News Item

On 15 November the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development released its report on the Department for International Development (DFID) Annual Report 2007. One of the key issues the Committee takes up is the inadequate implementation of DFID’s Gender Equality Action Plan, launched in February this year.

As well as conducting an enquiry into DFID the committee is examining the World Bank. The UK contribution to the World Bank has more than doubled in the last two financial years. Britain’s commitment to the International Development Association – the arm of the Bank which helps the world’s poorest countries – for 2005-08 is around £1.4 billion over the period. This includes DFID helping finance the Bank’s own current action plan, ‘Gender Equality as Smart Economics’, which emphasises the importance of women’s access to land. However, the influence of this plan within the Bank is open to question, given that the overview of the newly published World Development Report on agriculture, contains no mention of women’s inequitable access to land.

So what is going wrong? The economic significance of women’s involvement in agriculture, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa has been known for more than thirty years. Despite DFID’s and other bilateral donors’ investment in the Bank’s gender work, it appears the Bank is not capable of taking its own policy pronouncements seriously.

Just as the Bank’s annual flagship report fails to give priority to this matter, so it appears does DFID in its own bilateral programmes and analyses. The committee’s report notes that DFID’s draft South Asia strategy ignores the issue of gender-based violence and that DFID’s 2006 White Paper on Governance contained only three brief mentions of gender in an 83-page document. According to the report, Suma Chakrabarti, the Permanent Secretary, acknowledged that ‘even if DFID is able to improve its own performance in this area, it would not have much of an impact unless multilateral bodies, most importantly the World Bank, the European Commission and the UN, are equally committed to gender equality’. Perhaps, the Bank does not believe that DFID is taking the matter seriously and therefore does not feel under much pressure to do so either?

However, the answer is not to put even more UK resources into the World Bank an unresponsive institution that has known about but ignored for so many years the gender dimensions of development. There is an alternative. The committee’s report notes that DFID see gender equality and women’s empowerment ‘as a political issue, needing a political response, not a technical one.’ Yet, as Oxfam pointed out in its submission to the committee, the Gender Equality Action Plan contains no mention at all of support for women’s organisations. It is these who through mobilisation for social justice and equity have the bigger potential for changing women’s lives.

DFID’s Gender Equality Action Plan has been a very positive step forward and what is now needed is an assurance that it will be fully implemented. Next April DFID will be reviewing the Gender Equality Plan’s first year of implementation. Now that the International Development Committee is watching it closely on this matter, let us hope the Plan will now get the priority from top management and Ministers that it merits.

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