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Advancing women’s rights in a changing landscape for development co-operation

Development actors worldwide accept that advancing women’s rights and gender equality is not only a desirable goal, but a cornerstone of any successful sustainable development framework. Women and girls are in the public eye and recognised as key agents in development as never before.

By Ana Abelenda, Association for Women’s Rights in Development

“Investing in women and girls” is increasingly heralded as a keystone strategy for women’s economic empowerment, and indeed, for broader development and economic growth. Variations on this discourse are coming from as diverse actors as the World Bank, Newsweek, and Walmart. Funding agencies and international NGOs have increasingly adopted the language of “investing in women” via new policies and programmes. Corporations are emphasising women as a key constituency of consumers, economic agents and small-scale entrepreneurs. Mass media feature stories on the power of women in addressing social and economic problems, and cover key challenges/issues faced by women and girls around the world. Few would dare deny the importance of women’s empowerment and autonomy in building healthy economies, just societies, and lasting peace.

Yet, when it comes to funding resources for effective advancement of women and girls beyond quick fixes the picture is not so bright.

An Association for Women’s Rights in Development report released late 2013 demonstrates that the spotlight on women and girls seems to have had relatively little impact on improving the quality and reliability of funding for a large majority of women’s organisations around the world. “Watering the leaves, starving the roots: The Status of Financing for Women’s Rights Organizing and Gender Equality”, warns that growing attention for the ‘leaves’ — individual women and girls — comes without support for the ‘roots’ – the sustained, collective action by women’s rights activists and organisations central to advances for women throughout history.

There is also a trend of funders prioritising economic growth, while human rights and wellbeing take a backseat. Quick ‘return on investment’ projects are becoming the norm as opposed to core, multi-year funding for more difficult but transformative work on the roots of injustice and gender inequality. This obscures the fact that advancing human rights and social justice is, and must continue to be, a priority concern and commitment of state actors and of international-level multilateral bodies.

Within the development co-operation landscape, the terrain of financing women’s rights and gender equality advancement is marked by increasingly diverse actors, beyond traditional donor countries and emerging economies. Newer development financing actors – especially the corporate sector – are influencing women’s struggles for rights and justice in important ways that cannot be ignored. This context presents complex challenges and diverse opportunities.

AWID’s “New Actors, New Money, New Conversations” report released in 2014 helps understand how corporate and other actors ‘new’ to supporting women and girls are shaping related funding discourse and practice. The report notes that more public-private partnerships; formal demands for a private sector role in development co-operation; and expansion of corporate social responsibility practices, including diverse ‘social enterprises’, are converging with more visible stories and studies on supporting women and girls.

A related trend is the shift from ‘aid to investment’ – i.e. using business solutions for social and development problems. In addition to direct involvement in development agenda-setting, corporate actors can leverage market power and value chains to create innovative solutions for women and girls.

Women’s rights activists have the right to be concerned about increasing instrumentalisation and corporatisation of development agendas and women’s rights. Corporate efforts cannot replace state obligations to protect and fulfill human rights and to allocate needed resources, including through mechanisms of effective, transparent international co-operation.

Ahead of the Global Partnership’s First High Level Meeting in Mexico on 15-16 April 2014, development actors should consider this context to better integrate gender equality and women’s rights issues in any effective development co-operation framework. The wealth of experience of women’s rights organising should help to inform and determine the best strategies and initiatives to be supported. To this end, women’s rights and grassroots organisations’ participation at all levels of deliberation and negotiation is essential.

For example, the collective impact of the Dutch MDG3 Fund demonstrates across regions the transformation possible when organisations building women’s collective power for change receive serious resources. These resources must be offered for an extended period of time and give organisations flexibility to refine their strategies to adapt to shifting contexts.

Overall, the MDG3 Fund’s very strategic distribution of resources demonstrates appreciation for what women’s movements have understood for years:

For lasting impact on gender equality and serious advances in women’s rights, we need organisations, movements, and strategies at multiple geopolitical, strategic, and policy levels.

We need alliances and co-ordinated efforts that cut across all traditional divides. It is quite possible that the MDG3 Fund mix achieved far more than if resources had been invested in only one type of organisation, working at just one site or level at which gender inequality and women’s oppression occurs.

Ensuring that all development actors, including the private sector, are held accountable for their programmes’ advancement of the rights of women and girls is similarly important, so that economic growth and profit do not drive development policies and goals.

Securing public funding to ensure universal access to quality education, healthcare, housing, justice, social protection, decent work, environmental stewardship and fulfillment of human rights for all remains crucial in a world where wealth is being increasingly concentrated, and inequalities widening. More than a desirable goal, this is a global social responsibility and an ethical imperative.