

One way to do this is to fund larger organizations that can absorb the funds and subcontract to grassroots organizations — a point that Sowa of the African Women’s Development Fund reiterated.

“I don’t think ‘well I’m going to sit in D.C. and make a $5,000 grant in rural Rwanda,’” Sowa said. “But we have a whole range of African foundations whose primary aim has been around reaching and working with small- and medium-sized organizations, and those organizations have sophisticated financial systems, policy and can do [the aid work] effectively.”

Esplen also pointed to the 2008 Millennium Development Goal 3 Fund launched by the Netherlands ministry of foreign affairs. Through its investment of 82 million euros ($92 million), the MDG3 Fund was the single largest government gift to support civil society organizations working on gender equality and women’s rights at the time. It reached some 220 million people — of which 65.5 million were women and girls — and strengthened 100,000 women’s organizations, according to research conducted by the Association for Women’s Rights In Development.

In 2012, the Dutch ministry launched a follow-up 80.5 million euro ($90 million) initiative, called Funding Leadership and Opportunities for Women.

And the ministry is set to firm up plans for a new fund, most likely following the finalization of a set of sustainable development goals in September, Esplen told Devex. This time, the hope is that other governments will get on board too.

“Rather than having lots of these separate funds, four big governments could come together and put money into the same pot to make a huge difference,” Esplen said.

In the meantime, it remains to be seen whether proposed SDG goal five — achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls — will make the cut in the post-2015 agenda setting. And, if it survives unscathed, whether it will become a galvanizing, uniting force for donors to further support gender work.

“I wish the SDGs were ho-hum, that we didn’t need to fight so hard for both a standalone goal and integration across the others,” said Susan Markham, senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment at USAID, in response to a question on what the SDGs will really mean for gender equality. “It’s not ho-hum because we did have to fight.”

The SDGs, according to several panelists, are an important mandate that can spur action much the same way that donor policy has brought attention to the issue by expanding resources for gender programming and entrenching gender in program design and implementation.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on June 24, 2015 for additional context and clarification.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.