What is happening to Donor Support for Women’s Rights?

Human rights, including women’s rights are dropping off the donor agenda. ‘Give it another two years’, said a United Nations official off the record recently, ‘and they will have completely disappeared’.

Recent years have seen a marked shift in official development discourse, with less emphasis on a rights-based approach and more on an efficiency approach to gender equality, a tone set by the World Bank’s 2006 action plan – ‘Gender equality is smart economics’ which a number of official development agencies committed funds to resourcing. Other equally disturbing trends are emerging, such as DFID’s adoption of the Nike Foundation’s ‘Girl Effect’ theme of ‘stopping poverty before it starts’ by ‘investing in girls’ – an approach that entirely ignores the historically derived structural inequities that are keeping many millions of girls [and boys!] in conditions of poverty.

Nike’s message is a simple one. It is communicated in a slick two-minute animation, on YouTube and at www.girleffect.org. Take a look. It paints a picture of ‘the other’, living in a situation of dirt, disease and despair. A girl surrounded by flies, taken out of the context of her family, community and country, objectified as the solution to the world being ‘in a mess’. It paints a totally unreal picture of linear cause-effect change. Based on the mantra ‘invest in a girl’ it tells us there is a single, simple solution and we can stop worrying about the historically derived patterns of injustice and inequity in the world. Nor do ‘we’ have to either bother with finding out more about what is happening in the lives of people in poorer parts of the world nor how they perceive their own lives and how they want to make their own futures.

It is a message that is profoundly anti-rights. And it is one that says nothing about where boys – and men – might come into the picture. It ignores notions of justice and equity in relations between people and countries that underpin a rights based approach. The seeming triumph of the 1990s had been that social justice was seen as a sufficient reason for efforts to be made to secure gender equality. Women’s and girls’ well-being was an end in itself. Today, it is all about calculating the rates of return from investing in a person as if she were a piece of machinery.

Removing the realisation of rights, including women’s rights, from the donor agenda is part of a wider tendency to define development in terms of instruments – immunisations, bednets, numbers of children going to school, quotas for women in parliament – rather than xxx [you choose a good word, I was going to put “the social changes needed to make a fairer world”]. So we see investment in immunisations and bed nets rather than in x and y. This reflects the growing influence of large corporate sector philanthropic organisations and of the big accountancy companies. Technical solutions are sought for what are perceived to be technical problems. ‘Value for money’ becomes equated with aggregated numbers rather than with value in supporting social transformation. A very senior high level official from an OECD government was recently heard to remark to a group of international NGO representatives that he wanted maternal mortality to be approached as ‘a simple problem with a simple solution’.

Gender specialists in donor agencies are well aware of these challenges. One spoke of holding back on proposing to Ministers any revision of the agency’s ten year old gender equality strategy because of the fear that any revisions would be retrograde. Another noticed the shift that had occurred with a change of Ministers. It was alright to fund women’s organisations for ‘budget monitoring or training birth attendants’ but there was an aversion to the language of ‘rights’ because it sounded too ‘political’ and risked ‘rocking the boat with the partner government’. This does not mean, she continued, that colleagues in country offices have abandoned a women’s rights and social transformation agenda. They use their knowledge of bureaucratic processes and discourse to fund projects under the radar.

Many donor governments are imposing extraordinary demands for reporting against quantifiable achievements as a measure of impact. But in order to be able to count exactly how each penny or Euro of aid money gets spent, donor governments are risking not making any difference at all. They can show how many kilometres of roads they have built or numbers of girls staying on at secondary school, as compared with before they started the projects. But development practitioners learnt many years ago that without local people empowering themselves to change the less tangible factors that cannot be counted but that have been keeping them in poverty, then when donor money stops the roads will crumble away and the next age cohort of girls won’t get to school. If this lesson is forgotten, instead of securing ‘value for money’, donor governments risk wasting money.

Donor demands are having an effect on all those organisations that are funded by donor governments, such as United Nations agencies, development research institutes like my own and on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Oxfam International, all of whom pass donor government demands down to the organisations they are partnering in developing countries. The director of a women’s rights international NGO said ‘Anything that can be counted more easily is becoming more popular’. Power, relations, the partiality of knowledge and complexity are ignored, as are surprises and positive and negative unplanned consequences. Staff of a European NGO that receives government aid money have been literally tearing out their hair as they are asked to produce standard across-the-board indicators that will distort and constrain the work of the great variety of networks they are partnering. I was recently copied into this email:

“Try to imagine: generic indicators for 23 alliances that represent an enormous diversity in all dimensions you can think of, except that they get their funds from the same source. And that after everybody worked for a year on their own objectives, intended results and indicators. It is impossible in itself and it discards all the work done over the past year. They simply changed the rules of the game just metres before the finish. And of course it boils down to even more reporting requirements.”

