Virtual Roundtable: Protecting Gender Equality During COVID-19

Thursday, June 25, 2020
Elissa Golberg

Assistant Deputy Minister for Strategic Policy, Global Affairs Canada

Theo Sowa

Chief Executive Officer, African Women's Development Fund

Jamille Bigio

Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

Roundtable Series on Women and Foreign Policy and Women and Foreign Policy Program

BIGIO: Welcome, everyone. I hope you and your families are safe and healthy, and thank you all so much for joining us this morning.

My name is Jamille Bigio. I’m a senior fellow with the Council’s Women and Foreign Policy Program. Our program has worked with leading scholars for more than fifteen years to analyze how elevating the status of women and girls advances U.S. foreign policy objectives, including prosperity and stability.

I want to take a moment before we begin to thank the New Venture Fund for its generous support for today’s discussion, as well as members of the Women and Foreign Policy Program’s Advisory Council. I also want to remind everyone that that discussion today will be on the record.

So as we reflect on what is needed to protect gender equality during the coronavirus pandemic, we’re thrilled to be joined today by Elissa Golberg, assistant deputy minister for strategic policy at the Global Affairs Canada, and Theo Sowa, chief executive officer of the African Women’s Development Fund.

Every day now we are seeing new research, new stories, demonstrating the pandemic’s disproportionate effects on women and girls, from the workplace to the home and everywhere in between. We know that COVID-19 responses that ignore these risks—that ignore these issues risk exacerbating gender inequities and posing additional social and economic costs around the world.

So we’re very much looking forward to hearing from Elissa and Theo on their lessons for how COVID-19 responses can do the critical work of protecting gender equality.

So let’s start with the situation. Elissa, Theo, can you tell us more about what the biggest concerns are or threats are to gender equality that are emerging during this global pandemic, and then what you see as the best ways for the international community to respond to them? Elissa, let’s start with you.

GOLBERG: Great. Thanks very much, Jamille, and thank you very much to you and your team for organizing the conversation today. I really appreciate it. And I am such a huge fan of Theo’s. But even if it’s just a virtual chance to connect with her, I’m excited at the prospect.

It’s such a big question that you’ve put forward. I’m going to break it down maybe into some bite-sized chunks, and I think where I always start is we’re living, without question, through a consequential, almost a once-in-a-generation moment. The scope and the scale of the pandemic is really testing every community, every country, and every international institution. And we’ve all been touched, as you said, both personally and professionally. And I think we’re going to be sorting through the significant global health and socioeconomic implications of this crisis for some time to come.

And as you said, we all know that this global crisis is going to exacerbate inequalities. I worry about reversed development gains, particularly for women, girls, and marginalized groups that might already and who already experience poverty and exclusion really acutely.

You know, I don’t want to kind of dwell on the statistics, but we know that these groups are going to be expected and are already taking on additional care giving responsibilities in their families and communities, and additional risks at the front line, providing community health services and other services including, for instance, in small mom and pop shops, for instance.

I’m sure that everyone has the same data about women representing 70 percent of health-care workers, are at highest rate of exposure, but only 25 percent of them are in senior leadership and decision-making roles in the health sector. But these are all things, I think, that are at the forefront of our mind.

Women and women entrepreneurs, I think, are also facing particular socioeconomic threats including disproportionate economic vulnerabilities and burdens, especially but not exclusively in developing countries—those are also things that are impactful in a Canadian context—compromised access to sexual, reproductive, and maternal health resources, increase of sexual- and gender-based violence, risks online in the context of lockdowns and social isolation.

So those will be some of the specific concerns that I have on where—on gender equality and on women’s empowerment, and then, more broadly, I worry about some of the pre-existing trends that we had already been thinking seriously about that are now exacerbated by the pandemic. So geopolitical competition, state unilateralism, protectionism, this kind of episodic commitment to multilateral cooperation, challenges to democratic values and human rights, and these are all issues that have not gone away because of the pandemic.

And so in this kind of context of all of these worrying signs and this kind of lack of joined-up international action and solidarity, it’s really important for us to come together and to try to play a constructive role. It’s, certainly, something that in the Canadian context we’ve been very focused on, trying to shape global responses.

We’ve done this in a variety of different ways through diplomatic and trade actions for our international assistance programming, and here I would say that that effort has really been shaped by the prime minister, who’s been very clear in saying, look, to defeat the virus everywhere and emerge from the crisis stronger we’re going to have to do it at the global community.

And so, you know, when you ask me what are some of the things that the international community can do, I kind of land on three things.

First, flatten the curve. We need to stop or mitigate the pandemic and, in particular, to reduce the severity and length, because if we can do that it can help us to make sure that we’re limiting the negative gender implications that we’re seeing.

Second, for me, is mitigating the long-term damage by—that could occur in particular by supporting inclusive and sustainable economic recovery and resilience so that we’re better placed to deal with future shocks, and here I’m really thinking we need to continue the movement of goods and peoples, including small and medium-sized enterprises, women-led enterprises, reinforcing social safety nets and care, for instance, so that women have the ability to not be just dealing with work issues within the home but also outside the home should they wish to access the liquidity, that vulnerability, all of these bigger issues.

