Radical Concept: Ask Women What They Want

Goal 17 in the Post-2015 Development Agenda is where the rubber hits the road. We are committing to "strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development."

Behind these gentle words are 19 very ambitious targets, more than any other goal, encompassing finance, technology, trade, and capacity-building, as well as a number of other policies and issues on which countries more often compete than "partner."

Let's face it -- partnership is hard. Even long-agreed partnerships for humanitarian relief are being sorely tested by the current surge of refugees from Syria and elsewhere.

Mahatma Gandhi had advice for when things seem overwhelming. He instructs us to think of the face of the poorest person we have ever seen, and ask ourselves whether the action we contemplate will restore that person to control over her or his own life and destiny.

This is the question I hope national leaders will ask themselves as they consider the partnerships called for in Goal 17: Are they seeing impoverished women and men as the lead partners in building a better future -- the principal "means of implementation" for their own development? Or, are they seeing needy beneficiaries waiting for the largesse of a bureaucracy?

People currently trapped in poverty -- most of whom are female -- are not the problem. They are the solution.

In the face of enormous odds, women small-scale farmers are growing the food that keeps most of us alive. Small-scale women farmers are the traditional caretakers of the earth, carriers of centuries of environmental wisdom.

And what kind of "revitalized global partnership" can the rest of us provide to "strengthen" such amazing "means of implementation"?

First and foremost, women need strong organizations through which they can develop their leadership, collective voice and hold their government "partners" to account. They need secure land tenure and affordable access to simple technologies to reduce the hours of drudgery they endure. They need "one stop" access to a range of basic services they've long been denied, including health care, child care, financial services, continuing education and freedom from violence and the threat of violence.

No one should have to petition their national government when these things don't work -- they need a responsive, accountable local government within walking distance where they are guaranteed a voice. That would be a great kind of partnership. Tragically, strengthening capacity at the community level -- which one might think would be the starting point for development -- is usually the lowest priority.

Instead, too many of us are envisioning massive, yet narrowly focused, top-down service-delivery bureaucracies. Or we imagine there is some magic, technological silver bullet that will somehow channel the massive financial power of the private sector into benefits for the poor.

These top-down approaches are "natural" given the patriarchal mindset in which most of us were raised and educated. Yet, it is precisely this patriarchal mindset that is at the root of the problem, and which must be transformed.

Here's a radical concept for partnership: ask women what they want, what are the obstacles to their getting it, and then support them in clearing away those obstacles.

This bottom-up approach is actually beginning to happen at scale. Countries such as the Philippines and Brazil have created the policy environments to encourage and support this right-side up, people-powered approach to reducing poverty and hunger.

Like so many of us in international development, I've had the privilege of witnessing the extraordinary creativity, resilience, leadership and hard work of thousands of impoverished women, men and youth that is unleashed when they are given a fair chance to improve their own lives. This is the most fundamental of human rights, and Goal 17 challenges us to work better together to ensure it.

It's time to turn our priorities right side up: to start with the people doing the lion's share of the work, and invest in her organizations, technology, finance and capabilities.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 17.

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