Gender and Development Event Highlights Frustrations and Hope

 By Jennifer Brookland

November 10, 2014

Jen Williamson arrived for her first day of work at international development nonprofit as a meagerly-paid intern…with a PhD. It might not have seemed an auspicious start for a young professional hoping to work on gender issues.

But within a few years, Williamson was shaping the organization’s strategies as its gender technical specialist.

She’d also founded Washington D.C’s Gender and Development Networking Group for other professionals to connect, and trade contacts and perspectives on the field.

The utility of such a group was evident at a Nov. 7 event hosted at Creative Associates International, where 130 professionals networked and heard remarks by experts working in gender: Henriette Kolb, Head of the International Finance Corporation’s Gender Secretariat; Jozefina Cutura, Associate Director of Social and Gender Assessment at the Millennium Challenge Corporation; Vanessa Beary, a State Department Franklin Fellow; Williamson from Counterpart International; and Creative’s CEO Charito Kruvant.

“Now we are talking about gender, not women,” said Kruvant, who co-founded Creative when neither term was popular in development. “It’s a great joy to us because it demonstrates that all of you here are part of that experience and are professionals who have something to share.”

Panelists answered audience questions about what drew them to the field, what they found to be the primary challenges and rewards, and what skills they thought were becoming increasingly relevant to gender practitioners.


Speaking the right language

Kruvant gave a historical perspective, explaining that demonstrating the economic results of taking a gendered approach to development was critical for building support. She told about a $250,000 grant Creative won from the World Bank in the 1980s that allowed it to prove a nation’s gross domestic product rises as girls are better educated.

“It was a way of changing how we talked to clients about it: In their terms as economists instead of from a place of passion,” Kruvant said. “We needed to speak their language. Male economists of that time started to understand it would benefit them to be more inclusive of women.”

Kruvant joked that $250,000 will no longer pay for such work. “But you’ve got to start somewhere,” she said.

Kolb agreed with the need to use economic evidence to lobby for a gendered approach to development. She compared working on gender to being a detective, saying you must work to uncover the opportunities that will lead to both development gains and business wins.

For example, an investigation she worked on with the Cherie Blaire Foundation for Women revealed that a main barrier to women’s economic empowerment was a lack of access to mobile phones. Meanwhile, econometric analysis confirmed that phone companies were losing out on millions of dollars by not securing female consumers.

“It set in motion a wave of follow-up investigations by the industry, which did recognize the opportunity—along with the development community,” Kolb said.


Less a debate, but still a challenge

Those successes do not always come easily. Cutura pointed out that despite the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s considerable clout and influence over project design, it often implements projects that are infrastructure-heavy and focus on energy and transportation—sectors in which gender integration lags behind.

Although the 2010 publication of gender milestones and procedures has allowed her to call on institutional requirements to make her case, Cutura acknowledged there are “challenges of being the only social inclusion and gender person on a multidisciplinary team full of engineers who need to be convinced of the challenge.”

Panelists agreed that this need to convince colleagues of the importance of considering gender has at least been diminished over the past decade.

“In the process, mindsets have changed,” said Cutura. “The work is more understood to be important, and is less of a debate.”

Cutura encouraged anyone who wanted to work on gender issues to find an additional area of specialization, such as economics, environment, infrastructure, or evaluations. The convergence of gender and energy has been especially overlooked, she said.

Beary agreed, saying the most interesting work she was currently doing was multidisciplinary—or even “anti-disciplinary.”

She is currently bringing a Massachusetts Institute of Technology post-doc together with an NGO that focuses on creativity and a mobile technology platform to look at ways to purposefully design an education and creativity program for youth in challenging environments.

“This opportunity has allowed me to scan the horizon for people doing very cool things and bring them together for a conversation about ways in which we can all bring our perspectives together toward this larger goal,” Beary said.

It’s a goal that is constantly being redefined and shaped but one the large event turnout suggests will be an ongoing focus of development professionals. And despite the seriousness of the effort, there is reason for relative positivity according to Kolb, who used to work on conflict issues in the Middle East.

“Gender’s hard? Try working on the peace process in Jerusalem,” she said. “Gender is much more hopeful.”

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