Women and Power: final report of excellent research project + top recommendations for aid agencies

ODI have just wrapped up an excellent two year project on ‘Women and power: overcoming barriers to leadership ODI women and power coverand influence’ with a final synthesis report that is well worth reading. It’s an intelligent discussion, informed by the thinking in the ‘Doing Development Differently’ network (which is in need of a stronger gender focus). It combines some ‘well duh’ obvious stuff (‘elite women are most able to take advantage of new political opportunities’) with a few nuggets (women leaders often rely on political skills acquired outside formal politics, eg in student politics or faith-based organizations) and some excellent recommendations for aid agencies. Here are the recommendations:

Policy recommendations: what should be done differently?

Policy-makers and practitioners need to capitalise on the high-level momentum regarding women’s rights and leadership, and ensure that good intentions do not get stuck at the level of commitments and conferences. Women’s rights and more equitable gender relations can be achieved only through the actions of the women and men concerned.

International development organisations can, however, play an important role in helping reformers in developing countries to ensure ‘women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life’ (SDG Target 5.5). Based on our evidence review and empirical case studies, we provide four sets of recommendations for what international agencies in particular could do differently to cultivate women’s substantive power and influence.

Invest in existing organisations, not those you wish existed

Donors need to support and work with organic, locally anchored organisations able to work with their members and the wider community or society to change exclusionary gender relations and advance women’s rights and wellbeing. The main objective should be to help women to organise around common interests and problems, and facilitating connections among different organisations (peer–peer, grassroots–elite), not to determine their agenda. This means:

  • Support existing feminist organisations of different kinds and build relation between them (e.g. rights organisations, professional associations and grassroots groups).
  • Nurture diverse civic associations by working through intermediaries to invest in long-term partnerships with women’s organisations of all types. Where civil society is more mature, work through national organisations and networks; where it is weak, work through specialist international women’s organisations.

women refugees in cote d'ivoireFocus on groups, not individual women

Women need political skills to be influential, but project-based support that tries to quickly plug skills gaps of individual women is unlikely to be the most effective use of resources. Instead,

  • Invest in collective not individual leadership by supporting organisations where adolescent girls and women can hone their political and leadership skills (e.g. student groups, trade unions, professional associations, faith-based organisations, political parties).
  • Work with families and communities, not only women, to change the beliefs and expectations about gender roles and capabilities that are the main barrier to women’s empowerment and to gender equality.

Target all sectors, not just gender

Women’s political power is strongly associated with their economic power. Discrete gender programmes cannot increase women’s substantive power; sector programmes are also needed to build the capabilities and resources women need. This means:

  • Invest in women’s economic power through reforms that increase their formal market participation, reform of laws that prevent women from inheriting/owning assets, and through livelihood/economic programmes that explicitly seek to shift gender norms that prevent women from controlling/owning assets rather than simply to raise household income.
  • Invest in women’s higher education by working with universities and families to address barriers to women’s access, both economic (e.g. affordability) and social (e.g. early marriage, childcare responsibilities).
  • Invest in national knowledge production by funding local think tanks and academic departments who have an interest in women’s rights and wellbeing.
  • Invest in women’s role in post-conflict and regime transition processes through logistic support to women’s organisations and networks, and by using UN Security Council Resolution (SCR) 1325 and related resolutions to advocate for women’s inclusion in high-level peace negotiations and political reform processes.’

That seems like an evidence-based, politically informed way forward, but when it comes to gender-related issues, I’ve come to accept that I’m usually wrong – over to you to put me straight…..

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2 Responses to “Women and Power: final report of excellent research project + top recommendations for aid agencies”
  1. I appreciate ODI’s report for several reasons and applaud their efforts. However, it seems they assume certain levels of stability, security, and political structures (think tanks, economic laws that have impact, political groups that aren’t terrorizing populations). Where are fragile or failed states in this picture? They note “formal rules are inconsistently applied and upheld” in some states, but how might the recommendations for female leaders change when structures or long-term systems are not in place? Or are places where armed groups and militaries run the scene ‘not conducive’ to local female leadership?

  2. Thanks Duncan. We’d welcome further comments on the report and discussion on how to best increase women’s and girls substantive power. We’ve also followed up with another paper ‘Using adaptive development support feminist action’: http://www.odi.org/publications/10370-using-adaptive-development-support-feminist-action. I apply DDD principles to gender-related aid and programming, and argue that the two communities have much to gain from collaboration. There’s many more examples out there of feminist activists and femocrats working in political smart and adaptive ways, and lessons to share about what has worked less well. Let’s bring them into DDD debates!