And then, third, it’s paying particular attention to the most vulnerable and not losing sight, for instance, of those that are living in fragile states, and I think I’ll end on that point. You know, I think before COVID struck everyone knows we were an ardent supporter for gender equality, inclusion, empowerment of women and girls in the context of making sure that the larger rules-based international system was functioning effectively, and the pandemic hasn’t changed that.

And, if anything, I think the pandemic has reinforced the value of those as priorities. And so, certainly, for us, that means we’re going to continue to try to push, with partners, this need for an integrated gender and diversity lens in all of our aid, diplomatic, and trade efforts, making sure that we’re accounting for these differentiated needs and priorities.

BIGIO: Thank you, Elissa.

Now, Theo, you are coming at these issues with a different seat and with a different network and wonder from what—from your perspective what you’re seeing and hearing from your partners across the continent and around the world. What do you see women leaders highlighting both as kind of the threats that they’re most concerned about and kind of the priorities that they see for international—for response by the international community?

SOWA: Thank you very much.

I think that some of what I would say very much echoes what Elissa has already said so I won’t repeat that. But I will really take off from her point of mid-term and long-term responses.

One of the things that has been very, very clear is the, you know, disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women in all parts of the world, all parts of the globe, and for very different reasons, because in some parts of the world, particularly in some parts of the Global South, the rates of infection and death, particularly in Africa, has not been as dramatic as it has been in North America and parts of Europe, for example. But the responses to COVID-19 have, in some ways, been more dramatic and have had a more deadly effect than the health pandemic itself.

So we really do need to get a grip on the health pandemic because we don’t want to see it get worse and we’ve seen the pattern in different continents where it starts off quite slowly with low rates and then suddenly peaks and puts all kinds of social and health systems at risk and under huge pressure. And when that happens, women, as key health providers, women, as carers at home, women, as the people who have to actually try and hold families and communities together, are hugely impacted.

So even though actually it looks as if the death rate for men is higher than for women from this COVID-19, the impact on women has been so much greater. But the thing that we’re really seeing in different parts of Africa but also looking across the world is that what COVID-19 has done is actually brought to the fore the danger of the discrimination and the inequality that women have been having to deal with for a huge period of time.

It’s women who are in the least protected jobs. It’s women who are in jobs with no health and social security benefits. It’s women who are in marginalized communities who are most impacted by this, where the economic resilience does not exist because there’s been economic exploitation for a very long period of time.

And so the response to COVID and the lockdowns mean that those women and their families and their communities are immediately impacted, and hunger becomes an issue when you are someone whose income is earned on a daily basis, not even a weekly or a monthly basis, and in a country where governments have not been able to provide safety nets.

So one of the things around COVID is that it really brings to the front and center the fact that inequality kills, and inequality is killing women in a way that is actually probably greater than the stats for COVID. And we’ve seen not just this issue around economic—around lack of economic protections, around lack of social protections, but all over the world, in particular, issues of violence against women and the incidence of violence against women has been increasing.

We already had a pandemic of violence against women in this world. COVID has made that worse, and what is very, very clear is that some of the answers we already knew about. We knew that we had to have a much more holistic approach to gender equality and women’s rights than we have had in the past.

Instead, we’ve continued on a very ad hoc and bitty way of approaching this. So the very people we expect to address the issues around COVID are the very people who have been most marginalized.

And yet, and we seem never to learn our lessons. We look at Ebola. We look at HIV/AIDS. When we brought women into decision-making spaces, enabled them to ask questions, make decisions, put forward policies, we got much, much better responses to those health emergencies.

We need to do that all over again for COVID. And yet, COVID does, as Elissa said, it provides us with an opportunity to be better. After this huge shock to our social, economic, health, political systems, we have an opportunity to build back in a way where gender equality truly is at the heart of the work that we do, the visions that we have, and the ways in which we promote resilience of all kinds.

BIGIO: Thank you. You have both laid out very eloquently why we need to pay attention to the effects of COVID-19 on women and girls.

As you said, Theo, inequality kills and is killing women, and COVID-19 is exacerbating that. And you both started to touch on the idea that as we have a conversation and plan for the medium- and long-term effects of the pandemic that we need to put the needs and leadership of women and girls at the center of that.

So would love to hear more from you both about what that looks like in practice, what kinds of policies, programs, what kinds of structures, should we be putting in place now so that women and girls both have the opportunity to lead in the efforts to build back again and that their needs and experiences are being appropriately addressed.

Elissa, can we start with you?

GOLBERG: Yeah. I mean, it’s a huge question. (Laughter.) It should be simple.

We should make sure that there is adequate representation of women and girls in decision-making—(inaudible)—but in the absence of that, obviously, there’s all kinds of structural and tactical and operational activities that we could take to address that.

