The long road to adopting feminist approaches in development policy


In parallel to the newly-issued guidelines for Germany’s feminist foreign policy, the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) has also launched a new strategy on feminist development policy. Here’s a look back at key moments in international development institutions’ back-and-forth on gender policy.

Ein Panel bei der Feminist Development Policy Conference. Es sitzen 6 Frauen beim Panel auf weißen Sesseln.

In parallel to the newly-issued guidelines for Germany’s feminist foreign policy, the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) has also launched a new strategy on feminist development policy. The strategy paper was developed through a broad consultative process, which allowed a diverse range of international feminist non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to participate in the discussions. The ministry also places core questions about patriarchal power relations and the need for systemic change at the centre of its analysis of the state of gender inequality. Implementation will now determine whether or not a transformative feminist reorientation of development cooperation will take place. If this does indeed occur, it would represent a milestone in the international discourse on progressive, inclusive approaches to gender equality. After all, gender approaches in development policy have come a long way – even before they deserved this designation. Here, we will take a look at some of the highlights that have marked the gender policy back-and-forth in international development cooperation.

The conceptual development from women’s advancement strategies to gender approaches cannot be separated from the direction and evolution of development policy approaches as a whole. As early as the 1960s and early 1970s, women were considered an important target group for development assistance. Back then, they were primarily integrated into social welfare schemes, whereby these were linked to the “typically female domain of reproduction”, as it was commonly called at the time. Projects focusing on infant and nursing care, housekeeping, and nutrition on the one hand, and on the construction of wells outside villages by men on the other – often underpinned by ethnocentric and androcentric approaches – reinforced gender hierarchies in the “recipient countries”. Development institutions did not address questions of power and decision-making until into the late 1980s.

Starting in the mid-1970s, the World Bank entered the scene, discovering women’s productive role alongside their reproductive role. Against the backdrop of modernisation strategies of the time, women were showered with micro-credits and required to build on their “reproductive capacities” in small-scale income-generating projects, except that instead of “crochet projects”, millions of chick-rearing units now sprang up in their backyards. Over the course of three development decades, the World Bank shaped the programming for the international women’s and gender policy areas with its market-oriented policy of “integrating women into development by increasing economic efficiency”. It thus counteracted the women’s policy aspiration of establishing gender equality as an independent development goal in international programming. However, even in this preliminary phase of globalisation, neither women’s economic situation nor their social status improved as a result of the anticipated “trickle-down effects”. As already touched upon, questions of power, structural violence, institutionalised sexism, patriarchal norms, and social exclusion were not even on the radar of the implementing organisations back then.

The co-optation of women by international financial institutions

Through the structural adjustment programmes aimed at alleviating the international debt crisis of the 1980s, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund pushed the co-optation of women to the extreme for the sake of their growth model, but also triggered a great deal of criticism as well as political protests by women. The massive cuts in public budgets and deregulation measures made marginalised women the biggest losers of the crisis, as they had to ensure the survival of low-income households. The broad scope of women’s crisis-management role also changed the image that had prevailed in the more progressive development cooperation institutions. Since the beginnings of development cooperation, these women had always been regarded as a homogeneous group. Now, they were no longer seen as victims in need of help but rather as crisis managers who were supposed to advance basic needs security and birth control as part of poverty reduction strategies and population policies. With the first tangible environmental crises of the early 1990s, they then became workers engaged at the resource base: They were tasked with changing the planet’s nappies, so to speak, through the act of planting trees. But this “feminisation of responsibility”, as Christa Wichterich has called the continuous allocation of new roles, was basically a way for financial institutions to co-opt feminist protests during the lost decade of the 1980s. It was independent scholars and activists from the global South, united in the Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) network, who pointed out the existence of women’s resistance and their political creativity and agency, the latter of which served to ensure their survival. This painted an unfamiliar picture and brought a completely new perspective to development cooperation.

DAWN: advocating for a power shift and systemic change through empowerment

At the 1985 UN World Conference on Women in Nairobi, DAWN presented a grassroots feminist strategy and called for a reordering of power and systemic change through the empowerment of women in general and of Black, Indigenous and Women of Colour (BIWoC) in particular – in other words, gaining collective power and forging alternative development paths, rather than continuing to live under neo-colonial, market liberal resource exploitation that prioritises profits for the few. It also aspired towards the eradication of poverty and gender hierarchies and sought empowerment rather than a larger share of the poisoned pie.

