Women at the table: that is investing in global prospects!

This article is written by: Ireen Dubel

everything of worth is defenceless
grows rich from touchability
and equal to everything

Lucebert 1974 (translation Diane Butterman 2011)

Many preceded Mama Cash in their analysis of and response to the new policy note of Minister Kaag, Investing in Global Prospects. Our response focuses primarily on the significance of the note for the rights of women and girls and gender equality. Mama Cash endorse the concerns of others about the conflicting agendas of preventing conflict, instability and migration, poverty reduction and social inequality, inclusive growth and climate action, sustainability and the earning capacity of the Netherlands.

Values central

With the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the guideline for the new policy, Minister Kaag has chosen for a universal, holistic and value driven agenda. An agenda that requires fundamental changes within the Netherlands and of the role of the Netherlands in the world. People, planet, well-being, peace and solidarity are central in this agenda. Mama Cash would be most excited if Prime Minister Rutte, who recently championed the European Union as a community of values, would champion with the same passion the agenda of values of Dutch foreign trade and development cooperation, Investing in Global Prospects. Of course supported by the necessary budget, as that is lacking for the time being. Defenseless values can and deserve to be transformed in equality, respect, well-being and an enjoyable life for all and with each other.

Women’s rights and gender equality as the connecting thread

The new policy note is full of ambitious plans to safeguard the equal rights of women and girls in the old and new thematic priority areas of the policy. The Minister broadens and deepens the agenda of gender equality. Rightly so! For many years this agenda prioritised sexual and reproductive rights with much less attention for economic rights. Gender mainstreaming is also taken seriously with attention for women and education, land rights, employment, working conditions, career perspectives, entrepreneurship, climate action, security and conflict.

Politically, the Minister strives for increased participation in decision-making and female leadership in the broad sense. She wants more women at the table, in conflict prevention, peace negotiations, climate actions, and negotiations about international trade and investments.
As with previous ministers, prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls remain high on the agenda, with extra attention for sexual violence and abuse during migration, in conflict situations and the aid chain itself. A shift from a perspective of women as victims to: from, for and by women!

In short, the policy note raises high and hopeful expectations among those sympathetic to SDG 5 and gender mainstreaming across all the SDGs. Minister Kaag certainly does not lack ambition with respect to gender. The challenge will be whether the proposed gender interventions will be implemented at the right point in time in the aid and trade chain. In other words, not as an attempt at repair after the fact for abuses and problems as a result of choices that are bad for women. Prevention, on the other hand, implies investing in strategies and partnerships that, from the outset, achieve positive results in the area of women’s rights and gender equality. That requires gender coherence in the combination of aid and trade, in the entering into relationships with partners, and in the allocation of ministerial resources – both financial and human. There remains room to use key opportunities to safeguard women’s rights and gender equality more broadly, and these opportunities are worth seizing.

Gender-coherence in trade and aid is lacking

The chapter about the international earning capacity of the Netherlands lacks a gender analysis and does not have any gender ambitions. The opportunities and risks for women of the trade and investment portfolio are overlooked and not recognized. More women at the table suddenly seems not applicable here. Many of the private sector parties mentioned are not known for their international leadership and innovation with regard to issues such as closing the gender wage gap, a living wage, safe, healthy and decent working conditions for women, and prevention and combating violence against women at the workplace.

In the previous chapter about sustainable and inclusive growth, the same private sector parties are expected to be able to contribute to a better economic climate for women. The experience with the sector covenants so far has shown that the voluntary nature of these agreements does not lead to progress. Violations of women’s labour rights and unsafe working conditions for women still remain invisible and cannot be put on the agenda in the uneven playing field between companies and women workers. Investments in big infrastructure and extractive projects are made at the expense of the sustainable livelihoods and even the lives of large numbers of women and men, who depend on natural resources for their livelihoods. This is a case of incoherence between the trade interests and Dutch international earning capacity on the one hand, and the agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals, on the other. The annual SDG report compiled by the Netherlands about the implementation of the SDGs in the Netherlands and globally, shows that gender equality in the field of work and income also remains a challenge in the Netherlands itself.

On the same day that Minster Kaag presented the new policy Investing in Global Prospects, she sent the second SDG report to parliament with a covering letter about social corporate responsibility. In the letter she announced the Cabinet’s intention to undertake an ex-ante assessment of new policies, laws and measures against their contribution to the realization of the SDGs, including the effects on gender equality and the effects on developing countries. If the gender assessment will also be applied within the assessment for developing countries, it will provide new opportunities for preventive measures instead of gender repair afterwards. A number of the strategic partnerships with civil society organisations has meanwhile gained experience and expertise with regard to the gender incoherence and coherence of the private sector. Mama Cash is strongly in favour of more attention for preventive gender interventions and choices in the policy for Dutch international trade and development cooperation. This implies more women at all tables and during all phases of policy preparation, development, implementation and evaluation.

