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Seven indivisibilities and a conundrum: how to deliver women’s empowerment

I was pleased to be asked to moderate the day-long High-Level Event on Women’s Economic Empowerment and Sustainable Development, held in Riga on 2 March. Normally, I don’t write detailed notes when I have been moderating, because there has been too much else to think about (Are we keeping to time? Why does that person in the fourth row have their eyes closed? What exactly was that last intervention about?). I am doubly cautious when I don’t normally write about the topic, as in this case. However, on this occasion, I thought I might share my framing of the conclusion at the end of the day. Others might or might not find it useful.

My conclusion reflected a very full day, put together by the Latvian Government as a contribution to the European Year of Development. There were 23 speakers altogether, including the former President of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the current and past EUEuropean Union Development Commissioners, development ministers from five countries, and other really excellent speakers from international organisations, research institutions, NGOs, and the private sector. The audience was pretty good too! Well done, Latvia. Videos of all the sessions are available here. There was a valuable background paper by Helen O’Connell, for ODI.

We tried to make the discussion as practical as possible, focusing on the positioning of gender in the post-2015 SDG framework, and the forthcoming revision of the EU’s Gender Action Plan. There will be an official report of the conference. This is not it. However, I suggested at the end that discussion during the day had been shaped by seven ‘indivisibilities’ (actually, if you watch the video, there were only six, I’ve added one). We also discussed an unresolved conundrum. I did not take detailed notes. This is a personal take.

The seven indivisibilities are:

  1. Between men and women. Many speakers emphasised that women’s empowerment requires change by men as well as women – in attitudes and behaviours. The need to act on violence against women was a strong theme of the day, expressed forcefully for example by Neven Mimica, EUEuropean Union Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development. I had circulated earlier a forceful article by Owen Jones for The Guardian, chronicling the scale of gender oppression and concluding that ‘men will only stop killing, raping, injuring and oppressing women if they change. That means tackling attitudes within their ranks that make possible the objectification of women, for instance, or which normalise violence against women.’ I reminded the audience that when I worked at IDSInstitute for Development Studies, Sussex in Sussex, the main course on gender in development, as early as the 1980s, was called ‘Men, Women and Development’.
  2. Between North and South. Vaira Vike-Freiberga was not the only one to remind us that gender issues were prevalent and prominent in developed countries, as much as in developing, in social, economic and political spheres. In the UK, issues like the sexual exploitation of young girls, the cost of child care, or the representation of women in politics and business are constantly in the news. The fact that this is a shared problem opens up all sorts of possibilities for learning and sharing between countries, for example the design of legislation. Debapriya Bhattacharya also reminded us that the position of women in developing countries is very much affected by international trade rules and by economic decisions taken in developed countries. Rupa Ganguli made a similar point, talking about the need to help emerging female entrepreneurs navigate the complex world of trade facilitation.
  3. Between technical and political/institutional action. Very often, discussion of measures to empower women focuses on technical interventions, for example establishing microcredit schemes or improving health and safety measures for female factory workers. Decent work was at the heart of the agenda. These are important, and speakers offered many examples. However, the speakers also emphasised that technical interventions on their own were insufficient. They needed to be complemented by institutional or political action, for example to secure women’s property rights (a point made by Caren Grown from the World Bank, among others). NGOs often recognised this, using technical interventions as an entry point to deal with deeper institutional and attitudinal problems; or sometimes vice versa. Sofia Sprechmann from CARE was one of several to make this point about a staged process approach to interventions.
  4. Between economic and social interventions. The focus of the conference was on economic issues, but it rapidly became clear that social interventions were necessary complements. Education and training were needed, of course, but how were women expected to work if there was no child care? What about the role of health insurance? Reproductive rights were central. We were given some nice examples from Sweden about these complementarities. The role of social protection in the post-2015 framework was repeatedly stressed.
  5. Between top down leadership and bottom up mobilisation. The conference was lucky enough to hear from some outstanding leaders, working nationally and internationally to shape policy and normative frameworks. In an EUEuropean Union context, Neven Mimica’s commitment was notable. Helen O’Connell talked about leadership in her background paper, and we spent some time debating how leaders (=ministers or equivalent) could steer the ship to be more effective in empowering women. There was talk of results frameworks, incentives for staff, and ways of working. Baroness Northover, from DFID, covered these points. Paul Healey, also from DFID, said it was important to make the important things easy in a bureaucracy and the bad things hard. However, it became clear during the day that leadership also needed to be in place at the bottom, organising women’s groups or farmer cooperatives. The Panel on women in entrepreneurship had some especially inspiring stories, including from Helen Hai, Rupa Ganguli and Annelies van den Berg. It is also worth watching the video of Panel 1, to hear Cathy Pieters talking about Mondelez International’s Cocoa Life Program.
  6. Between individual and collective action. The importance of collective action was another theme from Helen O’Connell’s paper, and one picked up by speakers with experience of the women’s movement or of trade union organisation. Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch development minister, is a veteran campaigner. I don’t know whether Sofia Amaral de Oliveira has been a campaigner, but her contribution drew on the tripartite nature of ILO, with its strong focus on worker organisations. Globally, Rupa Ganguli is linking female fashion designers and producers in connected clusters, to learn, share and engage.
  7. Between public and private interventions on gender. The private sector plays a key role in creating opportunities for women, in urban and rural areas, at large and smaller scales. We had many examples, from cocoa coops in Ghana, through shoe factories in Ethiopia, to textile factories in Bangladesh. Economic opportunities do not necessarily require women to be self-employed, and many, indeed, may not want to be. See my review of Poor Economics, by Banerjee and Duflo, for a summary of their argument on the ‘last resort’ nature of much self-employment. In any case, though, it became apparent than private investment on its own needed the complement of public investment, in physical infrastructure as well as in policy regimes. That is why the work of organisations like EBRDEuropean Bank for Reconstruction and Development is important in this context.

I’m sure that people who work on gender will say either that all this is obvious, and/or that I have missed a lot. Probably both. Still, it seems to me that the seven indivisibilities capture some important elements of gender planning and gender action plans.

There is one more issue, that we did not resolve, the conundrum that I referred to earlier. It seems self-evident to argue that results are what matter, that results frameworks can drive policy and implementation, and that effective management of results requires measurement. More than one speaker in Riga, in fact nearly every speaker, talked about the importance of gender goals and targets in the post-2015 framework, and about the need for gender-disaggregated data to measure progress. These data needed to include data disaggregated by age, so as to capture the special problems of young girls and older women.

Well, yes, but there are two problems. The first is that we know the SDG framework is painfully over-loaded, currently with 17 goals, 169 targets, and, we learned last week, as many as 303 indicators. I’ve written and tweeted to death on this subject (see, for example, here and here). Bottom line: the currently proposed framework is unmanageable, lacking in logical structure, and impossible to use for setting priorities.

The second problem is the difficulty and cost of collecting data. Morten Jerven has written a number of blasts on this subject – see, for example, here. His four Venn diagrams have been widely quoted and are reproduced below.  His estimate of the total cost of collecting the data required by the current SDG framework is $254 billion over 15 years.

We discussed this conundrum in Riga, the difficulty of balancing the desirable against the practical. I offered a solution, which was to seek a small (very small) number of portmanteau targets and indicators, that could act as canaries in the cage. Under-five mortality of girls could be one such, or nutrition status. Others talked about participation in parliaments, or disparities in earnings. Debapriya Bhattacharya had a more radical suggestion: that no child’s gender should be determined at birth, and that children should be asked to choose a gender when they could see how the world worked! I don’t think that was serious.

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