RIGHTS: Development Financing Still Gender-Blind

By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 17 (IPS) - When the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) held a special high-level meeting to discuss the new challenges facing the international community, the focus was largely on the credit crisis, rising commodity prices, declining development aid and the devastating impact of climate change on developing nations.

But one of the gender-sensitive issues -- the feminisation of poverty -- was left out in the cold.

"While we are pleased that some governments stated that gender equality must be incorporated into development cooperation strategies, there were no proposals on how this actually would be achieved," Nadia Johnson, Economic and Social Justice Coordinator at the Women's Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO), told IPS.

"Women's groups are thus concerned that words will continue to be met with little action," she added.

According to the United Nations, about 70 percent of those who live in extreme poverty are women and children.

The meeting, which took place Monday and was attended by high ranking government officials and senior U.N. staffers, was part of a preparatory process for the upcoming international conference on financing for development (FfD), scheduled to take place in the Qatari capital of Doha in late November.

But the FfD process, which began with the 2002 U.N. conference on financing for development in Monterrey, Mexico, has continued to marginalise or downgrade the gender perspective in development financing, according to women's groups.

"Today the majority of people living in poverty are women and girls," Cecilia Alemany of the Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) told IPS.

"And if the international community does not take a serious political commitment (at the FfD meeting) in Doha to change these trends, we will lose another decade," she warned.

Johnson of WEDO said that when governments agreed on the 'Monterrey Consensus'-- spelling out the priorities for development financing-- at the first FfD conference six years ago, "they made scant commitments to women's empowerment and gender equality."

The chapter addressing official development assistance (ODA) did not have a single gender reference or commitment, she said.

"It's not surprising that since Monterrey little has changed to advance the economic conditions of women worldwide," Johnson said.

She also pointed out that the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently reported that ODA is actually on the decline: down from 0.31 percent of gross national income (GNI) in 2006 to 0.28 percent in 2007.

In 1970, the U.N. General Assembly set a target of 0.7 percent of GNI as ODA to the world's poorer nations. But only five countries -- Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden and Luxembourg -- have either consistently met or surpassed-- that target.

And according to a 2005 report by two non-governmental organisations, Eurostep and Social Watch, only 0.1 percent of ODA is actually spent on gender equality.

"It only shows that women are often still an afterthought by governments when crafting economic policy," said Johnson.

This marginalisation of gender comes despite the active participation of the women's movement in the FfD process; despite common knowledge that women and girls not only comprise the vast majority of the world's poor but remain the poorest of the poor; and despite the consequent numerous commitments linking gender equality to sustainable development and poverty eradication.

"What is it going to take to get governments to wake up when it comes to women?," Johnson asked.

Nerea Craviotto of WIDE, a network of women's organisations based in Europe, said that despite the emphasis in the Monterrey Consensus on environmental sustainability, civil rights and gender awareness, these issues do not constitute the central starting point of that document.

They were simply added, without changing their characteristics, to the main recommendations, whose primary focus is on foreign investments and trade liberalisation.

Apart from the introduction and the first chapter (mobilising domestic financial resources for development), gender issues do not figure or are only marginally dealt with throughout the rest of the Monterrey document.

Asked how this can be rectified at the upcoming FfD Conference in Doha, Craviotto told IPS that in order to implement the principles of sustainability and gender-sensitive development, it is imperative to meticulously analyse the consequences of all economic strategies and policies against the backdrop of the lives of poor women in the global South.

It is also necessary to establish preventive measures, so that their living conditions are not exposed to further deterioration.

At the same time, she argued, the complexity of female roles has to be kept in mind, particularly their productive activities in the formal economy, in the subsistence economy and in the informal sector.

Additionally, the Doha conference should also recognise their reproductive activities and responsibilities regarding the household and the family, and their often intensive involvement in the society/community, that is commonly seen as an extension of their reproductive activities.

Another element that must always be included in all plans is the disadvantaged position of women in family and society, their limited access to power, infrastructure and resources.

"Without far-reaching changes in the areas of this context, sustainable development and poverty alleviation is illusory," Craviotto added.

Alemany of AWID told IPS that if aid is to eradicate poverty and inequalities, it must integrate gender equality and women's empowerment, and therefore more aid assistance must be directed towards these critical issues.

New aid modalities and mechanisms are frequently dependent on macroeconomic conditionalities that intensify gender inequalities.

"The current aid environment and mechanisms (including the implementation of the Monterrey Consensus) and the Paris Declaration implementation remain gender-blind," she added.

The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, adopted at a meeting in the French capital in 2005, is a non-binding declaration endorsed by a group of developed and developing countries, and described as a "road map to improve the quality of aid and its impact on development."

But the declaration has been criticised by several non-governmental organisations, including the Third World Institute and the European Network on Debt and Development (EURODAD).

Roberto Bissio, director of the Third World Institute, says the Paris Declaration creates a new level of supra-national economic governance, above the World Bank and the regional development banks.

He also says that institutional ownership of the Paris Declaration process remains in the hands of the OECD's Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and the World Bank "where donors and creditors have exclusive majority control, with little or no developing country voice or vote."

Projecting into the future, Alemany said: "We need a strong political commitment at the highest levels in Doha.'

She also called upon member states, U.N. agencies and international financial institutions:

First, to make a commitment to give aid to eradicate poverty and gender inequalities, and to promote human rights, gender equality, full employment and environmental sustainability as central development goals.

Secondly, to reach and maintain the U.N. target of 0.7 percent GNI in ODA committed by developed countries. A significant share of ODA should be targeted for gender equality and women's empowerment (10 percent of GNI by 2010 and 20 percent by 2015).

Thirdly, to fully integrate gender equality and women's empowerment with concrete commitments in Doha, not only as a systemic issue and challenge, but also as a key development goal.

Fourthly, to increase efforts to build a new aid architecture, with a sensitive approach to the realities of those historically bypassed as recipients, and whose participation was absent in the process.