And so I think there’s a couple of things that I would want to say on this. I think that there are a lot of lessons that we’ve learned, as Theo said, and the question for us as partners and policy contributors and financial contributors, how do we make sure that those lessons from those previous global health emergencies have been taken into account.

Now, I have to say that that’s one of the things that has been really interesting about the pandemic responses, this openness and this willingness to learn, and seeing even just my evaluation team, for instance, connecting out with partners in countries that have experienced similar health or significant health crises in the past but also other experts to say, OK, what were our lessons? What do we take away from HIV/AIDS? What do we take away from Ebola? What about H1N1?

What are some of the things that we need to really seize upon in terms of the active engagement of women and girls and other groups that don’t necessarily get to be part of decision-making, and how do we make sure that’s hardwired in from the beginning?

And I think that’s been something I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see, colleagues around the world collaborating on this. We’ve seen the OECD come in on it as well. The World Bank has been trying to pull out, make sure that those people that are working on pandemic response are hardwiring this in.

So I think that has been positive. And then making sure that we’re pushing up these lessons to decision-makers both to people like Theo, myself, you know, ministers, when they’re making decisions, that this is really at the forefront of the program choices that are being made, the government—new policies that governments are making.

It’s not perfect. It’s not happening everywhere equally. But the fact that there’s a sensitivity to this is different than what I’ve seen in the past, and so I am pleasantly surprised to see that that’s the case.

And so just a couple of examples. You know, I’ve seen colleagues, certainly, ourselves but the Swiss, the Italians, the Finns, for instance, have been trying to hardwire, making sure that local organizations and women and girls are part of the structures that are making the call on which policies they do put in place with governments or which programming we need to be advancing.

We’ve seen that on supports for gender-based violence services, access to SR—to sexual/reproductive health and rights services, making sure that those don’t disappear, because people are not able to go out necessarily or governments will say, well, we have to limit access to all but essential services and somehow those aren’t identified as essential services. Looking at local women’s rights organizations and networks who are out the forefront, and this is also where some of the investments that we’ve made previously have been able to pivot to adapt.

I know that Theo will talk more about it. But even the example of our own work with our Women’s Leadership—Voice and Leadership initiative, which we’ve got over thirty countries around the world, we’ve been able to use that network of Women’s Voice and Leadership programs to forward deploy supports for them to help frontline women’s organizations and groups who are dealing with the COVID pandemic and to augment that, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where we’ve been able to reinforce it. And what it’s shown is that those local organizations and networks have been really agile and being responsive to pivot their programming to be able to respond to the pandemic. And so we need to continue to do activities like that and reinforce those kinds of investments.

Also, where we’re pooling funds. So some of the work, for instance, that’s been done through the Equality Fund, which has specifically established new financial allocations to respond to COVID-19 and, again, to reinforce women’s organizations and women’s groups throughout this and their allies in the effort.

And while we’re doing all of this, not to forget the other important components to it. So we’ve seen some good collaborations happening on things like food security. You know, Theo is quite right to underscore that if we fail to mitigate a hunger crisis and a nutrition crisis that the consequences of that down the road will be extremely consequential, particularly for women and girls.

You know, 70 percent of the world’s hungry right now are women and girls. They’re food insecure and they’re malnourished. And so if global supply chains—and if we’re not paying attention to these issues during the pandemic—aren’t addressed, it’s only going to exacerbate some of these issues.

And so I was pleased to see the collaboration, for instance, between Brazil and Egypt, Italy and Canada, in working to convene this high-level conversation, for instance, around food security and the fact that the statement that came out of that put a spotlight on the importance of making sure that women and girls are part of the decision-making and part of the programming right up front.

I mean, we’ll talk more about it, but just to say I think there are experiences that we’ve drawn on from the recent past that we are applying in real time to COVID. Not perfectly, but, certainly, there’s a greater sensitivity to these issues than, I think, we’ve seen in the last several years.

I don’t know if you agree, Theo.

SOWA: (Laughter.) So, no, I do agree that there is a greater sensitivity. I think that we’re seeing more conversations where people are asking questions about the role of women and impact on women. My fear is that sometimes they ask the questions but they don’t change their actions and make the implementation different.

So, for example, mentioning Women’s Voice and Leadership, that was something I was going to talk about because, for me, the real lesson about Women’s Voice and Leadership is that the way in which women’s rights organizations were being supported by Women’s Voice and Leadership was around resourcing women’s rights organizations to set their own agendas and to build their own strengths.

When you have strong independent organizations and movements it means that they can then pivot and it’s those organizations who may have been working, for example, on land rights, but when COVID becomes a major issue are strong enough to be able to pivot to meet the needs of their constituencies and their societies.

And so that’s why funding women’s rights organizations in a way that gives them independence rather than in very projectized siloed ways makes a huge difference, and I would really like to see much, much more of that across the board from bilaterals, from foundations public and private, because that is what makes a real difference in terms of agile response and flexible responses.

