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Data diary: Megan O’Donnell on the importance of tracking gender-related spending

Through our gender financing project, we are engaging with different gender-related data to track spending towards gender equality. Our Data Diaries series asks development experts why gender-related data matters to their work, how they engage with this data, and what improvements they would like to see to make this data more transparent.

Our first Data Diary is by Megan O’Donnell, Assistant Director of the Center for Global Development’s gender program and a senior policy analyst.

Why is being able to track spending towards gender equality important for your work?

Dedicating funds to gender-focused projects and programs signals a commitment from donors, governments, and private sector actors that gender equality is an important goal. Our ability to track these actors’ spending over time can serve as a proxy for capturing how their commitments to gender equality progress – whether they increase, decrease, or stagnate.

Simultaneously, granular data on spending, such as what particular interventions or programs cost to implement, combined with data on their impact, can tell us whether programs are cost-effective. Knowing this can encourage donors to continue and/or scale their investments. Cost-effectiveness data is all too important in our world of limited resources – especially now with COVID-19 pandemic and global recession exacerbating resource constraints. But we still have a long way to go before cost effectiveness evidence is widely available on gender-focused projects and programs.

How do you find information on gender-related spending, and where?

For donor institutions, I often look to the OECD DAC gender policy markers –and the reports that the OECD Gendernet has published using this data– to get a snapshot of donors’ allocation of funds to promoting gender equality through their overseas development assistance (ODA) in different countries and sectors, and over time. All 30 DAC members, as well as several private foundations and multilateral organizations, report under the DAC gender policy markers on an annual basis. This quantitative data and descriptive program information is then made publicly available reflecting the percentages of aid that “principally” or “significantly” focus on promoting gender equality. I commend the OECD Gendernet team for their efforts in shepherding this tool: the DAC outlines clear definitions, with accompanying examples, of what qualifies as “principally” or “significantly” targeted aid.

But of course, donor institutions are just one set of actors among many whose spending has implications for global gender equality. To get a holistic picture of spending allocations, we also have to look at government budgets and investments by additional philanthropic foundations, private sector corporate social responsibility programs, and within the core operations of businesses. However, we lack equivalent centralized platforms to track these other sources – you have to do a lot of digging through ministry websites and corporate annual reports, which sit in different locations or may not be publicly available at all. Even when budget and investment documents are published, the extent to which funds have been allocated to promote gender equality may not be clear from their contents.

What would you like to see done to improve these tracking platforms and make gender equality financing more transparent?
  • It is difficult to check to what extent self-reporting donors adhere to the definitions of the gender policy marker data. As a next step, these donors could be asked to report (and ideally provide supporting documentation to validate) on the extent to which they have adhered to prescribed criteria for projects that are “principally” or “significantly” focused on gender equality: whether a gender analysis was conducted, whether it informed the project design, whether indicators that disaggregate by sex are present in evaluation frameworks, and whether these are reported against. This information is presumably already collected and stored within donor organizations but not currently public, and would allow for improved civil society oversight and external validation by independent experts.

  • Sustainable Development Goal 5.c.1 (“Proportion of countries with systems to track and make public allocations for gender equality and women’s empowerment”) offers a first step to shed some light on country governments’ gender budgeting practices. But to maximize the utility of SDG 5.c.1, more country governments will need to report on it: last I checked, just 69 countries had done so. The indicator could also be built upon over time to assess more specific facets of gender-responsive budgeting architecture, including the extent to which governments are supporting local women’s organizations. The International Monetary Fund, UN Women, and the OECD are all well-positioned to lend technical assistance and/or encourage ministries of finance to collect and report the data for which the indicator calls.

  • As reporting rates increase, governments’ self-reported data could be complemented by external validation. Researchers can also undertake analyses comparing countries’ scores under 5.c.1 to improvements in gender equality-related outcomes over time. Gender-responsive budgeting will take a variety of forms, so an analysis examining SDG 5.c.1 data and relationships with improved outcomes would shed light on best practices to be modeled.

I’ve done some more thinking about these and other related questions reflected in a CGD policy note, From Principles to Practice: Strengthening Accountability for Gender Equality in International Development, for those who may be interested in taking a look.

Megan O’Donnell is the Assistant Director of the Center for Global Development’s gender program and a senior policy analyst. She works on issues related to women’s economic empowerment and financial inclusion, gender data and measurement, and development effectiveness. Megan serves as a member of the gender project’s informal advisory committee. Read Megan’s full bio, and the bios of other committee members, here.

The Gender Financing Project receives support from Plan International USA and Save the Children USA.

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