Gender Equality in Australia’s International Development Program

This post is part of a longer research paper.  It was adapted for the Australian and New Zealand Studies Association Conference in Dallas, Texas, on January 31, 2015.

The Australian aid program follows the international convention of pursuing gender equality as part of its core mission using a gender and development framework. But how does this goal align with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s goals of achieving efficiency and investing in women as ‘smart economics’? By examining how Australian aid defines, administers and implements its gender policy, this presentation will assess the organization’s assumptions about gender relations and social transformation in development programs. Australia is committed to gender equality throughout its development policy, but the restructuring of AusAid into DFAT and new strategic directives could have mixed impacts on Australia’s development approach and capacity.

Background: Australian Aid

Between 2013 and 2014 the Liberal Abbott Government restructured the aid agency, launched a new development policy and announced the government’s largest ever multi-year aid cuts (33 per cent) and largest ever single year cuts (20 per cent and $1 billion in 2015-16). AusAID was previously Australia’s autonomous aid agency whose mission was to help people overcome poverty. In 2013 AusAid was integrated into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, officially to enable the closer alignment of the aid and diplomatic arms of Australia’s international policy agenda and to better serve the interests of Australian taxpayers (Lowy Institute, 2014).

DFAT defines its gender policy over multiple strategy and policy documents, releases and websites. The organization still largely follows concepts from the 2011 document. Notably, DFAT is changing what and how aid is delivered as exemplified in the 2014 policy document. I also examined a paper commissioned by the Office of Development Effectiveness evaluating the Australian government’s support for economic empowerment.

Approaches to Gender and Development

Gender is an essential consideration in development. It provides a way of examining how power structures and social norms impact the lives and opportunities available to men and women. Acknowledging “that men and women, boys and girls experience poverty differently, and face different barriers in accessing services, economic resources and political opportunities” and decision-making “helps to target [development] interventions” (Kangas et al. 2014, 4).

Defining the Gender Policy

As a government agency within a developed country, Australian Aid’s policies must follow norms and trends perpetuated by the (OECD), United Nations and World Bank that it helped to create, such as gender mainstreaming, the gender and development approach and women’s empowerment. First, Australian Aid explicitly follows the GAD approach because it sets out to serve the practical needs and strategic interests of women and girls, men and boys in development programs. Using a GAD approach denotes that the Australian government understands the impacts of power relations between men and women.

Australian Aid emphasizes gender mainstreaming, a standard mechanism in development since 1995. The United Nations explains “Mainstreaming a gender perspective is the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programs, in all areas and at all levels” (Patel, Fritz, Mehra, Golla, Clancy and Cheney 2014, 21).  In this way allocation of appropriate resources can be tracked and evaluated (Patel et al. 2014, 21).

Also promoted by neoliberal institutions, Australia supports the ‘efficiency approach’ that gender equality and women’s empowerment improves economic productivity (Patel et al. 2014, 18). Termed ‘smart economics,’ it rationalizes investments specifically in women for more effective and efficient development outcomes (Chant and Sweetman 2012, 518). Smart economics champions the neoliberal perspective in seeing business as a vital vehicle for change.

Second, for Australian Aid, gender equality means that men and women should have an equality of access to opportunities. Gender equality is linked not only to human and economic development but also to women’s rights because gender inequality can be a rights violation and impediment to poverty reduction, good health, and safety, among other areas (AusAid 2011a, 1; Patel et al. 2014, 16).

Third, the policy emphasizes that women’s empowerment must be addressed in multiple areas to combat the effects of the unequal distribution of power in gender relations (Patel et al. 2014, 16). Changing dynamics of gender norms and power relations through access to new opportunities contributes to women’s empowerment, but a focus on economic empowerment as the key to ending poverty can place an added burden on women when they are already responsible for both formal and informal labor.

