With a few days to go to the U.S. presidential election, conversations in Washington are focusing on what to suggest to the next administration, and how to get the next president’s attention. For women’s rights organizations, the issue that needs to be a priority is obviously gender equality and women’s rights.
The women’s rights community is hoping the next president will support women’s rights and a feminist agenda. In addition, some of us are urging the candidates to look at these issues in a new lens and shift the way we do development. That is why the next administration’s first move should be connecting with grassroots women’s rights advocates.
Actually, not just connecting. The next administration has a lot of work to do in terms of rethinking the way US foreign assistance is impacting gender equality and women’s rights around the world, and how it is directly supporting local change-makers that are transforming their communities and societies.
While the US government has made some fantastic public commitments to gender equality, designed and adopted strong gender policies within its foreign aid agencies such as USAID and the Millenium Challenge Corporation, as well as within the State Department, it also has continuously addressed gender equality and women’s empowerment through an army of middlemen and subcontractors. It’s fair to say that the US government is highly disconnected from grassroots gender equality advocates, and most of the 250 women’s groups that are members of the Women Thrive Alliance confirm this regularly.
But why is that? Two main causes are clear to those of us working directly with grassroots change-makers. First of all, the administrative weight of any US government funding opportunity is too much to handle for women’s groups and grassroots organizations. Women Thrive Alliance did a survey with 46 grassroots organizations in 14 countries earlier this year and 91% of respondents that had tried to apply for USAID funding said it was not easy to do so. But it’s not just about the administrative process. The fact is, the flow of information and sharing between USAID, its country offices and members of the women’s rights movement is very weak. 49% of our survey respondents said they were not at all aware of USAID’s commitment to promote gender equality, and 35% only slightly aware (only 9% of respondents were extremely aware of that effort). In the end, having strong gender equality policies that sit in headquarters of country offices is not going to trigger transformative change.
And it’s not just about USAID, whose gender policy is actually very powerful, and sets clear and comprehensive outcomes. It’s also about the development industry in itself- because yes, it is an industry. Multi-million contracts going to US-based organizations and implementing partners is not the solution to a grassroots-led and bottom-up vision of change. The fact is, out of the million of dollars that the US government commits to gender equality each year; a handful actually lands on the lap of grassroots women’s groups. Major development groups are still reluctant to put into practice what they like saying publicly: that women’s rights groups should be leading development efforts and that women’s leadership should be integrated at all phases of the project cycle. When asked if international NGOs consulted with them or other local organizations when designing programs, 16% of our Alliance members who took they survey answered yes (almost every time and every time).
So that is why the first thing the next US president must do is re-establish connectivity between his administration and grassroots women’s rights leaders. How can he or she do that? Well, they can start by reading a letter addressed to them by more than 30 grassroots advocates in 22 countries. Then, there will be a need to convene a group of advisors who are themselves representative of those very advocates they wish to exchange with; and come up with creative ideas to reform and chance existing communication and funding mechanisms, be it within USAID, the State Department, or any of the other 27 agencies working on international development.
The next administration should also look at promoting gender equality through a holistic approach that doesn’t limits itself to foreign assistance. As our Alliance members have said, diplomacy and trade policies are key in ensuring women and girls access their rights and opportunities. Embedding not just a Do No Harm approach in both diplomacy and trade but actually using them as a tool for promoting women’s empowerment from the bottom-up will illustrate how committed the next administration actually is to make sure women and girls enjoy their full rights.
Because without those changes, it will be business as usual, and with the promise of the new Sustainable Development Goals and Goal 5 on gender equality and women’s empowerment in particular, women and girls are counting on the next president. Let’s not let them down.