Still searching for the gender “Ah-ha” moment: Reflections on the Busan High Level Forum, one year later

I was recently in Gaza and I asked primary school teachers whether or not girls and boys were treated equally in their communities. The answer was a resounding yes. I then asked: “Do boys and girls do the same amount of work at home?” No, they stated: girls did all the housework and boys played for the most part. As the discussion continued, it was apparent that some teachers started questioning their own notions of gender equality for the first time. It was their gender “Ah-ha” moment that enabled them to question gender roles and go beyond associating gender equality with numerical equivalence of boys and girls.
The 2011 Busan Outcome Document has a component on “gender commitments.” Paragraph 20 highlights the importance of “recognizing gender equality and women’s empowerment” to achieve development results. Broadly speaking, the commitments focus on using sex-disaggregated data to inform policies, integrating targets for gender equality in accountability mechanisms, and addressing gender equality and women’s empowerment “in all aspects of our development efforts.” This is laudable, but the reality for most organizations working in development makes these commitments unattainable aspirations.
I say this because, in the year since the Busan High Level Forum, I have seen little evidence of organizations improving the way they address gender equality and women’s empowerment. I’ve spoken to people from donor organizations, NGOs, civil society organizations (CSOs), governments, and international NGOs. With the exception of development organizations with a rich experience in ensuring gender equality and women’s empowerment, gender is still frequently inserted into development projects as an add-on with little or no thought. Sadly, whenever I provide feedback on development projects that have no gender perspective, typical responses continue to be “It doesn’t matter, we’ll add ‘with a gender perspective’ at the end of our goal and the donor will be happy,” or “Half the people affected by the project are women, so we have gender equality.” It has never been that simple.
Two women and two men! Gender equality? Sorry, not that easy.
These responses point to a challenge highlighted by the Open Forum for CSO Development Effectiveness. In its Gender Equality and Development Effectiveness report from July 2011, the Open Forum listed a number of challenges CSOs face when putting gender equality into practice. Among the challenges is a patriarchal culture present in both the working environments of development organizations and the societies in which they operate. If people don’t believe in gender equality to begin with, how will the Busan gender commitments ever become a reality?
Apart from the patriarchal culture, I think there is an overwhelming misunderstanding of what gender equality means. To believe in and ensure gender equality I think one needs to be open to the reality that inequality exists and gender equality can bring about positive change.
I’d venture to say that the typical development worker has yet to experience their gender “Ah-ha” moment. As such it’s even unlikelier that they’ll be in a position to “address gender equality and women’s empowerment” in all aspects of their work without education, guidance and support on how to do this. This can best happen when gender equality and women’s empowerment are grounded in a normative human rights framework that recognizes women as rights holders. This isn’t stated strongly in the Busan Outcome Document, and it’s why the proposed Busan Joint Action Plan for Gender Equality and Development was not endorsed by women’s organizations.
I’d love to be proven wrong, but my sense is that the Busan gender commitments won’t amount to substantive change anytime soon. 

Why don’t people care more?

Upon the completion of a two-year stint in Malawi as a math teacher a very long time ago, I attended a debriefing for Canadians returning from overseas postings. The facilitator asked how many of us had gone through their first posting; most raised our hands. He continued, “I’m sure you’re filled with wonderful stories of having met tremendous hard-working, resilient, beautiful people who have led unimaginably difficult lives but have nonetheless held their heads up high despite the horrible conditions they live in. You’ll want to tell all your friends and families about all of these people and how they’ve affected you and ultimately made you a better person and more appreciative of what you’ve got. You have so much to tell people!” As he was speaking I thought Yes, this guy totally understands me.