DAWN’s concept of empowerment – based on early Black power and liberation movements – had finally raised questions related to power, which were initially debated primarily within international women’s movements. These debates revolved around the role of racism and colonialism in feminism, around white privilege and the recognition of our differences, and around the distinction between focusing on achieving equality within an unjust system on the one hand and reaching out beyond our differences to overcome exploitative systems on the other. In retrospect, DAWN and its empowerment concept can be seen as paving the way for today’s transformative feminist approaches, which have now been adopted by the development policy institutions of the EU and the BMZ – even if the term “empowerment” regrettably only appears in a footnote of the ministry’s new guidelines.

A decade of UN conferences: hope for a new development paradigm

But it took some time before there was a spill-over effect from these smart and radical international feminist debates. Hope for a new development paradigm did not emerge until the 1990s, when the bipolar world order came to an end and financial institutions no longer had to employ development aid as a tool of the Cold War. In this context, it was above all the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and its “human development approach” that enabled development institutions to embrace holistic strategies. As participants in the major UN conferences and global governance debates, donor institutions began to focus on the social preconditions of human development processes, on social inequality, and on democratization and co-determination issues. In particular, it was the set of universal values adopted at the World Environment Conference in Rio de Janeiro (1992), the Vienna Conference on Human Rights (1993) and the 4th UN World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995) that created a new normative frame of reference for international development policy measures. These have been and continue to be universally authoritative, especially for gender policy and feminist demands for equal opportunities and equal rights, and serve as a guide for our international feminist advocacy.

Did gender mainstreaming become watered down on its institutional path?

The concepts of empowerment and gender mainstreaming found their way into development institutions through the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action. These institutions were now supposed to use the gender approach to influence the social structures responsible for creating gender hierarchies. The gender approach was supplemented by empowerment measures to ensure that the advocacy element of the earlier women’s advancement policy was not lost and to specifically tackle discrimination against women and other disadvantaged groups. Was this a success or a form of co-optation? From a feminist perspective, doubts have been raised about the “cross-cutting” approach: Can gender rhetoric really change hierarchical power relations? And isn’t there a need to rigorously analyse male supremacy on an ongoing basis? Instead of making sure that “men now also profit from gender projects – as if they had not always been the beneficiaries of the other 95 percent of projects,” as Saskia Wieringa sharply criticised the dangers of diluting the development policy commitment to women’s human rights in 1997.

From analysis to implementation, from strategy to practice: is a systemic transformation succeeding?

The feminist problem analysis of global patriarchal oppression and multiple human rights violations against the self-determination of women and LGBTIQ+ people is clearly incorporated into the BMZ’s new strategy. However, the fact that donor institutions today see a connection between conflict and crisis situations on the one hand, and the rise of sexualised and gender-based violence on the other, is also a result of the loud voices from the women’s movements of the global South, which have continuously spoken out against the dangers of fraudulent labelling that allows traditional practices to continue unchanged. Thanks to the ministry’s feminist strategy, an intersectional analysis of discriminatory structures that affect women and marginalised groups in their diversity differently or concurrently is now explicitly part of the toolkit of the EU and the BMZ. But the danger remains that such an analysis does not reach into the heart of system, where power politics and economics dominate.

The momentum of Beijing and its Platform for Action, which is still in effect today, led to a wave of institutional arrangements and review mechanisms to effectively implement the agreements for gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment. For example, the mandate of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was expanded to renew the commitments governments make regarding the twelve critical areas of concern in the Platform for Action. The rights to sexual and reproductive health and self-determination always come under attack in these negotiations. Therefore, it has long been the case that Beijing and all other far-reaching agreements should no longer be renegotiated, but rather protected and defended, and their full implementation urged.

The hard slog of feminist advocacy work: development cooperation policy tools

Gender mainstreaming and the translation of women’s policy demands into institutional practices led to the creation of new monitoring tools at the international level. The UN introduced the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), which enabled it to show that a country’s progress in human development does not automatically lead to greater gender equality. The Gender Equality Policy Marker, a statistical tool for tracking how aid activities target gender equality as a policy objective, arose out of the Gender Working Group of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC).