Administering the Policy

Australian Aid targets its policy investments to advance three pillars: “women’s voice in decision-making, leadership, and peace-building, women’s economic empowerment, and ending violence against women and girls” (DFAT 2014, 23). A fourth pillar of “advancing equal access to gender-responsive health and education service” present in the 2011 policy was removed from statements in 2014 (Patel et al. 2014, 16; DFAT 2014, 23). To improve women’s voices and political participation, Australia’s first pillar focuses on capabilities; it aims to build women’s capacity to participate as candidates and voters, as individuals, communities, and at the state level. For example, in Vanuatu, Australian Aid found that it was essential for women to have representation on water management committees, leading to their participation in other forums (AusAid 2011a, 12).  Building women’s capacity to participate in decision-making can increase their agency, which is an essential component of improving gender inequality as seen through the capabilities approach.

The second pillar of Australia’s gender policy is women’s economic empowerment and livelihood security, using a targeted approach where mainstreaming gender considerations alone will not suffice. The organization calls for gender roles and norms for both men and women to be changed in order to succeed (AusAid 2011b, 11). Yet the focus continues to be on providing women with access to credit, encouraging employers to hire women over men, and finding ways to provide alternative care for children and elderly, enabling women to have more employment opportunities.

According to the third pillar, violence against women “is a result of unequal power distribution between women and men, exacerbated by lack of functioning laws, policies, and institutions in place to deal with perpetrators of violence and provide services to survivors” (AusAid 2011a, 15). Therefore Australian Aid seeks to work with men and boys, women and girls, community organizations and legal frameworks to prevent violence against women, and expand counseling services (AusAid 2011a, 15-16).

Women’s capacity to improve society including changing cultural norms is a central theme for Australia’s gender policy. However, the gender policy document does not detail the differing roles for men and women of different classes, ethnicities, sexual orientation or age groups (AusAid 2011a, 4). Using economic efficiency arguments for development projects where women become active producers and consumers in an economy has become more appealing in an age of government austerity and public scrutiny of foreign aid budgets. The consideration of investing in women because it is ‘smart economics’ highlights women as the solution to crises which stem from structural problems. Chant and Sweetman argue that “women are enlisted as foot soldiers to serve in battles whose aims are not related directly to their interests, consigned to the role of ‘conduit for policy’ in the service of others” (Chant and Sweetman 2012, 524). In another respect, efficiency can lead to investments in young women, forgetting about those who will at some point become ‘unproductive.’

Relying on women’s economic empowerment to change cultural norms places a heavy burden on women; for instance, programs must be careful to ensure that women do not face increased violence for their newfound empowerment, as those not selected for programs can become resentful and cause harm. Solidifying women’s rights through legal institutions then becomes increasingly important and can take time to establish progress.

Implementing Gender Policy

Australian Aid has systematic methods for implementing gender policy based on OECD policy markers. Australia participates in and encourages partner countries to join UN human rights conventions such as CEDAW. With fewer funds to work with, Australia’s DFAT is now more critical of programs that do not achieve visible, measurable results. Australian Aid screens all projects using its database AidWorks, and codes them as one of the following: not focused on gender equality; having gender equality as a significant objective; or having gender equality as a principal objective (Swiss 2012; Esplen and Hedman 2014; Patel et al. 2014, 22). These statistics are compiled based on the OECD DAC gender equality marker. Projects that are considered focused on gender equality (principal or significant) accounted for 55 percent of investments from 2010-2011 and 2011-2012. The government aims to have 80 percent of all aid programs address gender (Wroe 2014). In 2007, a Gender Advocate was appointed to promote gender equality and empowerment. In 2011, they appointed an Ambassador for Women and Girls (Patel et al. 2014, 19). While Australia’s development organizations dealt with challenges from institutional restructuring, the changes have made Australian Aid more focused on core goals of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

In changing how aid is delivered, Australian Aid has a new “Value-for-Money” performance framework where 85 percent of investments must achieve effectiveness and efficiency standards using tailored benchmarks for each country or regional program. If programs do not improve within a year they will be cancelled. Targets apply at the strategic level, one of which is empowering women and girls. Moreover, partners such as contractors and nongovernmental organizations, increasingly scrutinized (DFAT 2014, 25-26). In strategy documents, some programs, such as the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative are explicit that transformation of gender relations will take decades to be resolved. (Parpart et al. 2000, 142).

Implications and Conclusions

Australian Aid’s capacity to implement the gender policy is determined by its approach, independence and external influences. That Australian Aid is no longer an autonomous agency changes its former independent perspective; a greater reliance on public-private partnerships and stimulating private sector development will also provide more power to external influences.

