May 9, 2024

Didn’t meet the gender target… good news for transparency or bad news for gender?

With last month’s release of its inaugural Performance of Australian Development Cooperation (PADC) report, DFAT confirmed that it had yet again fallen short of its target that 80% of its investments address gender equality effectively. (In fact, the department has only achieved this once since it was set in 2014, in 2021-22.) 

However, as the report notes, this 75% result (a decline from last year) is due to gender specialists quality assuring DFAT’s internal performance ratings on gender in 2022-23. This likely led to more honest and robust assessments of investment performance.

Here at the Lab, this result gave us pause. It’s a stark reminder that Australia needs to up its game if it's to make meaningful progress towards gender equality a flagship of its development program. But on the other hand, it’s an encouraging signal that the performance culture in the department – as well its commitment to transparency and accountability – is improving.

So we enlisted three experts, posing the question, “Didn’t meet the gender target…good news for transparency or bad news for gender?”

Alice Ridge
Senior Research, Policy and Advocacy Advisor, International Women's Development Agency

This depends on two questions. First: what’s the point of a target? If it’s to give the Foreign Minister an “announceable”, then the 80% target has been a failure. The only year it’s been met since 2014 was under Partnerships for Recovery, when it was (ironically) downgraded from a target to an indicator.

If the purpose of a target is to drive progress over time, then the picture here doesn’t look much better – results have fluctuated between 75-80%, somewhat unpredictably. However, this shows that DFAT have held the line on robust assessments and resisted any pressure to arbitrarily ‘meet’ the target. But it doesn’t look like it has improved the aid program’s ability to perform on gender.

Which brings me to my second question: is this target measuring the right thing? That is, can it actually tell us anything meaningful about whether Australia’s development cooperation is advancing gender equality?

There are actually two gender targets now: the 80% target (an annual measure of performance against 6 criteria) and the commitment introduced in 2022 that all programs over $3m must have gender equality as their principal or significant objective. Working together, the two targets should ensure that almost all DFAT programs are underpinned by robust gender analysis and go beyond just including women, instead aiming to transform the structural causes of gender inequality.

Shifting gender norms can take generations, so 18 months is too soon to see real results. But if we want to speed up the pace of change, I’d suggest adding one more target: increasing the percentage of aid to women’s rights organisations – consistently found to be the most effective actors on gender outcomes, but currently receiving less than half a percent of Australia’s ODA. The most transformative outcomes are achieved when women’s rights organisations are provided with core, flexible, long-term funding – when they are funded to be, not merely to do. Lifting the proportion of funding going to the most effective actors to even 5% of Australia’s ODA would unlock real progress on gender equality.

Alice is a policy and advocacy advisor, and high impact operator in the international development and feminist policy space. In a previous life, she worked with the Australian Council for International Development contributing to its advocacy on international development policy.  As one of the convenors of the Australian Feminist Foreign Policy Coalition, Alice also specialises in gender analysis and gender mainstreaming. At the Lab, we admire Alice’s leadership advancing feminist foreign policy and her tireless advocacy in gender equality.

Ashlee Betteridge
Lead Consultant, Better Things Consulting

It’s easy to say that Australia is committed to gender equality in the development program. But it is much harder to be honest about what is needed to achieve it. The recently-released PADC report might show we are currently falling short of gender equality targets, but the presence of a credible, public report on aid performance is good news in itself.

After the integration of AusAID into DFAT in 2014, the transparency agenda tumbled from lofty priority, enshrined in a Transparency Charter, to deep dark fear. For those new to aid management and big budget program implementation, the very real risk of failure seemed spooky enough – so why would you tell people about it? What would the Minister think?

But you can’t fix what you don’t know. After nearly a decade on shaky footing, the 2023 development policy signalled a renewed commitment to accountability, signed off by the Ministers responsible for enabling and encouraging it.

Transformative development work is hard, especially when it involves shifting norms and changing culture. Thanks to this report, we now know where we stand on our commitments, what the issues are, and how far there is to go.

There is another piece of good news to take away from lower ratings – they are driven by improved robustness. Instead of DFAT itself deciding if it is achieving its own goals, more investment monitoring reports are being independently verified. This is an important driver for accountability and performance.

While we aren’t there yet, the report shows us the gender targets in the aid program are within reach. We are much more likely to meaningfully achieve them by grappling with complexity and examining our effectiveness with transparency and rigour.

Ashlee is a development expert and independent consultant working on Australian-funded humanitarian response, gender, research and governance programs across Southeast Asia and the Pacific. In a previous life, she was Centre Manager for ANU’s Development Policy Centre and worked in Timor-Leste and Indonesia in development communications. Ashlee has a deep understanding of the Australian aid and development sector, and the Asia-Pacific region. At the Lab, we love Ashlee’s way with words and her ability to tell compelling stories about the impact of international aid and development.

Sian Wrigley
Executive Director, Synergy Group

It is not surprising the department has not met its gender target – it is honest. Being honest about how we achieve inclusive gender equality, through intersectional approaches that seek the removal of inequalities everywhere, requires contestability within our organisations. It must be backed up by development systems and structures that foster this change.

A culture of transparency and contestability that provides space to question, tell the truth (and in this case, support DFAT to deliver an accountable development program within a complex geo-strategic environment) might make it harder to achieve the gender target. However, it may also make the process of realising the target more robust in a world where the minimum time to realise gender equality is more than a lifetime.

As a general rule, patriarchal, misogynistic, white supremacist, colonial systems, and racist structures – to name merely a few of the tools of dehumanisation – are pretty bad for gender equality. This is equally true whether you’re talking about a development program, the delivery of humanitarian assistance, or the way we engage in our homes, communities, states and the region.

There is opportunity in the new international development policy and the twin targets for all new investments over $3m to include gender equality objectives, and half of them to include climate change objectives. It poses the question – how can one be done without the other? A strategic alignment, and cooperative locally-led approach to gender, climate and environment investments may support DFAT to achieve these targets. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting interventions that are climate, environment and gender-informed tend to work better. Australia’s national action plan on women, peace and security provides one mechanism to consider the intersections of these issues in the region.

Sian is a highly regarded public policy leader and strategic advisor, specialising in inclusive approaches to human security and resilience. In a previous life, Sian was a public servant with more than 15 years’ experience working with the departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Prime Minister and Cabinet. Sian has a deep interest in promoting equality and inclusion in peace and security contexts. At the Lab, we admire Sian’s political nous interwoven with her cutting-edge analysis and frank insights, drawing from her wealth of experiences working across government.

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