Guest post from Francesca Rhodes, Oxfam’s Gender Policy Adviser on campaigns, policy and influencing
The aid sector’s sexual exploitation and abuse crisis put into stark spotlight the unequal power dynamics between humanitarian actors and communities they work in, and the injustices this can cause. Discussions on what a humanitarian system, and Oxfam itself, would look like if it was actively trying to transform these power dynamics, have intensified.
In this context, Oxfam Canada conducted research on how a feminist approach would apply to the localisation of humanitarian action. Localisation aims to shift power and resources to local and national actors to lead and deliver humanitarian response.
Both feminism and localisation are at their core about transforming the unequal power dynamics that are so deeply entrenched both in our advocacy targets and in our own sector and organisation.
A feminist approach must be intersectional – meaning that it understands how other factors that cause discrimination such as race, class or disability reinforce power and privilege. It would support agency and leadership, rather than a top down process of outside actors ‘empowering women’.
It is not just about what we do – e.g. focus on achieving gender equality and women’s rights, but also how we do it.
How did we find these principles could be applied to localisation?
We started from the idea that unless localisation includes support for women’s rights actors, it risks further marginalising them and entrenching inequalities they already face within civil society, including in access to funding and decision making. We interviewed women’s rights actors (defined as organisations, movements and activists focussing on gender equality and a rights-based approach). Some top findings:
- Recognise the value of local and national women’s rights actors in humanitarian action
Gender equality and the leadership of local women’s rights actors needs to be seen as central to lifesaving humanitarian action. Not all women’s rights actors want to be part of the humanitarian system – and some report that being so resulted in their own agendas being side-lined in favour of donor- or INGO-driven priorities.
But our research also showed women’s rights actors delivering culturally sensitive goods and services, challenging gender based violence, and influencing national humanitarian policies to support gender equality. These are essential to improving the likelihood of humanitarian action both preventing crises and saving lives when they do occur. Challenging this bias in what is considered ‘life saving’, for example through standalone funding for gender work in emergencies, is one thing a feminist approach can bring.
- Build bridges between development, humanitarian and peace and security
Women’s rights actors don’t see a neat divide between these. They might support the same women farmers in long term programming, and in times of crisis. An emergency can exacerbate gender inequality, but it can also open opportunities for gender norms to be challenged and transformed, and women’s rights actors are well placed to support this. But this is often thought of as development work. Gender equality is also a key aspect of preventing conflict and crisis in the first place, and for peace building. To reflect the realities of local and national actors, a more joined up approach is needed.
Some practical steps suggested were to: increase long term partnerships with women’s rights actors in development, conflict and fragility work, aiming to support their leadership if crisis does hit, and investing more in preparedness and disaster risk reduction, particularly with local women’s rights partners.
- Base partnership and funding models on feminist principles
Local organisations can end up working with international ones in unequal and patriarchal ways, for example as delivery partners for pre-designed programmes, or attending ‘capacity building workshops’. Instead, women’s rights actors wanted to have their existing work funded (including core costs), and to co-create and share knowledge and expertise in a two-way relationship. Some that we spoke with did see a continuing role for international actors in capacity building – but wanted to be able to define their own needs and request long term support.
We were also challenged to think more about where international actors, including Oxfam, need simply to be getting out of the way, rather than be better intermediaries. Advocating for donor funding models that would allow this (for example consortium models where small local orgs can be included alongside larger ones, or funding women’s funds to disperse grants), and for more democratic process in international spaces, are roles we could play here.
We were also keen to put a feminist approach into practice how we did the research. Prioritising the views of women’s rights actors was a start, but we were also very aware that our research model had its own unequal power dynamics. As Oxfam staff conducting the interviews, it was difficult (if not impossible) to build the kind of trust where people are going to be fully honest and as critical of the status quo as they might want to be, especially those that are financial partners of Oxfam , We were also using the research for advocacy with our own target – the Canadian government – rather than creating products useful for their goals.
How could we do better? Having more time to develop relationships (not always possible in the quick turnaround time expected in policy / advocacy roles), using this time to co-create the research with women’s rights actors, or taking the need for our own products out of the picture and funding the research and advocacy of our interviewees instead, are ideas that we have, but we would welcome further suggestions,