Wednesday, July 4, 2007

gender, international development, and the UN

Last week it was my privilege to be asked to be a member of the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) Expert Group on Economic Growth, Gender Equality and Poverty Reduction. UNDP is currently revising its corporate strategy for the next 3 years, and the role of the Expert Group is to offer advise to UNDP's Gender Team so that gender can be 'mainstreamed' throughout the organization. To that end, a group of 28 met at the University of Essex, in Colchester, UK, to thrash out a set of core objectives that the Gender Team would like to see UNDP working towards over the next 3 years. It was an incredibly intensive 2 days, and by its end I was exhausted. However, I was also quite exhilarated. The discussions that we had were lively, engaging, provocative and challenging. I think that some of the key themes that emerged from our discussions--of the need to highlight the role of social and cultural norms in sustaining gender inequality, of the need to integrate unpaid work and care into all aspects of economic analysis and policy advice, and of the need to more systematically develop the data base that can be used to sustain gender-aware evidence-based advice, amongst others--could all go a long way towards improving the integration of gender into the day in and day out work of UNDP. Of course, one cannot expect very much from an institution as large and as complex as UNDP. Nonetheless, I remain quietly optimistic that some good will come from these discussions.

I am often asked how it came to be that I became so centrally involved in feminist development economics. To me, it is a somewhat strange question. During my academic career it has always been self-evident to me that a major failing of economic analysis and policy is that it systematically fails to understand who does unpaid work and why, and how care is provided within and between families. The failure to understand these things means that economics fails, as a discipline, in its ability to understand day to day processes that affect everyone. It means that economics as a discipline actually understands very little, because unpaid work and care are the basis upon which all economic activity must take place: without care, there is no economy, stupid. This self-evident truth is not self-evident to most economists, though. Nonetheless, it has meant that I have practiced what we now call feminist development economics for my entire academic career.

Despite a rhetorical commitment to gender within international development institutions, in most instances such commitment is not matched by resources or by paying attention to gender relations when it comes to hard questions of money and its allocation. This was easily demonstrated a couple of years ago, when, as part of a global study of general budget support carried out on behalf of the UK's Department for International Development, I was asked to act as the gender consultant for the study. This was a study that had a budget that ran into the hundreds of thousands of pounds. The DfID has a strong gender focus. Yet, despite these two things, I was asked to provide 5 days--count them, 5 days--worth of input. In other words, a derisory amount of time and money was actually devoted to gender analysis in this research. Which meant, for me, that the understanding that was generated was not much of an understanding at all. I can only hope that I do not have a similar experience with UNDP.

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