Counteracting Indifference: How to Keep Gender and WEE Alive in Market Systems Programming

January 29, 2015

We are in an interesting conundrum. Gender equality is written into law in most places, and, barring a few notable exceptions, every country has had some degree of success in achieving universal suffrage. Fifty countries have signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). On CEDAW’s color-coded world map of Discrepant Government Behavior Concerning Women, dark green denotes countries where there is “virtually no enforcement of laws consonant with CEDAW or such laws do not even exist.” Relatively few countries are shaded in this hue, and they are the countries that might be expected. The next two country categories, shaded in mid and light green, show where laws are partly or fully consonant with CEDAW, but there is little or spotty enforcement. These latter categories are the most disturbing because they involve the vast majority of the world. 

Key practitioners working on equitable solutions to development problems, who want to ensure that both women and men benefit from strategies designed to impact the poor, have all experienced a certain phenomenon. I was vastly reassured, if not slightly depressed, by a recent article in Newsweek, in which Hillary Clinton describes a similar experience, despite being one of the most powerful women in the world:

“I have been championing the rights of women and girls around the world and here at home for many years, and I got tired of seeing...foreign leaders, business executives, even senior officials in our own and nod when I raised these issues…‘Oh right, I knew she was going to raise women and girls, I will just sit here and smile, it will pass, and then we’ll talk about really important things.’”

Based in the Republic of Georgia, I lead Mercy Corps’ market development programming in accordance with the Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P) approach. In the course of my work, and most notably with all levels of government, I experience some less sanguine reactions: most often a shrug, an intake of breath, a glazing over of the eyes, a quick check of the cell phone. Just like the reaction that Hillary experienced, these people appear to be fervently hoping that the topic will be dropped. Unfortunately, women’s economic empowerment continues to be seen as an add-on.

The situation I have just described is insidious in its passivity. Because there is no heat in the exchange, the issue slips away, dissolving into inactivity. 

How then do we keep women’s economic empowerment (WEE) alive? How do we stop it from being an add-on? How do we counteract indifference? How do we make sure it gets done?  

Equitable solutions and WEE are the focus of the program I run, Alliances Lesser Caucuses Programme (ALCP). The ALCP focuses on supporting small-scale livestock producers in Georgia and was successfully audited by the Donor Committee for Enterprise Development (DCED) Standards for Results Measurement. Achieving progress on these issues is difficult and requires hard work. This is not because the means to achieve the solutions are complicated—they are, in fact, extremely simple. They do, however, require coordination, commitment, cooperation and, most of all, persistence. Tools, procedures, operating mechanisms, and strategy for ensuring women’s economic empowerment must be built into the program structure, adhered to, and carried out every day as normal. They must be operationalized as the ALCP has done in our results measurement, a topic I discussed during the DCED Measuring Women’s Economic Empowerment webinar last year. 

The issue of indifference I have observed in government settings could equally be applied to development. Not in ethos and intent, but in practice. In DCED’s recent literature review, which examined women’s economic empowerment, only 11 of the 30 projects reviewed globally had an indicator to measure the most basic of all WEE measurements: access to services. The review's primary recommendation for projects to improve their WEE performance was to collect gender disaggregated data. This is just the basic starting point. In ALCP, we integrate gender-responsive research questions at all levels of our program, including the core market systems, rules, and supporting functions. 

While we often talk about navigating complex issues, negotiating ancient customs, and measuring agency over household income, simply recommitting to the basics would be a great start and essential first step. Hillary Clinton is, of course, right on target with Data2X, the initiative she is leading along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Nations Foundation, and others. Gathering and starting a gender data revolution will allow policymakers to recognize problems more clearly and to create more informed policy. 

The first step is clear: We all know what to do. We just need to do it and keep doing it.

For more on operationalizing WEE in Alliances see the ALCP website and DCED Guidelines for Practitioners.