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While demonstrating “measurable outcomes” is de rigueur in development assistance circles, a recent report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reveals that U.S. agencies have failed to provide a comprehensive assessment confirming that the gains Afghan women have made—which these agencies tout and take credit for—are actually traceable to U.S. assistance.
The use of gender indicators in global governance has been on the rise. In July 2012, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, and Gallup Chairman Jim Clifton teamed up to highlight the importance of gender data in promoting what Kim calls “smart economics.” Taking a page from corporate management, international and national development agencies now regularly crunch the numbers as part of the wave of “evidence-based management” that has seeped from private to public sector, strengthening the accountability and efficacy of development assistance. However, SIGAR—the U.S. government’s main oversight authority for the use of Afghanistan reconstruction funding—reports that despite heavy investment from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Departments of State and Defense in programs to support Afghan women, the extent and efficacy of this investment is unclear.
What is clear is that women and girls have made remarkable progress in Afghanistan since the toppling of the Taliban. Gains have occurred in a variety of sectors: in education, where girls’ primary school enrollment has skyrocketed to over 80 percent in 2011, compared to virtually zero in 2001; in health, where maternal mortality has fallen from 1,600 deaths per 100,000 births in 2001 to 327 per 100,000 births in 2013; and in political participation, where around three hundred female candidates—more than ever before—ran for provincial council seats in the 2014 election.
As I’ve remarked before, however, these gains remain fragile. Support from the United States and Afghanistan’s other allies and donors could be critical in maintaining these strides as the country navigates its nascent security and political transitions.
The SIGAR report notes that while U.S. agencies monitor and evaluate at the program or project level, these agencies have not “compiled an agency-level assessment of the impact these efforts have had on the lives of Afghan women, in accordance with [the government’s own] best practices.” Various U.S. agencies have made women’s rights, or at least consideration of a gender perspective, a priority in Afghanistan. In 2011, the United States published the National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security (NAP) emphasizing the importance of empowering women to prevent conflict and directing the Departments of State, Defense, and Justice, USAID, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among other agencies, to take up this challenge. Building on the NAP, the goal of empowering women was incorporated into U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, and in 2012, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul published a gender strategy echoing this call to action.
Together, USAID, the State Department, and the Defense Department collectively reported spending at least $64.8 million on 652 projects, programs, and initiatives to support Afghan women in fiscal years 2011 through 2013. Yet, SIGAR found an additional $850.5 million spent on 17 projects for USAID and the State Department, and the specific amount of funds within these projects that directly supported Afghan women could not be identified. This failure occurred in spite of the explicit inclusion of monitoring and evaluation mechanisms in the gender strategies of USAID and the State Department—both crafted in March 2012—and in the U.S. NAP.
Furthermore, SIGAR noted fragmentation in agency responsibility for projects and programs to benefit Afghan women. For example, within both the Departments of Defense and State, there are multiple offices responsible for implementing, tracking, and reporting on efforts related to Afghan women, but no single office in either department could summarize the full extent of their department’s programming. SIGAR writes that “USAID officials told us that although gender equality and female empowerment policy goals are integrated into all of their programs, it was not possible to track funding by gender in the agency’s financial management system.”
In order to ensure effective programs and that women’s progress in Afghanistan does not stagnate, or worse, backtrack, evaluation is critical to U.S. programming.