Development institutions were now asked to use the gender marker tool to categorise all measures at the bilateral cooperation level according to whether gender equality was a main objective (score 2), a secondary objective (score 1), or not an objective at all (score 0). This system of voluntary categorisation quickly showed that the gender policy commitment of many donor countries was limited to the traditional social policy fields of health and education. Infrastructure, agriculture, and finance, on the other hand, did not target gender equality at all. If feminist networks noticed a significant decline in mainstreaming (score 1) and empowerment (score 2) projects in a portfolio – to the extent that the gender marker statistics were accessible to civil society at all – they took this as an opportunity to publicly voice criticism. Beyond that, however, the gender marker remained for many years a very weak tool for steering policy. Only the EU Commission’s commitment in 2020 that 85 percent of all new projects throughout external relations will contribute to gender equality by 2025, and now the BMZ’s aim of increasing its share of funding to projects that promote gender equality (scores 1 and 2) to 93 percent, promise to lead us out of the valley of unfruitful statistics and gender equality bureaucracy.

Rescuing gender from the poverty trap

Gender experts from institutions and international NGOs that critically monitor the gender policies of development cooperation institutions spent an enormous amount of time and energy analysing and evaluating policy tools in the years around the turn of the millennium. With the advent of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), there were again discussions about comprehensive strategies for combatting poverty and reducing global inequality. The BMZ also made considerable efforts to integrate gender approaches into policy tools that supported its strategies for reducing debt and poverty. Was this still women’s empowerment or already a gender approach? Were socio-economic empowerment concepts also being developed in the fields of finance and infrastructure, or were women as a vulnerable group again to be lifted out of poverty only through the generous distribution of micro-credits?

In retrospect, the feminists in the global North’s development agencies mostly conducted their analyses during that period in a bubble. They discussed issues amongst themselves and consulted with experts from the debt relief campaign or the technical implementation organisations. The situation was different at the gender policy and feminist partner organisations in global South countries. Large organisations such as FEMNET from Kenya linked the work being done on development policy tools much more to the demands for participation, transparency, and democratisation at the national level. They used it to build their capacities, to establish organisations, and to engage in networking activities in their respective contexts.

Putting gender on the international agenda

Against the background of the agreements on improving the effectiveness of development cooperation (Paris 2005, Accra 2008), the EU member states, including Germany and the BMZ, began to expand their “dual approach” based on the pillars of gender mainstreaming and empowerment into a tripartite approach. This was intended to strengthen “gender concerns in cooperation countries”, in other words, issues related to gender inequality and disregard for women’s human rights had to be raised more forcefully in bilateral and multilateral policy dialogue, at the international level and in government negotiations. For a long time, this “scaling-up” had been demanded by feminist civil society – namely by Sara Hlupekile Longwe – who warned against the “evaporation” of gender-oriented policies at higher political levels. An important new step was taken, and a new policy tool was created, but it was not a paradigm shift.

Gender-equitable development finance and gender budgeting

However, one gender mainstreaming tool, commonly known as gender budgeting, turned out to be particularly explosive, and not just in the global South. Pilot projects on gender-sensitive budgeting approaches had already been launched in the 1990s in several countries – in both North and South – even before the debt relief debate repeatedly drew on the idea of a quasi-gender-neutral market, testifying to the ignorance of development economics when it comes to the unpaid care work performed mainly by women. These had triggered a veritable wave of gender analyses focused on examining the income and expenditure within government budgets. To this day, how the public sector finances its activities is central to a country’s gender-equitable development, because crises and breakdowns in social systems and in infrastructure for basic public services – health, transport, water, education – always affect women and marginalised groups first. Whether in international debates about financing for development, about global trade policies that promote unfair supply chains, or about the chronic underfunding of the UN’s goals for gender equality, or whether in the policy dispute about a financially dried up feminist civil society (“Where is the money for women’s rights?”), there have been calls again and again for the introduction of gender-responsive budgeting and gender-responsive economic and fiscal policies.

Development cooperation needs gender-equitable climate finance – and a feminist approach to public funding law. Global financial policy issues are currently being discussed primarily in the context of gender equality and climate finance. At the climate change conferences (Conference of the Parties, COPs) in recent years, the activists involved in the UNFCCC process, most notably those from the NGOs united in the Women and Gender Constituency, have consistently called for direct funding access for women and marginalised communities at the local level, so that those affected by climate change can work with knowledge holders on the ground to take effective adaptation and mitigation measures and ensure survival. Longstanding calls for gender-equitable climate finance have also led, since 2015, to a gradually growing openness among multilateral climate funds to integrate more gender accountability into their funding strategies.