And though it is definitely getting better, we’re still in this position where the funding and the resourcing of women’s rights organization(s) are still minimal and marginal when you look at the funding and the resourcing of thematic issues more generically in the international assistance and in the development sectors.

So I really—it’s great when you hear particular governments—and Canada has been great with your feminist international assistance policy because it wasn’t just that you spoke about the issues. You also put money where you mouths were and you did the linking. You made it holistic, and that is one of the gaps we’ve had, I think, in much of the work that we’ve been doing, that we haven’t been holistic enough about it.

And women’s rights are intersectional, and we see this more than ever in the world today. When we look at the protests that have been happening, starting in America and happening across the world, around racial injustice and oppression which we have seen with indigenous peoples and black peoples all over the world, if you’re an African feminist, racial injustice and gender injustice merge for you. And so when we’re tackling these issues, we really need to have a holistic approach.

So I’m really hoping that some of the resourcing of the responses to COVID really will do some of what you’re hoping, that we really will raise the profile of women’s leadership in responses and, to date, that’s been very patchy in the Global South but also in the Global North, the women who have or have not been part of thinking of ways to respond.

And if we do not have that central to the responses that are being planned, then we will go back to a situation where we talk about women’s economic empowerment instead of talking about economic justice and ensuring that we have systems where women are not discriminated against, where marginalized people are not discriminated against, where we can have new thinking about economic resilience rather than people thinking, oh, well, let’s make women better able to compete in a system that naturally discriminates against them.

So I do think that there’s some really good steps, and what I really am hoping is that those countries, like Canada, who have come up with both—you’ve mentioned Women’s Voice and Leadership and you mentioned the Equality Fund. The Equality Fund—the vision of that fund is fantastic because, ultimately, it means that the very people who are most impacted by the issues we want to see addressed more thoughtfully are the people who will actually control the resourcing, and that’s incredibly important to happen.

It’s also very brave of the Canadian government because many people aren’t prepared to take the risk of saying, OK, we truly are going to fund this in a way that engenders power and that shifts power. We need another hundred Equality Funds, and so that means that we need those people within the bilateral system, within the foundation world, within the philanthropy world, who really are thinking more—in a more visionary way about gender equality to be able to be doing that advocacy amongst themselves and with each other.

And if that happens, then perhaps we will have responses to COVID when it comes to economics, for example, where we can actually be looking at building back economic security for women, which includes all those things that we all hold really dear about, you know, safe jobs, decent jobs, proper protections, lack of exploitation, being able to be in a workplace without violence.

These are all things that should be really, really simple but it’s been really hard to make happen. But we know that they can happen and we know that donors can do more and better because we’ve seen the examples. We’ve seen the examples with the Netherlands. We’ve seen the examples with Canada. We’ve seen some examples with Sweden.

What we need is more stitched together thinking so that that becomes the norm rather than the exception, and we need to really look at how we link that with the actions of governments, more widely. So when we are looking, for example, after COVID looking at what will the COVID response be, if we end up with massive debts by governments because that is the basis on which the international community thinks that there should be a response, and those massive debts are not about building health systems and building better social protections but they’re about shorter-term economic, not even protection but often exploitative systems, then we’re going to be right back where we started.

And so I’m really, really hoping, as I said, that those great examples that we have and that we can point to can be expanded and that those voices and those visions can be used to advocate with people who haven’t quite reached there, who know somewhere in their hearts that gender equality makes sense for everybody but sometimes just can’t work out the how. Some people have worked out the how, so let’s give those people greater prominence and really help push that.

GOLBERG: I mean, I agree with everything that Theo said, and how—because there are some real trailblazers. I mean, the Dutch, I think, have done some really impressive, impressive work and deserve a big shout out because many of us are building on their example and they’ve been very generous in sharing their lessons.

So, yes, the individual bilateral donors but also making sure that our investments then with the large multilaterals. So, you know, the funds that were provided for the regional development banks and the World Bank, the IMF, that, you know, we’ve been pushing them in our discussions as well—and in the G-20—to say this has to be at the center of the conversation, and how we think about economic resilience and economic security and dignity has to—this is an opportunity for us to shift that conversation.

And there isn’t—there is—certainly, I think, at the regional development banks and the World Bank and the IMF with Kristalina there is this opportunity to change the nature of that conversation and so we need to seize this moment for pushing forward the—we’ve set the foundation. There’s been a lot of conversations over the last couple of years, and now there’s this opportunity to operationalize it in responding to the pandemic. And that’s really changing the narrative.

SOWA: Yeah. And I—and I think that that absolutely has happened. And for me, it’s still this question about how we expand it, how we make sure. Because when I look at many countries and their immediate approaches—responses to COVID, women’s rights absolutely were not taken into consideration. And so if anything, even in the issues around violence people are playing catchup. If we had had different voices at the table, maybe we wouldn’t be playing catchup. So it’s about that continuing advocacy.

