Lessons in gendered project design: reflections from Cambodia

[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Both large development actors, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and small community-based organizations, like many of MCC’s partners, offer gender equality as a response to a wide range of social ills in the face of continued challenges. MCC affirms basic gender equality principles, such as women and girls having equal access to education, economic opportunities and resources. However, there remains a disconnect between funders’ theoretical perspectives on gender equality and local organizations’ capacity to design and implement projects that take gender seriously. For the most part, local partners are willing to work for gender equality; the disconnect, then, occurs because of unrealistic donor expectations that translate into ineffective project design at the local level. In this article, I examine challenges MCC’s Cambodian partners have faced when engaging funding organizations in designing and implementing development projects that seek to address gender equality.

For over three decades now, much of MCC’s work has been primarily carried out through partnerships with local actors (churches, community-based organizations and more). More recently, other development actors have also begun to affirm that localized partnerships are critical to community transformation. However, the partnership model brings its own challenges, including the challenge of how funding agencies communicate various expectations to their local partners. A particularly pertinent example is the difficulty of translating expectations regarding gender equality in project design and implementation, with continued gaps between funders’ expectations, on the one hand, and local partners’ reality, on the other.

As development efforts become increasingly professionalized, they come with an ever more complex vocabulary. Specialized vocabulary can create significant barriers to local partners. These barriers are particularly pronounced for language regarding gendered aspects of projects. For example, a recent call for proposals from an external funder to MCC asked that projects ideally be “gender transformative” as opposed to “gender
sensitive.” This choice of vocabulary led to confusion and apprehension by MCC’s partner organization that their project would not be approved if was not deemed “gender transformative.” While the partner indeed values the goals behind this term, they feared that their proposal would not be selected for funding because they had not used the funder’s exact terminology.

When gender-related concepts are unclear or poorly defined, they become unapproachable for local partners involved in project design, which disempowers those best positioned to structure projects in ways that address the needs of women and girls. Much development language is English-based, which presents significant barriers to development practitioners in small local organizations due to challenges in translating concepts into different cultural and linguistic contexts. This challenge is not limited to gender-related development matters, but it clearly plays out in this space. For example, several Cambodian organizations with which MCC partners have few employees who speak English, so concepts and ideas that are not easily translatable into Khmer remain inaccessible to much of the team. This experience has been referred to as the “untranslatability of concepts” (Footitt, Crack and Tesseur, 2018). The Khmer language, for example, does not include separate terms for gender, sex or feminism. Typically, when MCC’s Cambodian partners discuss how gender is being accounted for in project planning and implementation, they use English terms. It becomes difficult for the entire project team to fully understand how gender analysis is shaping project design and implementation since much of the information is subject to translation and contextualisation. In order to address such challenges, Footitt, Crack and Tesseur recommend more intentional work around language and cultural awareness among program teams as well as specific resources for language support for projects. MCC could do further work clarifying expectations around how conversations about gender are conducted and providing training for partner staff on what we mean when we talk about gender.

This challenge of language is compounded by differences in cultural expectations around gender. Gender equality is an often sensitive subject, so the imposition of foreign funders’ understanding of gender equality poses particular challenges. It can become tricky to balance respect for culturally embedded behaviours and practices related to gender while also maintaining a commitment not to unintentionally reinforce unjust systems that deny women’s freedom and agency. The significant power differential between funding agencies (like MCC) and community-based partner organizations means that partners will work hard to satisfy donor expectations. At its worst, this desire to please donors can result in projects that may check all the right boxes for the donor, but, when put into practice, fail to actually address gender inequality. Projects designed for funders versus those that truly address inequality are far too common.

The power dynamic is further felt in what local partners can experience as a double standard for funders and their local partners. Recently, an MCC partner organization in Cambodia asked why funders require local organizations to address gender equality in project staffing and design when funders themselves are not practicing gender equality in their own staffing practices. This conversation pointed to the double standards between local partners and funding institutions around accountability for certain practices. This double standard causes the local partner to distrust the funder. It also communicated that gender is not truly important to the funder, regardless of rhetoric used.

Addressing local gender dynamics in the design, implementation and ongoing monitoring and evaluation of development projects is essential to projects’ long-term success. At the same time, development projects that incorporate poorly-understood gender concepts into their design simply to meet donor requirements will not produce sustainable change. How to work with local partners in a way that addresses gender equality in a contextually meaningful way thus represents an ongoing challenge for organizations like MCC. There are no perfect solutions to this challenge. That said, an important starting point is awareness of language used when communicating with local partners. Language must be fully accessible to local partners; otherwise, it becomes meaningless while reinforcing imbalanced power dynamics. Also, if funding agencies push local partners for gender parity within their organizations, they must seek to follow standards of gender equality in their own staffing. Sustained attention to gender equality truly has the power to transform societies. However, if funders’ expectations and behaviours are not responsive to local partners’ capacities, it will be impossible for projects to sustainably address gender inequality.

Tyler Loewen is MCC Cambodia planning, monitoring, evaluation and reporting coordinator.

Learn More

Footitt, Hilary, Angela Crack and Wine Tesseur. Respecting Communities in International Development: Language and Cultural Understanding. Arts and Humanities Research Council June 2018. Available at: https://www.chsalliance.org/files/files/ Listening_zones_report_-EN.pdf.

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