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Aid and gender – making foreign aid count

International Women’s Day on 8th March 2016 is a time to celebrate. It is also a time for reflection. We must constantly remind ourselves that while the world community adopted (i) the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1979, (ii) the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995, and (iii) the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal 5 to Achieve Gender Equality and Empowering All Women and Girls in 2015, there is still much to do before these objectives become a reality.

Achieving gender equality is not only a human right, it is also good economics 

The world needs economic progress and development to reduce poverty and make progress towards the many noble goals on the SDG agenda. Speaking honestly, there is no better way to achieve progress than to liberate the immense productive capacity of women and girls, who will also become the mothers of tomorrow’s children. In parallel with the various global commitments, major bilateral and multilateral donors have over the years initiated a large number of projects and programmes on gender equality and female empowerment, especially in low-income countries. But what has been the impact of such assistance? Have these efforts translated into large-scale transformation for women’s empowerment? UNU-WIDER has asked such questions in our research over the past five years.

What has been the impact of development assistance to gender?

So what do we find? A new special issue of the Journal of International Development (JID) timely published to mark International Women’s Day gives three revealing answers:

  1. Donor support has contributed to reducing maternal mortality and gender gaps in primary enrolment and completion.
  2. The case study and impact evaluation literature has documented the good practices that have made this progress possible.
  3. Action on improving women’s employment, asset ownership, and participation in key governance structures such as national parliaments has been slower—donors have only recently begun to invest in these areas, thus impact evaluations on what works are not yet conclusive.
Donors and their partners need to do a better job on improving efforts to achieve gender equality and female empowerment.

How should they approach this critical task? In the JID special issue we recommend that donors should:

  1. Move away from characterizing ‘gender’ as a cross-cutting issue. Instead focus should be on identifying specific gaps between males and females that should be targeted for closure—for instance, targeting productivity gaps between female and male smallholders as part of agriculture and food security programmes.
  2. Put in place stronger institutional mechanisms for fostering synergies and knowledge across sectors and monitoring systems to help them assess whether they are achieving identified outcomes.
  3. Conduct and use higher-quality gender analysis more systematically in policy, programme, and project design and implementation.
  4. Help close existing data gaps. Because data is a public good and underfinanced, development agencies can play a key role in helping countries and the international system fill key gender data gaps—such as those on economic activity and gender-based violence.

I hope the UNU-WIDER special issue of JID—looking at what is the impact of aid and gender equality more specifically—will stimulate more analysis on this vitally important topic, and I take the opportunity of International Women’s Day to call for researchers from around the globe to lend their help to this effort. With the SDGs now in place, and the heightened attention given to gender equality and female empowerment in these goals, the platform for more action by donors and their country partners in the years ahead is in place. But to be effective, and to have impact at scale, this action must be informed by high-quality research that yields recommendations for practical action.

This article is based on an earlier article published on the Wiley Gender Equality Blog.

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