And you’re absolutely right with the multilaterals and with the private foundations, but also with the development sector and with civil society, who sometimes, you know, don’t put—you know, act in that same way: don’t put women at the center of decision-making, don’t make sure that Southern voices are integral to any planning, any decision-making, as opposed to bringing in the Southern voices at the end of the day for implementation, because that doesn’t work either. So I think that we just have to keep pushing and pushing and pushing until we get to the place where we want to be.

And part of that means listening to different voices. And sometimes our multilateral organizations, but also our civil society organizations, find it hard to listen to the different voices. So if you get feminist voices saying let’s look at feminist economic recovery—and there have been some amazing African feminists who have been really looking at macroeconomic solutions to COVID-19 responses, but also looking more generally at mid-term and longer-term futures. But it’s very hard for them to get an audience with some of the decision-makers who are actually making those decisions about Africans’ long-term economic money.

So I think—I think there’s a door to be opened. We need to do more about opening those doors, because we have seen that where women are part of decision-making or at least where women with agendas are part of decision-making—(laughs)—we can have very, very different and really excellent results.

And the other thing that I’ll just—I just want to really emphasize again is the whole area of how we fund civil society and how we fund women’s rights organizations, because the more we fund in projectized ways the more we tie the hands of the people on the ground who are most able to make the changes we want to see. And as I said before, we’ve seen the beginning of changing that. I really want to see us keep pushing, keep pushing so that Women’s Voice and Leadership, for example, isn’t an isolated example, but it’s at the heart of the whole range of resourcing where women’s rights and Southern women’s voices and feminist thinking is at the heart rather than at the margins, and is around longer-term funding rather than individual year-on-year project funding that just kills innovation and strength in civil society.

GOLBERG: Absolutely. I think the onus is on—is on us also to amplify the examples, right, to show that when you do do it, here are the results. Here are the outcomes that you can achieve. And I’m thinking—I was talking with the team yesterday about what are we starting to see from the initiatives that we’ve been supporting with Women’s Voice and Leadership that have had the positive impact on the COVID side.

And so in Mozambique the team was talking about how they’ve created the support that we’ve been providing for the Women’s Voice and Leadership platform has resulted in fifty-four women’s organizations from across the country coming together in a COVID-19 platform to help then drive policymaking in different locations.

Or the other one was in Haiti, for instance, where the organizations working on Women’s Voice and Leadership have come together with government and with local media to work on the communications around the pandemic across the country, to be very deliberate and very impactful. And part of that has been also making sure that there’s specific messaging and actions on women—for women victims of violence. They’ve set up hotlines so that when—for women who have, like almost all of us, had to go into self-isolation, what are the—what are the supports that they have if they—if they need to because they’ve got intimate-partner violence, and so setting up these hotlines.

And that’s all because of that—flexible resources that were provided to those organizations, which enabled—which has enabled them then to build on those networks to respond to this particular crisis. And so—but the onus is on us to get those stories out, right, to communicate the impact of these kinds of initiatives.

Sorry, Jamille. (Laughs.)

SOWA: I think that’s—no, no, that’s absolutely right, though I think also we have to somehow get across to people that those things don’t happen overnight. Though, I mean, it’s really—it’s this very weird dichotomy because sometimes I want to say to people, look, it’s like patient capital in investment. You invest, and then you see the results, and the results may be much further along the road. So I keep saying to people we shouldn’t be just here for the quick wins. We should—but the truth of the matter is, women’s right organizations actually over and over again keep giving quick wins. (Laughs.) And so then you think, OK, we really need to amplify the fact that women are making these changes in so many ways at the same time as saying to people: build, you invest.

We see it in SRH, you know, in sexual and reproductive health and rights. If you work with girls on their confidence and their awareness of their bodies and their belief in themselves, they may not be making decisions in a year or two years that reflects that; it may be ten years before that girl is making a decision and being able to say yes or no or design her life in a particular way. And it’s at that point we see the results of the work that went on earlier. But it’s really hard to have people understand you need to have that patient—(inaudible)—in order to get the ultimate changes that we want to see.

But you are absolutely right—(off mic)—the stories at the same time, because if you don’t tell the stories people won’t believe us. (Laughs.)

GOLBERG: Yeah. Well, and we need to be able to communicate those stories to politicians because that’s the case that they bring back to parliaments, that it’s worth providing those kinds of opportunities for long-term funding, right? Because inevitably, we’re still stuck in a short-termism cycle of project—five-year project cycles; or for humanitarian of course it’s worse, one year to three—at best, you can stretch it out. I mean, one of, you know, our innovations because of the Feminist International Assistance Policy was to have multiyear funding for humanitarian. Well, that should be an innovation. But it is because the paradigm has been really of short-term resourcing, which is antithetical to being able to do as you say. We’re talking about long-term structural shifts that need to occur, and building up confidence doesn’t happen necessarily within an eighteen-month project cycle, right? But on the—at the same time, we do have to be able to demonstrate some of these results in a shorter period of time to make the case for continued resourcing. So I agree it’s something that we continue to struggle with.

