Gary Linden - Jan 15 2021
The Key to Effective U.S. Foreign Assistance is Gender Equality

Credit: Caleb Fisher

Economist Gary Linden draws on his broad experience with USAID to suggest a clear list of steps to rebalance the agency’s approach to gender, both within its own ranks and in the communities it serves.

Imagine a soccer team where half of the players have access to food, facilities and trainers, with plenty of time to rest after each workout. Meanwhile, the other half of the team has none of this support – instead, they are sleep-deprived, eating their teammate’s leftovers and receiving minimal attention or access to facilities. In this situation, we would expect that the team would seriously underperform compared to those where all players receive the same treatment.

In many parts of the world where the U.S. has foreign assistance programs, men receive far more support than women, substantially diminishing economic performance and development in these countries. A recent World Bank study estimates that in low- and lower-middle-income countries, women account for less than a third of human capital wealth.

While programs have made notable progress over the past decade in identifying gender equality as a priority and reducing gender bias, much more is needed to ensure that women receive equal benefits and programs achieve the broad development impacts they seek.

For all its faults, 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States and the election of the country’s first-ever female vice president. The time is ripe to consider how we can focus our energy on reducing the inequity of U.S. foreign assistance programs on men and women. The issue is that while the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is one of the federal agencies that has invested the most to address gender disparities in its programs, it is but one of many competing agency priorities.

USAID requires gender analyses as a part of the design of new programs, and its implementing partners are generally required to incorporate gender into their project proposals. Still, there is insufficient accountability in the system to ensure that what is on paper translates into action and that programs enhance women’s access to resources and services and achieve greater agency.

While proposals for comprehensive reform of U.S. foreign assistance are common during times of transition in government (e.g., the 2007 Help Commission Report), I instead propose one relatively simple shift that the executive branch – and in particular USAID – can employ to make foreign assistance programs more effective and equitable, without attempting to move any of the big rocks in the existing, complex system.

Beyond Gender Mainstreaming

Over the past two decades, development organizations such as USAID have attempted to address gender inequality by requiring their program designers and managers to incorporate steps to improve gender equality in all of their programs, often called gender ‘mainstreaming’. For example, for many years USAID has required gender analyses and gender integration plans for its new programs, and these efforts have moved the needle in a positive direction.

However, most of the change has taken place at the initial project analysis level based on input from gender technical specialists and informal gender champions. The next step is ensuring that what is identified in the design phase and included in proposals translates into implementation. This requires nudging USAID technical managers, senior leaders, and implementing partners to actively identify, mitigate, and evaluate gender inequalities throughout project implementation.

For example, technical managers of a food security program that aims to increase crop yields would need to understand the varied constraints facing men and women in each intervention zone. Only then could they tailor training times and locations to make it feasible for both men and women to learn how to increase their crop yields. This could be done by offering the training during hours of the day when women are not performing other work such as cooking, attending to farm animals, and childcare.

The Biden administration has the opportunity to make a significant shift to right this imbalance.

"All staff need to view reducing gender bias in USAID programs as their responsibility."

The first step in such a shift would be to communicate the priority the Biden administration gives to gender equality in foreign assistance across the full range of federal agencies, acknowledging that previous efforts have not systemically eliminated the gender bias of U.S. foreign assistance programs. It should make clear that this new effort will be done entirely within existing institutions and overall budget resources and simply reflects a concrete re-prioritization of gender equality in the federal government.

The second step would be to appoint political leaders who are prepared to adopt immediate gender re-balancing efforts.

Shifting Focus

Newly nominated USAID Administrator Samantha Power can start by acknowledging that while the Agency’s efforts to address gender bias in its programs have been notable, much more remains to be done. Specifically, all staff need to view reducing gender bias in USAID programs as their responsibility. USAID must ensure that staff have access to sufficient resources and support to help them translate the theory of gender “mainstreaming” into practice.

A few illustrative steps that would assist with the organizational behaviour change needed to make this happen could include:

1. Making gender re-balancing one of the top three priorities for USAID and requiring that senior leaders provide weekly briefings to the Administrator on this topic;

2. Communicating regularly to Mission Directors and other senior leaders the need to move beyond the current focus on initial project designs and systemically integrate gender into activity work plans, budgets, staffing, project management plans, and reporting;

3. Prioritizing the achievement of gender equality results in all Agency staff performance evaluations and performance awards;

4. Training USAID staff at all levels on gender to increase overall understanding of gender inequality issues and how to address them;

5. Allocating more money and staff towards gender equality commitments – Gender Advisors, training and professional development, and facilitating learning within and across sectors;

6. Increasing the number of female leaders in the Agency and increasing female technical staff in those missions where there are relatively few female technical managers.

What are the outcomes we could expect to see as a result of these efforts? For one, it’s reasonable to expect a significant increase in active female participation in USAID programs across the board, including the emergence of more women leaders.

In the communities in which USAID operates, we’d see more girls participating in education, including secondary and higher education, with associated long-term benefits to broader community-level advancement, including health and living standards.

Women-led small- and medium-sized enterprises would gain greater access to finance and opportunities for investment, raising income levels for women and their families.

Women would participate in political processes in greater numbers.

We’d even see a reduction in gender-based violence.

At the same time, we could expect that a select number of countries would increasingly commit to partner with USAID in this shift as they witness the positive results from the increased participation of women in development programs. This, in turn, would spur gradual acceleration toward the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in these countries as their human capital is more effectively employed.

Ultimately, the hope is that USAID’s advances would help catalyze gender equality as a higher priority, not just for other federal agencies involved with foreign assistance, but for the field of development overall. Over time, we would expect to have U.S. foreign assistance resources allocated more to those countries that showed a willingness to prioritize gender equality.

Clearly, it is not realistic to think that the systemic gender inequality present in so many of the countries with which the U.S. Government partners can be eliminated in the next four years. Fully closing this gap will take many years or even decades, and this is just one aspect of progress needed to provide for greater inclusiveness in U.S. foreign assistance.

Yet, the steps outlined above would signify clear positive change and, hopefully, lead to strong momentum for many years in an area that has received far too little high-level commitment and resources from the development community in the past. As the largest federal agency implementing foreign assistance, and a leader in the international development sphere, prioritizing gender equality in USAID’s programming can have broad-reaching impacts well beyond the confines of USAID’s budget, and could shift the prioritization of billions of dollars of development resources.

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