As the German-led G8 summit begins in Heiligendamm this week, activists are taking the opportunity to press European leaders on commitments to Africa made at Gleneagles in 2005, before the presidency passes out of Europe again. While many people see those commitments as a real landmark and celebrate the increase in aid to Africa, especially from the UK, far too little attention is apparently being paid to the use and impact of such official aid. Indeed, the congratulatory air that currently emanates from senior staff in both the aid and non-government aid agencies in the UK around the poverty agenda appears to me seriously misplaced.
Moreover - despite the evidence (and much high-level rhetoric) pointing to the centrality of women's rights and roles in development - gender inequality, women's needs and their lack of rights are not central to the aid discourse or the way development is currently delivered. Three key trends direct and affect the quality of that aid, who accesses it and how it is used. Each of these trends puts the power firmly in the hands of the more powerful, and denies access to those with the least power - particularly women.
Wrong partners, wrong tools
The first clear trend is that while the aid budget rises in the UK, the money is increasingly channelled to multilateral aid agencies and not directly to the poor. Over 38 percent of it goes through the EU, World Bank and UN. The UK's Department for International Development (DFID) expends significant amounts of money and energy on these multilateral agencies, trying to influence them to use the funds in ways that DFID believes will be of benefit. Unfortunately, in spite of a great deal of rhetoric, none of their large aid bureaucracies has a good track record in addressing issues of women's rights, women's subordination, or the abject poverty in which so many women live. Nor is DFID strongly placed to influence them to take a robust gender equality approach - they themselves lack that perspective, as a recent gender audit starkly revealed.
Tina Wallace is a research associate at the University of Oxford's International Gender Studies Centre and an honorary senior research fellow at the Oxford Brookes School of Business. She is a sociologist and development consultant, an experienced researcher and practitioner with NGOs, has taught in Universities in Africa and Europe, and has wide experience of working with the NGO sector in UK and Africa.
The second trend relates to the Paris agenda, which sets out to achieve better aid delivery and build mutual accountability between donors and recipient governments. Donors in Europe have committed themselves to funding development in increasingly harmonised ways: they have espoused values of local ownership, cutting conditionality, streamlining systems and decentralization. These are laudable aims but there are major problems in the implementation. A number of donors are pooling their funds through direct budget support to governments in Africa, to be spent against the major tool to address poverty, the Poverty Reduction Strategy Plans (PRSPs). The PRSPs are national budgetary processes tied to the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and take a narrowly focused definition both of development and the best ways to address poverty.
Rights, including women's rights, are not integral to PRSPs - nor are critical external issues affecting poverty: the terms of trade and the way Africa is incorporated into the global economy, and the implications of this for the gendered division of labour and access to productive activities, are all excluded. The PRSPs fail to address issues of women's subordination and inequality, which are sidelined by current agendas to tackle poverty (Ann Whitehead, Gender in PRSPs, 2003).
DFID gives up to 50 percent of its funding to African governments through direct budget support (DBS). Issues of gender equality, however, are low on government agendas, and funding for women's issues is minute. Women's ministries are weak and under-funded, unable to deliver any significant improvements for women and girls. The reality that PRSPs are largely gender blind, combined with the low priority given to gender equality by most governments, means that DBS to national budgets does not actively support women, with the exception perhaps of the focus on raising the number of girls getting into schools.
Channelling significant percentages of aid directly through governments, whom donors largely distrust and suspect of misusing their money, raises problems of monitoring and accountability. A number of solutions are being tried: the one that most directly affects women is the decision to require civil society to monitor spending and 'hold governments to account' for the use of donor money. DFID now focuses most funding to civil society for work on advocacy and voice, requiring them to represent the interests of the poor at the policy level and to critique the government when money is spent inappropriately. Little funding is now channelled to NGOs (north or south) for work in service delivery, rights, or addressing issues of exclusion or equality at the household and community level. Money is increasingly spent on bringing NGOs to the table around accountability issues of most interest to the donors.
Meanwhile, DFID and other donors are cutting their transaction costs, resulting in staff cuts as funding increases, and larger and fewer grants being given. This actively discriminates against smaller NGOs, where most women's organisations are located. NGOs focusing on gender equality are usually women-led, smaller and focused on areas of work that are no longer a priority for donors. They work on issues not currently defined as critical in the over-simplistic, technical approaches to development - such as the connections between combating violence against women and enabling women to participate in community, economic and political life; addressing the gender inequality that is fuelling the HIV/Aids epidemic; the painstaking work of supporting women to cope with stigma and rejection to access and comply with antiretroviral regimes; and changing beliefs and attitudes to allow women mobility and access to key resources previously denied them.
The third trend relates to the way aid is disbursed - and here I will focus on funding to NGOs. The last ten years have seen a growing standardization of policies and procedures for funding to civil society organizations. With decreasing staff numbers and increasing use of outsourced consultancies, reliance on paper-based planning and reporting in English has grown exponentially. The current tools dominating the aid landscape are five year strategic plans with targets, timelines and a linear understanding of how to achieve the vision created by the NGO. To get funding these strategic plans must fit DFID's agenda. NGOs are now seen only a means to an end - there is no concept of funding them to promote a strong vibrant democracy.
Also in openDemocracy, on the G8, Africa and development:
Michael Holman: Africa: celebrity and salvation
G8 2005: good for Africans? - a roundtable
Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie: African agency vs. the aid industry
Strategic plans, partnership agreements, and projects must now be presented in the logframe, a tool adopted from the US military. This embodies a rational managerial approach to change and embeds a linear, simplistic understanding off cause and effect. The rise and rise of the logframe has been accompanied by rigid budget and reporting requirements, short time horizons, and a focus on upward accountability mechanisms to donors to ensure future funding. There is little evidence of concern for accountability to the poor. And the realities of day-to-day development work are a far cry from the paperwork, which proves irrelevant during implementation. The pressure to show quick results and full compliance with donor priorities, using English concepts and language, actively discriminates against the long term work needed to address women's exclusion from decision-making at all levels, to build their confidence to enable them to understand and gain control over key resources, and to fight for their rights. Current funding systems are creating a strong culture of compliance to donor demands, with little evidence of a real commitment to addressing the power relations that so actively disable women.
There is, of course, talk of gender mainstreaming, and appropriate boxes must be ticked on forms. However, there is no evidence that funding is dependent on meeting gender equality requirements, or that anyone checks whether poor women have in reality benefited from the work. This would require real political commitment to addressing tradition, power relations and male intransigence that are lacking in most aid organisations. Instead gender is seen by the largely male development elite as a technical fix - once boxes are ticked, few go to see what is happening on the ground, and even fewer really care whether women are actually benefiting. Without a political shift and real commitment to address women's subordination and exclusion, aid will not enable them to take their rightful place in development.