When data saves lives

When data saves lives

Photo: Kim Beevers/Mercy Corps
Photo: Kim Beevers/Mercy Corps

Ignoring gender-based data can cause aid agencies to miss entire segments of people in need, and even cause harm.

In a crowded refugee camp in Eritrea, an aid organization documented hungry families who received a bulgur wheat distribution becoming healthier, with the exception of one particular group. Young men who came to the camp without their families were getting the same amount of the high-protein, vitamin-rich cereal, but were starving and, in some cases, dying.

How could this be? The aid organization discovered that the boys were eating the bulgur raw, which is completely devoid of nutrients the body can absorb. The reason: males don’t learn to cook in Eritrea.

While a person’s sex is a biological fact, gender is a socially constructed role. Not cooking the bulgur wasn’t a result of the boys being physically incapable. In their culture, and indeed in most cultures around the globe, women and men, girls and boys play different roles. While those roles often seem fixed, they are actually changing all the time, affected by a wide range of social, economic and cultural factors.

Nowhere are these differences starker than in each group’s ability to access resources and opportunities, with serious consequences.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, like tools and fertilizer, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent, which could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent. That could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by up to 150 million. The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts has published research showing that women perform 66 percent of the world’s work, but receive only 11 percent of the world’s income, and own only one percent of the world’s land.

Gender is everywhere people are, but we have to look for it to see it. The tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004 did not discriminate as it swept away entire villages. But once data was collected, Oxfam discovered that not the expected half, but two-thirds of those killed were female, with up to 75 percent in heavily affected areas. While the reasons are simple—girls aren’t taught to swim or climb trees, their clothing is more restrictive, and they typically care for and tried to save extended family members—the consequences are dire. With a loss of female population after the disaster, those left had to take on more responsibility, and in many cases that meant becoming child brides.

Though “gender” isn’t just another word for “women,” females tend to bear the brunt of inequality, so many aid organizations focus efforts on that demographic specifically. Not knowing which segments of the population are most affected by disasters and chronic poverty and how aid programs affect them differently results in inefficiencies and waste. Sustainable solutions require that men and boys play key roles as partners, supporters, and advocates of the integration of women’s and girls’ participation in their communities.

Last year, the Feinstein International Center, CARE, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and Tufts University set the stage for evidence-driven aid through a gendered lens. Their pioneering research, “Sex and Age Matter,” published in August 2011, makes a strong case for disaggregating data to ensure vulnerabilities, needs and access to life-saving services are understood so responses are effective.

Governmental, multilateral and individual donors are responding to the call. In December, President Obama signed an executive order, which launched the first-ever U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described it as “a comprehensive roadmap for accelerating and institutionalizing efforts across the United States Government to advance women’s participation in making and keeping peace.” The plan was jointly developed by the Departments of State and Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), with guidance from the White House.

Achieving our objectives for global development will demand accelerated efforts to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment,” said Sec. of State Clinton. “Otherwise, peace and prosperity will have their own glass ceiling.

USAID also unveiled its Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy this March. This new game-changing policy requires that USAID consider requests for aid funding only if gender considerations are explicitly incorporated into the design and mission of poverty-reducing programs. As of March, all implementing partners are required to develop and report on indicators that measure specific gender equality goals for each activity.

Many large, cross-sector international aid organizations have long had programs promoting women’s empowerment, combating gender violence and discouraging child marriage. Some have even had gender integration policies in place for a decade. Yet few, if any, have succeeded in fully integrating gender across all programs from design to evaluation.

Working in war-torn regions around the world, the International Rescue Committee helps women and girls heal after gender-based violence, understanding that the trauma a survivor experiences affects her family and community, too. The organization has a strong advocacy arm that works toward advancing laws to prevent violence against women, and enforcing policies ensuring survivors’ access to care and legal justice.

Mercy Corps takes a different approach. Though the organization has long incorporated a gender lens into many of its programs, the catalyst that allowed the group to scale up was a private donor, Melissa Waggener Zorkin who is a Mercy Corps board member, Kristo Zorkin, and the global communications firm Waggener Edstrom Worldwide. The organization just launched a new internal initiative, which will build global team skills in understanding how gender impacts aid among its almost 4,000 staff members. Unique to their efforts is marrying “do no harm” with a gender approach—versus a women’s approach—across all programs.

CARE, which is well known for its bold multimedia campaigns to bring attention to women’s empowerment, has an across-the-board policy, and places a special emphasis on gender at the heart of all its efforts. In addition to producing collaborative research, the organization has developed a gender toolkit, which provides practitioners with methods and resources to use around the world, and a wiki to share what works and what doesn’t. Despite its success, the organization has acknowledged it still has a long way to go.

Disaggregating data is the first step in discovering who is not being reached by aid. But data without analysis is useless. Making sense of the numbers and using them to design smart poverty-fighting programs means those most in need won’t be missed or, worse yet—harmed—by aid.

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