BIGIO: It’s incredible to hear you both engage in this conversation and lay out some really critical issues, from the multilateral agenda and investments, to, you know, innovative ways of thinking about funding, to really the work that’s needed to uplift the voices and examples of what’s going on on the ground.

I will bring in some questions from the audience in a moment. I do just want to pause and ask Elissa, Theo has recommended that there be hundreds of equality funds around the world. So for those who may not be familiar with the Equality Fund, Elissa, if you can just say a few words on that structure, and then we will open it up to Q&A.

GOLBERG: Sure. Thanks.

So the Equality Fund was established by the government of Canada in 2019, and through an initial $300 million investment but with the objective of growing that quite significantly over the next several years, ideally drawing in private capital and philanthropic resources. But the idea with the fund is to try to solve the funding gap that exists for women’s organizations and women’s movements that work on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in developing countries by providing them, as Theo was suggesting, with a predictable and flexible source of funding, along with technical assistance. So that’s the idea behind the Equality Fund and our objective of really moving to kind of triple the resources that we initially had put in in the short term.

So all of you out there contribute to the Equality Fund. (Laughs.) But it builds on models that exist and had existed.

Theo, jump in.

SOWA: I actually just wanted to add that one of the really admirable things about the Equality Fund and Global Affairs Canada’s involvement in it is it wasn’t diverting funds that you were already putting into women’s rights. You had your women’s rights programming budget. The money for the Equality Fund was additional resources.

GOLBERG: That’s right.

SOWA: It’s really important, because if we look at COVID again, one of the worrying things is—(inaudible)—foundations, for example, and in some cases some bilaterals, who’ve said that they want to put money into resourcing the response to COVID, but they’re actually repurposing money that they had already committed to other development issues.

If we have people resourcing COVID by taking money out of women’s rights funding, then that will be disastrous. And so things like the Equality Fund, one of the things I admire most about it was that it was deliberately additional. And that’s what we need to see with some of this COVID funding, that we do not reduce the funding to women’s rights but we build on it, and we build on funding in better and more flexible ways.

BIGIO: Great. Thank you.

GOLBERG: Absolutely. And it was multiyear, which was also advantageous. So it came out of that investment. Once the Feminist International Assistance policy was launched, this was one of those things that the government established alongside that it was a $2 billion investment to implement the policy, of which this three hundred million was set aside for launching the Equality Fund, but again with the goal of attracting additionality as well from private capital.

SOWA: And actually changing also the way that private capital and private philanthropy think about funding women’s rights and how they think about the money that’s available. You know, one of the other things about the Equality Fund—because AWDF is one of the Equality Fund consortium; we’re not the Equality Fund, but we’re a partner—is the very fact that there is a feminist lens all the way through, that runs all the way through that.

And that means that they’re really looking to shift power, to shift power not just through grant-making but through the way people think about investment and through the way private sector think about gender-lens investing, think about women’s rights, think about feminism, which means that ultimately the grant-making will be fantastic. And if we can change the thinking of some of those other actors, there will be money invested in women and women’s rights. It goes far, far, far beyond three hundred million, four hundred million, one billion.

And with that kind of visionary thinking, that is what we need if we really want a different world. And I know that it’s not—we can’t do everything immediately, but those steps are huge. They’re really, really important. And if we can do more of that, and if we can get other people to do more of that, so that we’re promoting women’s leadership and thinking in the control of money, in the control of resourcing, but also in the implementation of change on the ground, I think we’ll see breakthroughs that we’ve been waiting decades for.

BIGIO: Well, on that inspiring note, I am now going to bring in some questions. So please, if you have any questions, please hit the raised-hand button. And when I call on you, please remember to introduce yourself, your name, and your affiliation.

So let us start with Valentina Barbacci.

Q: Yes, hi. Thank you so much. I’m Valentina Barbacci, and I—for three years I ran Media Matters for Women, which was a very grateful recipient of African Women’s Development funds, not once but multiple times. So thank you to Theo and her predecessor, (inaudible) as well for the great work that you’ve done.

I couldn’t appreciate your remarks more, both of you, and agree with you more. I’ll try to distill my question into one. I have many thoughts. So on the—given what both of you have said, which I won’t repeat, obviously, what do you feel like is the best way to involve impact investors as sort of the step after philanthropic funds? I just feel like, as somebody who has applied for both grants and impact-investment funds as a way to support women’s empowerment and various initiatives, both not-for-profit and for-profit, around the globe, I feel like it’s such an important conversation to intertwine with the great work that you’re doing.

First stage is obviously getting grants and philanthropic funds in, because obviously they’re ones that don’t have to be paid back. But after that, as I’m sure you both agree, we really need the investment and the long-term patient capital that you were referring to earlier.

So how can we encourage—you know, impact investment is becoming this sort of popular thing now, that people are moving away from traditional investment and seeing it a bit sexier to do impact investment. But I don’t think they understand the need to get in early stage as much as they could be. And they’re still coming in quite late, once initiatives have proven concepts, so to speak.

