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Well, is there a will?

Kristen Cordell asks how political will is created and examines the implications for women in the NGO world.
Kristen Cordell
4 March 2009

The GEAR (Gender Equality Architecture and Reform) Campaign is a remarkable coalition movement to strengthen the gender apparatus at the UN, to better "enable the UN and movements to deliver on promises made to advance gender quality and women's rights." During a working session on the campaign entitled "Gearing up a new UN for Women" Charlotte Bunch, founder and director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership remarked that "where there's a will there is a way" - referring to her belief that true change at the UN comes from political will. I couldn't agree more.

I have come to understand political will (an often discussed but rarely defined idea) as the tipping point of formal influence garnered by organization and mobilization efforts that originate in the private sphere (mostly NGOs). GEAR has been successful at garnering increased political will for its efforts within the UN, mainly through the consistent reliance on a 250 organization NGO network that acts as a lobbying entity representing respective constituencies from across the world. But once formed- what allows an organization like GEAR to advance political will within the UN?

In my opinion, political will can only be achieved through the equal representation of women both within NGOs and in the organizational and governmental structures themselves. Our political will (while strong at the outset) is broken when the issues are taken up by formal governance organizations- which are still universally dominated by men. Women in International Security, a Georgetown University-based networking and advocacy group for women within the security sector, recently released a report on the status of women working within DPKO, the Department of Peacekeeping at the UN. The report found that women had been systematically shut out of high-level positions within the agency, through a variety of formal and information barriers to their inclusion. This is an excellent example to illustrate my point. Policy on women and peacekeeping can only achieve so much political will, because it has no champions (or very few) within the actual political institution.

I have been consistently impressed by the diversity and depth of NGO groups represented at the CSW, but- so far- it seems to me that little political will is manufactured here. The first reason for that is that there is relatively little cross over between the NGO and formal UN meetings. Representatives of one do not attend the other, and information only trickles from group to group at briefings. Secondly, I have seen little or no lobbying of Member States (the real power base of the UN). I will continue to look, though...especially during tomorrow's caucus meeting with the US Mission to the UN.

In a 2007 article Let Women Rule, Ambassador Swanee Hunt wrote, "women may thrive in NGOs, the world, however, needs them to take that experience into the political sphere." She went on to quote Sierra Leone's former presidential candidate, Zainab Bangura who stated "the real power isn't in civil society; it's in policy making." Ambassador Hunt is the founder of the Initiative for Inclusive Security and the director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government and- I must add- a person who I very much admire. Today, an example of her ideal was illustrated by panelist Bambina Aido Almagro, Minister for Equality of Spain, who proudly reminded the audience of Spain's gender equal cabinet. The announcement was met with thunderous applause.

I am continually inspired by the work of NGOs represented at CSW, but Hunt and Spain are right. The power is in the policy. We must branch out from the comfortable confines of the NGO world in order to gain and maintain the political will we so desire.

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