Some learn to play the game, going through the design and reporting hoops to get the money. Some struggle to continue to facilitate real change while pretending that they are doing what the donor expects. Other less adept at these games, get pushed aside and close down. Yet others are trying to be more selective about their partnerships, looking for those donors who have a more holistic understanding of how development happens. However, the number of such donors appears to be rapidly declining.

The shift to the political right in many OECD countries has made governments reluctant to use aid money for advocacy and opt rather for the more technical and tangible quick wins, something also seen as vital to demonstrate at a time when public expenditure cuts puts aid flows at risk. Even in those government agencies such as Sida that have not abandoned a women’s rights agenda, the domestic political environment’s demands for counting only what can be measured is having a serious distortive effect on the quality and sustainability of their rights-based programming.

Sustainable progress towards a fairer world requires people working together to change what is wrong with their society. International aid can help when donor organisations are prepared to support locally generated, sometimes messy and frequently unpredictable processes of positive change.

But today, many donors only want to fund projects for which the exact outcome of their support can be attributed to the donor and determined in advance. This ties the hands of aid recipient organisations. It takes away their ability to consult with their members in response to a local context always in flux. It stops that process of empowerment that happens when individuals and organised groups are able to imagine their world differently and to realise that vision by tackling the injustices in their society.

Some very senior officials are now waking up to the hazards of the runaway ‘audit culture’ that is transforming development. The former head of the US Government’s aid agency recently wrote that those development projects that are most precisely and easily measured are the least transformational, and those projects that are most transformational are the least measurable.

At the moment Michelle Bachelet is trying to raise money from donor governments to make the new UN agency for women actually do real work to support the realisation of women’s rights. There is a very real and current danger that the donors will be placing such extraordinary demands on the agency that it will find it almost impossible to fulfil its mandate.

This is a call to action. Don’t just leave this to monitoring and evaluation experts to worry about. It requires a massive push back from women’s rights activists to make the space for social transformation that donor action risks shrinking.

Rosalind Eyben
Institute of Development Studies

6 thoughts on “What is happening to Donor Support for Women’s Rights?

  • April 13, 2011 at 3:07 am

    Ros, this is a sharp piece that picks up one of the major challenges women’s orgns and social movements are facing. The rise of philanthro-capitalism is arguably responsible for the most insidious transformation of the agenda. The more so because who can be against ‘technology’ per se especially when it claims to be for the good. But it was ever so. Focusing on technology to the exclusion of social relationships has always been the way that progressive political agendas have been subverted. And it goes beyond this. Look at the current flavour of the month – randomised control trials to determine development policy with nary a word about power relations!

    one more reason to go back to the basics: it’s about power and its transformation, stupid!

  • July 23, 2011 at 5:49 am

    “If the quality of our existence is more than the quantity of what we consume and possess, then a concern for development must surely be a concern for a process that expands people’s ability to be and to do, as much as their possessions.”

  • December 8, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Women need to be empowered on their rights.Most of them do not know their rights even when they are denied their rights, they always think that is how they should be treated.I am a kenyan woman who really yearns to see women empowered on their constitutional rights.If I can be sponsored i can facilitate this exercise and empower women in kenya.I am an Entrepreneurial trainer and I can also empower women economically is sponsored. Most women that would benefit from these services are very poor and cannot afford paying for the same.

  • February 2, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    She makes some good points about short budget cycles, but she never says what she’s calling for. What does it mean to “do real work to support the realisation of women’s rights”? She abhors the language of “investing” in a girl, but to me such an investment includes lots of tangible steps that see the girl’s rights being realized: right to play, freedom from harmful labor and cultural practices, creating space for her in the community, engaging men and boys to unpack gender norms and ensure her safety, helping her exercise her economic rights in the future, on and on. Anything the intl community does means investing in people, systems, institutions. Shouldn’t that investment be more proportionately allocated to girls, where returns are known to be highest? Isn’t that a question of rights, too? If not, then why do we bother with gender budgeting?

    And why does she present “a rights-based approach” and “an efficiency approach to gender equality” as mutually exclusive? To me the latter is just a tool in the toolbox needed to achieve the former. If she wants to transform power relations as the ultimate goal, then let her talk about the steps required. How about giving a functionally enslaved, socially isolated girl the space to make some friends, learn a skill, earn a living, and when she grows up safer and more empowered, raise a new generation of safe and empowered children that can stand up for themselves against the patriarchy?

    I doubt this is what she means, but it sounds like she wants more money for advocacy salaries, at the expense of on-the-ground programming. Not to mention less accountability.

  • April 26, 2013 at 8:26 am

    I do believe all of the ideas you’ve introduced on your post. They’re very convincing and will certainly work.

    Nonetheless, the posts are too short for starters.
    Could you please lengthen them a bit from next time? Thanks
    for the post.

  • May 5, 2013 at 7:53 am

    me doing work in Pakistan(Islamabad)for women empowerment.here we trained the women for home nursing care and also provide them job.from seven years we are doing this.now there are a no of women who want to learn this and make themselves useful for their families.


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