Gender Mainstreaming in Nordic Development Agencies

Seventeen Years after the Beijing Conference

Malokele Nanivazo and Lucy Scott

In the last 50 years there has been a growing awareness and consensus on the intrinsic significance of gender equality in a just and well-working society. Gender equality is foremost a human right—it matters in its own right. It is unethical to discriminate against a large portion of the population based on social, behavioural, or cultural attributes. This creates a culture of subordination and perpetuates social norms, which constrain women enjoyment of their human rights. Moreover, gender equality is a critical channel for achieving others social, political, and economic goals.

These ideas have been codified in several international treatises. Importantly the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, was critical in making gender equality a development goal. During this conference, participants recognized that equality between women and men is a human right and a prerequisite for social justice, development, and peace. The conference concluded with the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action which adopted gender mainstreaming as the primary mechanism for promoting gender equality.

Gender mainstreaming involves integrating a gender perspective into the life cycle of all policies, programmes, and practices in order to maximize the impact of development on women and men in all political, economics and societal spheres. Gender mainstreaming is not a goal in itself; it is a means for a goal: gender equality.

Following the Beijing conference, most donors and development agencies have adopted gender mainstreaming as an approach. In doing so, some restructured their internal systems and procedures to integrate gender issues at all levels of their operations while others hired gender specialists, set up gender units, and launched gender training.

However, seventeen years after the Beijing conference, the lingering question remains as to whether gender mainstreaming has been successfully implemented. In our WIDER working paper (LINK) we have attempted to address this question by investigating the gender-mainstreaming strategies of three Nordic development agencies, all of which are pioneers of gender equality, namely the Danish International Development Agency (Danida), the development department of the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (FMFA), and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

The study investigates gender mainstreaming using semi-structured interviews with gender advisors within each of the agencies as well as analysis of existing policy, strategy, and evaluation documents. It examines gender mainstreaming in two aspects. The first is an investigation of these agencies’ strategies, operations, and structures. The second examines embassy-level gender-mainstreaming strategies in implementation and operations.

This exercise sheds light on what has worked, and what needs to be changed in the current approach, policy, and strategies of the three agencies in consideration for maximizing the impact of their projects. Second, it investigates how strategies, policies, and approaches adopted at the central level are translated to embassy-level implementation and operations. This is significant for the current development debate when there is an increasing need for evidences on what has worked.

Our investigation reveals that current limitations in human resources, an unwillingness to mainstream gender, and ‘priority overload’ as other development objectives come to the fore, remain obstacles to applying an effective mainstreaming approach throughout the programme cycle. The current practice of gender mainstreaming has not effectively universalized the treatment of gender throughout the policy and programme cycle in the three organizations. Its implementation depends on the commitment of individuals to promote gender and to ensure that gender concerns are effectively integrated into development activities. This problem is more acute at the embassy level where gender focal points only have a proportion of their weekly work time to implement gender-mainstreaming strategies in operations. Gender is competing with other development priorities including HIV/AIDS and the environment, and more recently climate change and the re-emergence of human rights. Integrating all of these concerns throughout the programme cycle is placing overwhelming pressures on the staff of development agencies, particularly in the context of fiscal tightening of aid budgets and reduction in staffing.

Due to the mounting challenges faced by development agencies in implementing gender mainstreaming, Danida is reconsidering the use of gender mainstreaming as an approach in favour of a results-based approach in its forthcoming gender strategy. The results-based agenda can provide an opportunity to maintain the focus on gender. It will require that gender equality to be more explicitly linked to other development outcomes, including poverty reduction, in order to provide incentives for its integration.

A focus on development outcomes and particularly the disaggregation of indicators by gender may be a more pragmatic approach to integrating gender and promoting gender equality. Moreover, the funds of development agencies are increasingly channelled through other organizations including the multilaterals, NGOs, climate funds, and the private sector. Development agencies are no longer the starting point, or even maybe the correct unit of analysis, for an examination of the successful implementation, or otherwise, of gender mainstreaming.

The implementation of gender mainstreaming has so far proven to be a challenge for development agencies. The challenges are likely to be even greater for other international organizations and global funds due to the wide range of interested parties involved, each aiming to promote a different agenda and where compromises often have to be made. In these contexts it may not be simply to apply best practices from the bilateral agencies. 

Malokele Nanivazo is a UNU-WIDER Research Fellow. Lucy Scott is a UNU-WIDER Research Associate. 

WIDERAngle newsletter
December 2012
ISSN 1238-9544