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Is DFAT's gender programming set for a shake-up?

The Palladium managed Market Development Facility has created a framework that measures women's economic agency and access. Devex's Lisa Cornish reports on how it has the potential to bring about greater gender equity across all DFAT programs.

Women from Naviyago Village in Fiji learn how to build and cultivate garden beds, rotate crops, and plant vegetables as part of a gardening project in 2011. Photo by: Maggie Boyle / DFAT / CC BY

The focus of the Market Development Facility within the Australian aid program is to foster private sector investment to support development objectives in the Indo-Pacifc region — including improving income for women.

Managed by Palladium for the Department of Foreign Afairs and Trade, MDF plays an important role in creating aid impact through women’s economic empowerment.

In a new report, Beyond Income: A Critical Analysis of Agency Measurement in Economic Programming, MDF has developed a practical framework to address a long-standing issue in development programs supporting women’s economic empowerment — measuring and monitoring agency and access. Access represents a woman’s ability to tap in to opportunities, goods, information, and networks, while agency is the ability to make and act on economic decisions.

The report looks at how agency shifts through a program’s intervention by considering seven dimensions: Economic activity, workloads, risk of violence, improved well-being, influence on gendered social norms, perceived recognition, and influence on household income allocation.

Case studies in Fiji, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, and Timor-Leste provide practical examples of how these dimensions can be localized to incorporate specific cultural or country factors. The outputs also demonstrate the importance of looking beyond whether women are in control of finances.

“Although it is often empowering for a woman to be at the point of transaction, interventions which focus on women who play a support role in the economic activity (not typically at the point of transaction) can also have positive impacts on women’s empowerment due to access to information, goods and services, opportunities and markets triggered by the program activities,” the report reads.

Though the framework is just a start, MDF is confident that they have established a strong foundation that will support others, including DFAT’s wider aid program, in better evaluating how programs targeting the lives of women and girls are truly impactful.

Supporting programs from end to end

Beyond providing a way to monitor agency, the framework also aims to develop better targeted interventions. Measured through interviews tailored to suit local cultural contexts, the seven dimensions need to be considered when developing, managing, and assessing programs to support women’s economic empowerment.

Questions which probe or ask indirectly were more successful in getting a better understanding of agency, and is an approach recommended in the implementation of the framework.

The framework has enabled MDF to think about agency more deeply from the onset of their programs.

“Instead of doing something later on and trying to ft it in, this model helps us determine how these seven elements can be influenced by an intervention,” Maryam Piracha, co- author of the report, said. “We all need to be mindful that we can’t shift or change each of the seven dimensions, but we should be aware of them from the onset.”

And though assessing dimensions of agency can be complicated, it has the potential to provide a better assessment during programming and monitoring and evaluation of how aid dollars can impact the lives of women and girls.

“We shouldn’t shy away from good development just because it is not black and white,” Samira Saif, co-author of the report, said. “This is a spectrum. But we have to learn more about it.”

A gender framework in the Australian aid context

The Australian aid program has a target ensuring more than 80 percent of investments, regardless of their objectives, will effectively address gender issues in their implementation.

Alwyn Chilver, director of economic growth at Palladium said that to date, the goal has been “a black and white target in DFAT’s assessments.”

“This framework can inform and enrich that — and deepen the quality of assessments and the target,” Chilver said. “We need to get to grips with understanding how women’s economic empowerment really work, … the deeper dimensions and the deeper realities.”

Responding to the report

The report is not just intended for the Australian aid program — it aims to infuence all development gender programs. And the response so far has been positive.

Joanne Crawford from the International Women's Development Agency said she was keen to engage with the framework further, seeing important overlap with the work of her organization including the Do No Harm research and toolkits.

For Aletheia Donald, an economist with the World Bank Gender Innovation Lab, the report shows it is possible to examine agency in a way that is nuanced and grounded in a clear conceptual framework.

“But is also practical and actionable,” she said. “Good data on gender-informed development indicators is crucial for tracking our progress in promoting gender equality, designing interventions to address gender-based constraints and rigorously evaluat[ing] their impact.”

Donald believes the challenge ahead will be the different levels of data collection and  degrees of familiarity with gender issues that various projects and countries have.

“Having a handful of standardized indicators and looking at how they go up and down in tandem as a result of different development programs will be extremely useful for assessing empowerment impacts,” she said.

Next steps

As the framework is still in progress, the report’s team is keen to engage with development experts on improvement. For Anu Mundkur, head of gender equality at CARE Australia, there is a range of opportunities that could better measure agency — such as looking at unpaid caregiver work. Other important measurements are the choice of having children and its impact on workforce participation.

“An intersectional approach draws attention to the fact that women’s experiences of economic empowerment and their ability to exercise agency are influenced by an interplay between different social factors including age, class, socioeconomic status, physical and mental abilities, sexual identity to name a few,” Mundkur said.

MDF hopes to streamline the model to ensure organizations want to adopt the framework.

“MDF has made progress in integrating the dimensions of women’s economic empowerment in our day-to-day economic results measurement processes, but as we integrate these aspects of access and agency, we need to do more to ensure it is not an overloaded, bureaucratic mess,” Chilver said.

The MDF team will also be working with DFAT to educate and support the wider use of the framework. As part of Palladium’s contract with DFAT, a learning agenda is an important component.

The framework, Chilver believes, could be taken up by a range of other DFAT programs if it was considered doable.

“MDF is finding ways to make this work,” he said. “It wouldn’t be right it other programs didn’t follow suit.”

This article originally appeared on Devex and was republished with permission.