So I welcome your thoughts, especially given that the U.S. has, under the Trump administration, been diminishing PEPFAR funding for a while and the U.K. now has essentially folded DFID, the Department for International Development, into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. So I can imagine we’ll see less funding coming from those major—previously major funders.

I’ll stop there. Thank you so much.

SOWA: Jamille, do you want us just to jump in or—

BIGIO: Please. Please.

SOWA: OK. So a couple of things. I think you’re absolutely right. We need to look at models of funding and how we bring more resourcing into these issues where we really do need major investment or major resources.

But the first thing, though, is I think that we absolutely have to push—whether it’s USAID or the Department of International Development or Global Affairs Canada, we have to push the bilaterals to make sure that they truly are funding women’s rights in the way that they speak of.

We know that women’s rights funding is minimal within development budgets. And that needs to change. And so we shouldn’t be looking for alternatives even now. We should be looking and advocating for bigger resourcing of women’s rights and more flexible resourcing and longer-term resourcing. So people really do need to put their money where their mouths are.

But, in addition to that, I do think that we need to look at additional types of funding. The issue with impact investing and with a lot of investment so far is that it has been incredibly gender-blind. You have a few pockets in the investment world and a few stellar examples, so that people like Suzanne Biegel, in the work she’s doing on gender-lens investment in that summit that they have every year, has really widened people’s ideas about what gender-lens investment can look like.

But I actually think we also need to get some feminist investors and feminist economists to sit together, work together, and work out how we can make gender-lens investing something that is ethical, that has impact, and that really moves the needle. But it can’t be the sole way of operating, because with women’s rights, with human rights, very often there is no profit to be made from it and there should not be a profit to be made from dealing with issues which are at the heart of a world that we dream of that is equal, that is fair, and that protects our rights.

However, there are other types of investment in some of the economic work, et cetera, which could be looked at through gender-lens investing. And if we actually managed to have people work with those investors in ways that made them more conscientious, in ways that made them more ethical, in ways that made sure that when they invested, they invested in companies and in businesses and in sectors, it promoted and protected women, rather than what we see at the moment, which is very often investment in things that undermine women’s rights, that undermine women’s health, that undermines women’s stability.

If we could manage to change the way the investment world works, that would be fantastic. It’s a longer-term journey, but some of the gender-lens investing is really trying to do that, to try and crowd money into more ethical enterprises and opportunities. We will always need grant-making because there are some things you shouldn’t even try to be making money out of. And so those grants or those core things need to be there.

But then we need to look at feminist—more feminist frameworks for investing. And at the moment it’s a two-way thing. Many feminists are very scared of investors—not scared as in they’re frightened of them, but scared because their experience has been totally negative. And so they’ve been outside of that world.

We need that thinking and those voices and those ideas and visions, and even, you know, the radicalness of ideas, to work with some of the investors who are more prepared to be open, who want to look at more ethical ways of operating, and who can see that they can invest ways that (bought/brought ?) us a better world. And if we don’t do that, the whole of the world is vulnerable.

BIGIO: And it’s a critical question to talk about right now as we recognize the stress to financing that we see in the response to COVID-19, that there is now an incredible increase in the need for resources, both domestically, as countries are tackling their own national challenges, and globally, as they recognize that this pandemic isn’t going away unless it goes away everywhere.

And so that, you know, really broadens the conversation of how do we really think about all of the different resources that can and should be brought to the table here.

Elissa, if you have—

GOLBERG: Yeah. There’s some interesting—and we’re not starting from scratch. There’s been a lot of work done, especially in the last five years, to really enhance this space. So in addition to all the things that Theo has said, which I 100 percent agree with, on the private—there’s this continuum of resources, right. There’s the grants and contributions, resources that will remain vital, right. That’s kind of the core. And that’s where governments have their value proposition, right, as development agencies and—(inaudible)—foreign affairs.

And just to reassure you, Valentina, that I’m in an amalgamated ministry of foreign affairs, development, and trade. And it can work itself out. Don’t worry. And it doesn’t come at the cost of the development impact, and it can lead to a much better public policymaking.

But the work that’s been done over the last couple of years, particularly in the blended-finance space, where we’ve also been able to hardwire into some of this work a focus on gender equality and women’s empowerment. And I’m thinking here of the work that’s been done with a number of the DFIs and the 2X Challenge, which was deliberately designed in and around the G-8 in 2018 in Charlevoix to bring together all of the different development finance institutions to say, OK, what are we, as development finance institutions, going to do to maximize the resources that are having a positive gender impact? And that’s looking at it across the value chain.

So in many instances it’s about projects that directly benefit women, but it’s also looking at how are women and women’s empowerment issues being addressed throughout their projects and their project life cycle. And that’s a fundamentally different way for some of the development finance institutions to be thinking. And I think that’s really important. That exists. Now we have to build on it and make sure that the pandemic doesn’t somehow undermine that. I don’t think that it will, but that’s something that we can be building on.