“No one cares,” he said.
He was a downer, but for the most part he was right. My mother cared (in part because it was her default response to do so) and some of my best friends cared. No one else really gave a shit. My experiences in Malawi, and more precisely the people who changed my life, were of little importance to the people back home. They wanted to hear more about my stories of roadside mice snacks than the struggles of the poor living there.
It was a harsh but important lesson that repeated itself when I returned to Africa two years later and lived in Ghana. Life was so utterly different, poverty was so utterly everywhere, it was impossible to remain unaffected. And still, upon my return to Canada, it was a challenge to convey to others the importance of helping people elsewhere whose pathetic standard of living prevented them from living in dignity.
It begs a fundamental question: why is it so hard to care about strangers who live less fortunate lives? Here, I use “care” in a very broad sense. There are many ways to show you care. Of course you can give money. You can also become a slacktivist for your favourite cause, you can volunteer, you can Tweet your solidarity to those in need, you can learn about their lives and their struggles, you can raise awareness in your community, you can change your own habits, the list goes on. However one defines “care for others”, I believe there’s a tremendous shortage of it. No wait, that does sound pessimistic. Then let me say this: there should a whole lot more caring.
To focus on giving, and in particular giving money: giving is easy, especially now when you can go online and click away your cash in seconds. Giving leaves the giver with a sense of satisfaction and personal fulfillment, however it does little to strengthen their understanding of where their money is going and the change it is meant to make. While lots of people do give, again I say: there can be a whole lot more.
Maybe we’re just too selfish. Maybe our own problems, however trivial they may seem to others, effectively block out anyone else’s and don’t leave us room to care. Maybe our lives are too hectic to care. Maybe it’s too easy to change channels from the latest massacre in Syria to the next round of American Idol. Maybe the sheer enormity of the help required is too overwhelming for any one person to think they can make a difference. Nearly ten million children under the age of five die every year from preventable diseases, over a billion people live in slums, more than a billion live on less than 1,25$ a day. Millions of people are forcibly displaced every year from their homes due to conflict or environmental disasters, hundreds of thousands of women and girls die every year before, during, or just after childbirth. Around seventy million children worldwide are without access to basic education. It’s enough for the average person eager to help wonder, “Whatever I do won’t make a difference.”
This is not so: giving can make a difference in people’s lives. The language around giving has changed considerably since my stay in Malawi nearly twenty years ago. As such, the actions taken to make sure that giving is effective have changed as well. It’s much less about meeting needs as it is about realizing human rights; it’s less about giving and receiving and more about sharing and enabling (for everyone). It’s less about pity and gratitude and more about respect and dignity.
Twenty-odd years ago, the realities of the poor were not always well understood and often not accurately conveyed to those more fortunate. If you lived in a rich country, you saw images of poor Africans with distended bellies looking sorrowfully at the camera with a pseudo-celebrity (why do I keep thinking Sally Struthers?) asking for your help. Nowadays, messages like this and others are at times labeled as poverty porn, a term that gets its point across but with a regrettably vulgar choice of words. Effective nonprofit organizations have moved well beyond this oversimplified and misrepresentative vision of aid. Those organizations need to raise their profiles and share their good practices of using funds wisely and transparently while enabling people to claim and enjoy their rights. I think – I hope – people will give to something they know will make a difference.
Ultimately, someone wanting to help will have the empathy, the desire, the kind-heartedness and the will to find a way to give. Asking Why don’t people care more? I realize that the question could be phrased differently. I recently came across another way of asking this question from an unlikely source: my children’s comic books. DC Comics unveiled a new campaign where members of the Justice League (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the other usual superheroes) are “spokespersons” asking to help dying families in the Horn of Africa. It’s a fundraising campaign called We Can Be Heroes, in which DC Comics matches your donation to one of three partner organizations. OK, the use of the term “heroes” to designate people giving money to help others is patronizing to the extreme, but I’ll let it slide because these are comic book characters. At any rate, an awareness-raising video from the website asks the question, What do you do when someone needs help?It’s direct, it gets to the point, and it leaves room for only one answer as far as I can tell: “I help.” Doesn’t matter who needs help, where they live, or what they do: just help.

An Idea that Shouldn’t Be Revolutionary

I started writing a post about development effectiveness and it depressed the hell out of me, so let me try again.
I spoke to a human rights activist in Africa this afternoon who told me of her organization’s work in ten countries on the continent. “We do work at the community level,” she told me. “Our facilitators enable all members of the community – men, women, and children – to identify human rights concerns that matter to them. The facilitators enable everyone to express themselves in ways they have never done before, especially the women and children. And the difference is remarkable. Everyone is taking a shared responsibility to improve their lives and claim their rights. So many people think this is revolutionary.”
This is all good stuff; it’s an approach I firmly believe in. Too bad it’s still perceived as “revolutionary.” It shouldn’t be. The approach should be embedded throughout small communities around Africa and elsewhere, because it works: it’s transformative and it improves lives.
To call it revolutionary is to admit that development effectiveness has not progressed at it should have in the past few years. Fourteen years ago I did similar work in Ghana. Back then, the idea of actively engaging rights-holders to learn about and claim their rights was not new. It had been happening for years. To call these ideas revolutionary after a few decades is evidence that something’s wrong.

(Ok dear reader, it was at this point that I started writing about mismanagement of funds, misplaced donor priorities, ineffective structural adjustment programs and poverty reduction strategy papers, also unwillingness to cooperate between NGOs, governments and donors. That’s when I got depressed. So let me change the ending.)
If the notion of asking community members about their needs is revolutionary then I’m all for it. Keep this idea revolutionary for as long as you need to, until everyone is doing it. From one village to the next, I want people to say to themselves, “Do you know what they’re doing in that other village? They’re actually talking about issues that matter to them and doing something about it.” Or, “Do you know that the women in the other village actually speak up and the men listen to them?” Or, “Why can’t we speak up and change our lives the way they did over there?” Or, “Our time is now, we’ve got something to say.” Come to think of it, I suppose that is revolutionary.
To learn more: Participatory learning and action, or PLA, has a long and rich history based on experiential learning. The website PLA Notes ( is a great resource. This is only one of many sources, but for me the ideas expressed here are what got me started in participatory approaches to education.