Choice of partners: social movements overlooked

The policy note explicitly mentions a large number of private sector parties in relation to their contribution to the objectives of sustainable and inclusive growth and the international earning capacity of the Netherlands. In comparison, the partnerships with civil society organisations and knowledge institutions do not feature prominently. This is surprising, in particular given the laudatory assessment of the 2017 OECD-DAC Peer Review that assessed the Dutch programme of strategic partnerships with civil society organisations, part of the policy framework Dialogue and Dissent, as innovative.

A number of strategic partnerships originate from or collaborate closely with citizen initiatives and social movements in developing countries and globally. They stand for full citizenship, universal human/women’s/LGBTI rights and a position at the table. Social movements play a political and transformative role, by setting agendas, representing interests, being a watchdog, serving as a knowledge broker and innovator, and changing attitudes, beliefs, behaviour and social norms with regard to gender equality, diversity and inclusivity.

Thinking of some of the biggest changes in women’s lives over the last fifty years, what do we think of? The recognition of violence against women as a crime? More women with a paid job or a loan in their own name? More girls and women in school, getting an education and with prospects for meaningful work? For some, being able to choose what clothes to wear or what hair cut to have? What sport to play? As my colleague Zohra Moosa, Executive Director of Mama Cash, says,: “From the magnificent to the mundane, feminist activists have been changing our lives for the better.”

Feminist activism has led to big changes in the social, economic and political position of women, the thinking about gender, how violence is understood, sexual and reproductive health and rights, what counts and should be fairly remunerated as work. Academic research about violence against women provides proof of this. A study, that looked at seventy countries over a forty year period, demonstrated that the most important and consistent factor driving policy change related to violence against women is the presence and role of feminist movements. The research shows that feminist movements play a more important role than political parties, numbers of women legislators, or even national wealth.

Three of the current twenty-five strategic partnerships focus entirely on SDG 5 or strengthen women’s rights and gender equality across the other SDGs. These partnerships collaborate directly with the social movements of women and girls. Mama Cash is lead partner in the Count Me In! Consortium that also collaborates with the movements of trans and intersex people. The partnership Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action is unique as it is the only partnership led by an organisation based in the global South (the Central American Women’s Fund). It focuses on the cross-fertilisation between women’s and environmental movements. The Girls Advocacy Alliance led by PLAN Netherlands champions the rights of girls and young women. The Leading from the South (LfS) Fund is another innovative funding modality of the Dialogue and Dissent policy framework. LfS provides direct support to women’s organisations in the global South with financial decision-making power in the hands of feminist women’s funds in the global South. With these funding modalities and the existing modalities of Funding Leadership and Opportunities for Women (FLOW) and the National Action Plan for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 about ‘Women, Peace and Security’, the Minister has innovative modalities at her disposal that directly benefit the champions of the agenda of women’s rights and gender equality. We advocate unequivocally for continuing and intensifying the funding to feminist and women’s rights movements.

Human and financial resources: put your money where your mouth is!

The biggest challenge and concern is perhaps the implementation and financial capacity of the Ministry in relation to the new policy agenda. With the drastic cutbacks during Cabinet Rutte II the budgets for development cooperation and for the institutional capacity of the Ministry itself were reduced drastically. These cutbacks have not yet been reversed in a structural manner. The additional resources mentioned in the policy note will above all be allocated for the support of refugees and emergency aid, plus an extra investment in a new climate fund. With regard to the new financial modalities, such as the national climate fund, Trade & Innovate NL and Invest NL, the policy note remains silent about how these modalities can be used for the connecting thread of women’s rights and gender equality. The gender mainstreaming ambitions within the old and new thematic priority areas require thematic/sector specific gender expertise and capacity to make timely adjustments, intervene and to be at the table where decisions are being taken. The current capacity of the Task Force Women’s Rights and Gender Equality is insufficient and not capable of doing so. This also applies to many of the embassies and especially the embassies that no longer serve the agenda of development cooperation but that of foreign trade. Investing in the Ministry’s own gender capacity and in the strategic partnerships, with partners that have proven leadership in this respect, is our advice. Our advice: make the contribution to safeguarding women’s rights and gender equality a decisive assessment criterion for all financial and diplomatic interventions of Dutch international trade and development cooperation.

Ireen Dubel, Advocacy Advisor Count Me In/Mama Cash

Banner photo: Symbolic photo of a painting.

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