Similarly, it’s also engaging institutional investors, those with the long-term patient capital, right? So with government resources, we tend to be first (loss ?), right. We’re the ones that kind of attract everybody else in, because they say, well, if we’re going to give resources to it, then there must be something to it, because we’ve done our due diligence because it’s taxpayer resources. And we’re kind of first in.

Well, when we look at the discussions that we’ve been having with, for instance, the pension funds to try to get them into the space and to get them thinking about issues related to gender equality and women’s empowerment, alongside ESG principles more broadly—environment, social, and green principles—there’s some interesting discussions that are happening with them too.

And I don’t know, Valentina, if you’re familiar with the ILN, the Investment Leadership Network, but they kind of came together. That’s a group of the pension funds that are really trying to look at how do we advance equality and empowerment, and then how do we attract other investments in that space? And part of what they’ve been trying to think about is also not just these resources coming from the large—(inaudible)—pension funds, but how are you building pension-fund capabilities and private investment to do positive social impact in developing countries as well?

And so one of the initiatives out of the ILN is to support their developing-country counterparts, to build pension-fund capabilities within Africa, for instance, and Latin America. And again, I think that will have the longer-term impact. That’s the tail for some of this that we need to continue to be encouraging.

BIGIO: Let’s squeeze in one more question quickly.

SOWA: (Inaudible.) I just wanted to say they did great work in Sierra Leone. So they were some of the people around Ebola where we say we can learn lessons from women’s rights organizations.

BIGIO: That’s great. That’s great.

OK, Maryum Saifee, last question for you.

Q: Thanks. I’ll keep this quick. Maryum. I’m with the State Department. I’m on sabbatical, but most recently was with Women Deliver. So thank you for the session, Theo in particular for bringing up the need to insert racial equity into conversations around gender equality.

My question is actually on how we can leverage the multilateral system to call for more gender-disaggregated data collection and auditing among member states. A UCL study on COVID found that out of 106 countries surveyed, twenty-three do not have gender-disaggregated data.

So can you talk about maybe, Elissa in particular with Canada, with the Canadian Accountability and Audit Foundation and others, around data collection and auditing best practices so we can have a more granular picture of the impact of inequality on women and girls? Thank you.

GOLBERG: Maryum, it’s fantastic—yeah, it’s a fantastic point. And I think it’s one that we’ve all been trying to get at. It’s not a nut that we’ve necessarily been able to crack, but you’re right. So there is the Canadian Audit Foundation. That’s one of the things that we’ve been working with them on and them through their network internationally.

The other piece of this is also leveraging our different evaluation units and making sure that they’re also helping to ask the right questions. And I feel like this is—we don’t have enough time to be able to get into this the way that I would like. But one of the things that we’ve developed recently has been a feminist evaluation—feminist approach to evaluation, a feminist analysis, and (tip sheets ?).

And part of this has been to make sure that the teams are thinking through these questions and making sure that the data is coming out and is actually telling us the whole story, because if we look at how we normally assess our programs, we’re not actually being able to see whether or not the true impact is being realized across the range of beneficiaries.

In terms of the multis, what we’ve been trying to do is drive home this message with them, make it an expectation of our funding agreements, have it as part of our dialogue with them—and so part of our multilateral strategies with the individual organizations, and then trying to also make strategic investments to hardwire it in.

So, for instance, we’ve also been in discussion right now with the U.N., which is about to—which soft-launched, but which launched their own data strategy, and then saying to the U.N., OK, well, how are you hardwired? If you’re going to have a data strategy for the whole organization, how are you hardwiring this analysis in and making sure you’re going to get the disaggregation?

But it’s something I think that we’re all still working through, and we have to be sharing lessons and good practices with each other, because we don’t have—we don’t all have the right—we don’t all have the answers yet.

SOWA: And just to add to that, I think one of the really important things to do is for people to be listening to the voices of the people in the—most affected, because very often we talk about data collection, and people are asking questions that have no meaning for people on the ground, so the data is not collected.

If we’re going to disaggregate data, which we should, because we need the information, let’s also make sure that we’re asking the right questions and that the questions aren’t being devised thousands of miles away from where the work is. So let’s make sure that we’re actually funding and resourcing ideas around data, data collection, frameworks, et cetera, in the countries where those statistics are going to be used—really, really important. We have to listen to more voices around this, and we have to make sure, because people will collect data when they think it’s important. If they think it’s irrelevant, they’re going to ignore it.

GOLBERG: And do the network analysis around that too, right, like drilling right down to who’s actually benefiting with the programs all the way through, right, not just talking to the staff who are managing the project in the capital, but making our way all the way through. And that’s one of the things we’ve tried to embed in the feminist evaluation—(inaudible)—for instance.

BIGIO: That’s great.

Well, everyone, please join me in thanking Elissa and Theo for this incredibly inspiring and informative conversation. So thank you both so much for joining us.

And my best wishes to everyone to be safe and healthy. Thank you all.


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