Against the “watering the leaves, starving the roots” status quo

In the new feminist guidelines, the BMZ promises to examine existing mechanisms for funding local civil society and (often informal) grassroots organisations. That is all well and good, but what is really needed are feminist funding guidelines and a transformation of public funding law, so that payments can be made unbureaucratically even in the many extreme situations, such as those in the areas of emergency relief and disaster response and in increasingly anti-democratic and autocratic contexts. Its efforts will fall short if – as the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) warned ten years ago – only the flagship projects are funded, while the collective roots of the diverse feminist movements are praised but allowed to wither financially.

World Bank, welcome to the club

The World Bank also worked on its image in the new millennium, introducing a new policy tool called “Country Gender Assessments”. This involved client countries conducting a comprehensive gender analysis in order to identify key gender issues and inequalities and develop gender-responsive actions. However, growth enhancement and not adherence to legal and equality norms continued to serve as the basis for achieving more effective financial development cooperation. When the desired effects failed to materialise as quickly as it had expected, the World Bank abandoned the instrument. After Gender Action Plans (GAPs) became a common tool in the donor community, the World Bank introduced its own GAP in 2007. Yet the focus has remained on catch-up economic development for women, and women’s socio-economic empowerment and participation have again been made a “business case”.

While the United Nations and the international donor community at that time had long since declared the elimination of gender inequality to be an overarching and independent objective of their programmes – viewing equal opportunity as part of the right to development – it was not until the publication of its 2012 World Development Report that the World Bank recognised equality as a development goal in its own right. This was an overdue step and a conceptual quantum leap into the modern age. But to this day, “gender equality as smart economics” continues to be the common thread running through the Bank’s gender policies.

It takes a long time to become feminist ...

Starting around 2015, international feminist scholars and NGOs started to make their voices heard in these institutions. But while an expanded understanding of the concept of gender, one in which gender relations are seen as social power relations (as opposed to a merely inequitable distribution of roles between the sexes), is finding its way on to institutional agendas, it has been, and continues to be, necessary to prevent countries from taking backward steps in their realpolitik negotiations on agreements addressing gender equality. Painstakingly and against considerable resistance from reactionary forces, the UN community managed in 2015 to establish another  independent gender goal (SDG 5) through its adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It is about a non-binary view of gender, in other words, not only are gender roles changeable, but so is gender as such. LGBTIQ+ people are to become visible and renewed discourses on structural racism and colonialism are to take place in all societies and within feminist movements, creating awareness of the multiple discrimination faced by women in all their diversity. Intersectionality, inclusion, and the involvement of men in all their diversity and masculinities are to become an integral part of the many progressive, transformative concepts to overcome gender-based discrimination and exclusion.

It is important to further develop gender and development policy approaches in such a way that they remain critical of power and consistently reference the normative and binding multilateral frameworks supported by the international feminist movement as a whole. Development policies must be rights-based and should reinforce the self-determination rights of women, girls, and all other discriminated groups as an overarching goal. Normative frameworks are influenced by public discourses. Both have contributed significantly to state institutions and non-state, civil society organisations embracing diversity and transformation as well as a rights-based, intersectional, and inclusive approach in their development policy strategies, especially with regard to their understanding of gender roles, gender interests, and power relations.


Selected literature

AWID, 2013 (Hrsg): Watering the leaves, starving the roots. The status of women’s rights financing for women’s rights organizing and gender equality 

Beiträge zur feministischen theorie und praxis, 1990: „Geteilter Feminismus“, Nr. 27/1990, Zeitschrift Hrsg.: Sozialwissenschaftliche Forschung und Praxis für Frauen e.V

DAWN, 1987: Development, Crises and Alternative Visions: Third World Women’s Perspectives 

Longwe, Sarah, 2013: “The Journey Towards Women’s Rights In Zambia”, TEDxLusaka 

Rodenberg, Birte, 2004: „Das Recht auf Geschlechtergleichheit in der Armutsbekämpfung der Entwicklungsinstitutionen“, in: femina politica 2/2004, S. 76-86

Rodenberg, Birte/Wichterich, Christa, 1999: Macht gewinnen. Eine Studie über Frauenprojekte der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung im Ausland [nicht mehr verfügbar]

Von Braunmühl, Claudia, 2017: „Feministische Diskurse zu Entwicklungspolitik und Entwicklungstheorie“, in: Burchardt et al. (Hrsg.): Entwicklungstheorie von heute – Entwicklungspolitik von Morgen, S.133-150