Liesbeth Inberg & Nathalie Holvoet: What happened to the Dutch ambition for gender equality?

Development Policy10 Mar 2010Nathalie Holvoet, Liesbeth Inberg

The WRR is remarkably silent about the gender dimension in development cooperation. This is in sharp contrast to the relatively high commitment to gender equality of the (recently resigned) Minister of Development Cooperation. His commitment was clear from, among other things, the extra financial means made available for the improvement of rights and opportunities for women (the MDG3 fund). In what follows, we highlight three arguments to demonstrate the importance of paying attention to gender issues within a discussion on the future of Dutch aid.

First, there is plenty of research that has demonstrated the huge cost of gender inequality in terms of losses in economic growth, human development and poverty reduction. Gender-blind policies, programmes and projects which ignore the fact that men and women have different constraints, opportunities, incentives and rights just do not work, let alone generate the anticipated impact. This applies not only to the social sectors, where gender issues are generally better integrated, and where Dutch aid is concentrated; it certainly also holds for the productive sectors. In fact, whereas inequalities in capabilities (such as education, health) have been successfully reduced in many developing countries, the gap in opportunities (what men and women are able to do with their capabilities) persists strongly. It prevents women and men from fully exploiting their own capacities, to contribute and capture benefits from development.

Second, the WRR report suggests that western donors refer to ownership, but at the same time push for more attention on women, rural development, civil society and judicial power (page 152). However, an OECD/DAC study in 2007 puts this into perspective: donor agencies rather tend to ‘misuse’ the ownership principle to escape their own responsibilities towards the improvement of gender equality and women empowerment. Indeed, many recipient countries’ national development plans and sector policies do not excel in gender sensitivity: gender issues are not prominently present and gender actors are not or hardly involved in phases of policy making, budgeting, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.

However, this is not indicative of the fact that country-owned policies for gender equality and women’s empowerment do not exist. Almost every country in the world has underlined the importance of gender equality by signing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination on Women (CEDAW), the Beijng Platform of Action and the Millennium Declaration. Most recipient countries have their own objectives for gender equality and their own gender institutional apparatus. Donors thus do not need to impose their own gender equality objectives; they just need to make better use of the room of manoeuvre that they have to address the neglect of gender issues in national development plans and sector plans. The Netherlands is traditionally known as a donor that attaches much importance to gender equality, and they could further strengthen this role. This necessitates (at least) more investment in gender capacity (in The Hague as well as in the embassies, where gender capacity has been downscaled these past few years) and appropriate incentives (‘carrots and sticks’) to stimulate all staff to integrate a gender dimension in their daily activities.

Finally, the report correctly concludes that country-specific diagnoses are needed to identify the most appropriate aid modality or modalities for a given country. It is also vital in these diagnoses to consider that different modalities might generate different opportunities and risks for gender equality and women’s empowerment. Disregarding the possibly diverging effects of different aid modalities might, in the long run, strengthen the existing bias rather than reducing it.