It is clear from the way that Australian Aid defines, administers and implements its gender policy that the organization values gender equality. Further, the 2014 development policy highlights the importance of engaging a gendered approach based on the social, political and economic benefits to communities. As such, the increased focus on gender in Australia Aid’s programs is an encouraging sign. Of the three pillars, Australia appears to prioritize women’s empowerment to participate in the economy, education and leadership because it values the ‘untapped’ economic role of women in development. This new economic focus may, however, have negative implications as part of a bid to secure private sector involvement, pursue measurable gains and provide ‘value for money.’ The transformation of gender norms can be difficult to measure and changes may not correspond with the ideals of DFAT’s Value-for-Money framework. There is also a worrying trend towards individualizing gender issues and reducing them to economic equations.

Bibliography

Australian Agency for International Development (AusAid). Promoting Opportunities for All: Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. 2011a. [http://aid.dfat.gov.au/Publications/Pages/7174_3886_222_8237_2915.aspx]

Australian Agency for International Development (AusAid). Promoting Economic Opportunities for All: A How to Guide for AusAID Staff on Programming for Women’s Economic Empowerment and Livelihood Security (WEELS). 2011b. [http://aid.dfat.gov.au/aidissues/gender/Documents/promoting-economic-opportunities-for-all.pdf]

Byron, Gabriela and Charlotte Örnemark. Gender Equality in Swedish Development Cooperation: Final Report. Sida Evaluation, 10:1, 2010.

Chant, Sylvia and Caroline Sweetman. “Fixing Women or Fixing the World? ‘Smart Economics’, Efficiency Approaches, and Gender Equality in Development,” Gender & Development 20, no. 3 (2012): 517-529.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Australian Aid: Promoting Prosperity, Reducing Poverty, Enhancing Stability. Commonwealth of Australia. June 2014. [http://aid.dfat.gov.au/Publications/Pages/australian-aid-promoting-prosperity-increasing-stability-reducing-poverty.aspx]

Esplen, Emily and Jenny Hedman. From Ambition to Results: Delivering on Gender Equality in Donor Institutions. OECD, DAC Network on Gender Equality. May 2014.

Kabeer, Naila. “Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: A Critical Analysis of the Third Millennium Development Goal 1,” Gender & Development 13, no. 1 (2005): 13-24.

Kangas, A., Haider, H., and Fraser, E. (2014). Gender: Topic Guide. Revised edition with E. Browne. Birmingham: GSDRC, University of Birmingham, UK.

Lowy Institute. “Australian Foreign Aid.” Lowy Institute. 2014 [http://www.lowyinstitute.org/issues/australian-foreign-aid]

Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden. On Equal Footing: Policy for Gender Equality and the Rights and Role of Women in Sweden’s International Development Cooperation 2010-2015. 2010. [www.government.se/content/1/c6/15/22/97/a962c4c8.pdf]

Parpart, Jane, Patricia Connelly and Eudine Barriteau (eds.) “Feminist Theories: Applying WID and GAD,” Theoretical Perspectives on Gender and Development (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2000), pp. 140-147.

Patel, Payal, Katherine Fritz, Rekha Mehra, Anne Golla, Anna Clancy and Helen Cheney. Smart Economics: Evaluation of Australian Aid Support for Women’s Economic Empowerment. Office of Development Effectiveness, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. August 2014.

Swiss, Liam. “The Adoption of Women and Gender as Development Assistance Priorities: an Event History and World Polity Analysis,” International Sociology 27, no. (2011): 96-119.

Wong, Franz. “The Micro-politics of Gender Mainstreaming: the Administration of Policy in Humanitarian Work in Cambodia,” Gender & Development 20, no. 3 (2012): 467-480

Wroe, David. “Cuts to Foreign Aid ‘Another Broken Promise,’” The Age, December 3, 2014. [http://www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/cuts-to-foreign-aid-another-broken-promise-20141202-11ypou.html]

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One Response to Gender Equality in Australia’s International Development Program

  1. Wanda Fontanier says:

    Women are a majority…if united, think of how they could influence issues like social justice, conservation, clean air, water and food, education, world peace, health care…maybe we need our own political party!

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