Interview with Dr. Gloria Novovic
As a woman-owned small business committed to amplifying the voices of women in the communities where we work, Proximity continually observes the slow progress that is being achieved towards gender equality – despite ongoing endeavors to iterate new regulations and tools.
We recently sat down with Dr. Gloria Novovic, a feminist policy expert, to discuss the current gender landscape in international aid, the challenges being faced, and innovative new approaches.
Gloria, thank you so much for joining us. Would you like to start by telling us how you started working on gender in the context of global development and humanitarian work?
I was drawn to feminist approaches because of their focus on root causes: How are the norms shifting? What is driving more equitable discourses? And how are people’s lives impacted? These questions really came into focus for me when I was working at the World Food Programme. I frequently encountered emergency reports arguing, for example, that women’s access to cash had advanced gender equality – and I kept asking, “but how do we know?”
In 2018, as I was designing my doctoral research project, UN WOMEN released a report, “Turning Promises into Action”, which criticized global development for its slow progress toward gender equality, so I designed my research to explore whether the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were creating any room to do things differently. I spoke with almost 200 specialists about a crucial policy paradox: everyone is so committed to gender equality, but limited progress is being observed across the board.
And what did you determine was the cause of that paradox?
In a nutshell, a great deal of effort has been invested in integrating gender equality into programming without fundamentally transforming humanitarian or development work; we tend to end up with the famous “add-women-and-stir” approach. The predominant – but somewhat misguided – assumption is that actors are actively ignoring gender equality commitments. Many feminists feel like they’ve spent 20 years repeating the same information, and they are disheartened by the slow progress. Throughout my research and work, I’ve heard so many versions of the same rhetorical question: “How many training modules, how many workshops and gender equality policies do we need before people get it?”
However, what I’ve found as a researcher and practitioner is that global development mechanisms are not designed for the social transformation that is necessary to advance gender equality. Institutions are resistant to change as a whole because their incentive structures protect the status quo, so we need to be motivated to transform our institutions and the system of international cooperation as a whole to make any progress.
The change is already underway. The shift towards integrated planning, implementation, and learning offers hope. With more interconnected SDGs and national priorities, we are seeing the expansion of cross-sectoral working groups that can lead to actionable gender strategies.
Policies in favor of gender equality, alone, are not enough. An overwhelming number of humanitarian and development practitioners I interviewed pointed to vague gender targets that bear no relations to the actual context. For example, the ambition to ensure gender-responsive urban transport is great, but what does it mean in practice? Urbanists and engineers lack “gender expertise” and gender specialists are unaware of other technical constraints. However, when these people are brought to the same table, they are able to co-construct actionable plans that advance gender equality objectives. So this brings us to the promising notion of gender expertise as a result of collaboration among gender specialists, technical experts, decision-makers, and funders.
What do you feel the future of gender work in development and humanitarian programming will look like? And what are innovative organizations currently doing to push the limits of established gender practices?
Actors are realizing that they have to go beyond what can be measured in the immediate term and find new ways to “do gender” in change-resistant development and humanitarian systems.
Positive trends are emerging. Gender-targeted outcomes are now a part of many UN actors’ personal performance plans. This incentivizes technical specialists to consult gender advisors to identify precisely how and what they will do differently in support of gender equality – going beyond abstract commitments and valuing local experience and perspectives.
Interestingly, we are also seeing increased pressure on donors to shift their structures. International organizations like the Frida Fund for Young Feminists and Mama Cash are, for example, perfecting and sharing models of participatory grant-making.
International NGOs in countries with feminist approaches to international assistance are also leveraging their donor influence and negotiating mechanisms that build on these innovative approaches. Kvinna til Kvinna in Sweden and the Equality Fund in Canada, for example, are working more directly with local feminist organizations in ways that insist on local agency and lower barriers to donor funding.
With more and more donors now contemplating what “locally led development” agenda means for them, we can expect to see these trends gain traction in the coming months and years.
What do you see are the persistent challenges that really need to be addressed to enhance our approaches to gender?
We all know what gender equality agendas require: increased, flexible, predictable funding that allows local groups, organizations, and communities to support their own agendas on their own terms. Yet, funding mechanisms have remained fundamentally unchanged in the last 60 years. Donors are consequently being called to reconsider how agendas are set, how funding is distributed, how decision-making agency is allocated, and how progress is defined and measured.
Local actors are at the forefront of the sector’s transformation. Organizations are turning down funding when it undermines feminist principles, erodes community agenda, or isn’t aligned with local priorities. Instead, they are focusing on movement building and coordination. The key is to ensure every new project builds on the one before, and that it backs – or is backed by – what other allies are doing. It involves seeing other organizations as allies, not competition, and co-constructing broader coalitions.
Organizations that don’t define themselves first and foremost as being feminists (including non-government organizations, consultancy organizations, think-tanks, and foundations) are also doing their part by sharing access to needed resources (e.g. office space) with more grassroots feminist organizations, pushing boundaries with feminist evaluations, and convening multi-stakeholder approaches in which marginalized groups are not only invited, but also supported to intervene.
This is what Rebeca Tatham and I argue is the role of feminist researchers as well. In our recent article published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics, we acknowledge the challenge of engaging in mainstream discussions and prioritizing local perspectives that often present a completely different viewpoint to the issue. It requires more time and resources, careful planning, coordination etc. but it is a requisite for impact and accountability.
None of this is easy, but it is possible, especially if we move away from zero-sum thinking of competition and look at strategic partnerships as avenues of change.
*This interview text was edited for conciseness and clarity
– Gloria Novovic is an independent consultant specializing in global governance and feminist policy. She holds a PhD in Political Science and International Development and has worked across the humanitarian-development spectrum and different institutional and geographical arenas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org