When I took up my current post, one of the first things asked of me was to facilitate the development of a policy on gender and social equity for our newly merged organisation. Clearly this needed to build on the experience of the “parent” organisations Helvetas and Intercooperation, but it also had to bring some freshness of thought to the topic. Most crucially, it had to be “owned” by our staff members, who number over 1,500 individuals based in some 32 countries of the world, speaking a variety of different official languages (not to mention the languages in which they feel most comfortable).
As a number of people outside the organisation have asked me how we went about developing the gender and social equity policy, here is a summary of key steps.
- Responding to staff demands: An important impetus was provided before the merger, during a staff on-line forum discussion. In this, staff (in particular field-based members) made a strong appeal for organisational commitment to gender equality.
- Planning a consultation process: Following the merger, a process for elaborating a new overarching policy for our organisation was initiated, involving two rounds of consultation between our (then) 22 field offices and Switzerland. Gender and social equity was one of the topics covered within these discussions, as outlined below.
- First concept paper: On the assumption that it is easier to discuss a topic using something in writing as a base, I drafted a gender and social equity concept note in summer 2011. This was translated into French and Spanish, and circulated for discussion in all-staff country-level workshops. It included suggestions on how to structure the half to one day workshop, and a format for providing feedback.
- Country level workshops: These were conducted over the following four months (up to the end of 2011). In most cases, the Country Programme Director facilitated, although I had the opportunity to facilitate three, in Bangladesh, Haiti and Mali (as part of field visits covering other tasks).
- Feedback collation: All country-level comments were taken into account in a revised concept note. Whilst the level of detail varied, I recall including specific points from at least 17 countries.
- Agreement on essentials: The most important gender and social equity issues were summarised in a 2-pager. This paper was also translated into French and Spanish, and shared (along with summaries on other topics) during a second round of general workshops held in the first half of 2012. As a result, a few countries provided further feedback.
- Draft policy document: The revised concept paper was shaped into the form of a policy document with eight clearly articulated “gender and social equity principles”.
- Closing the loop: The draft document was discussed during the June 2012 Shareweek (a meeting in Switzerland bringing together country directors and Swiss-based thematic advisers and programme staff). After further revisions, including the incorporation of comments provided during a formal presentation to the management board, a final draft was ready in October.
- Approval by the board of directors: It is a rule within the organisation that policy documents have to be discussed and approved by our board; this was done in November 2012. This English version was then translated into French and Spanish, shared with all country programmes, and made available on our public and internal websites.
A 15 month period might sound an excessively long time to produce a five page text. However, as a knowledge management specialist working in the private sector once remarked to me on the development of policies and strategies, “The longer you draw out the process, the better. It keeps the topic on the agenda.” Ensuring opportunities for everyone in the organisation to contribute was certainly essential – even if not everyone took that opportunity, nor, a few years on, fully remembers. The other particular lesson I draw is the importance of defining those eight GSE principles in the policy – https://assets.helvetas.ch/downloads/genderequality_socialequitypolicy01_a4.pdf – principles that are simple, broadly accepted, and fundamental to our approach. They are a reference point in many situations; only the other week we had them up on a pin-board in an annual planning event, for example.
Finally, a word on the original management decision to combine the topic of gender with social equity. The reasoning was that gender inequalities are an integral part of social inequalities; furthermore, understanding gender relations in a given situation requires a wider appreciation of the social context and power relations. In any country, the life opportunities and societal expectations of women and men are influenced by a wide variety of factors, many being largely outside their control, such as their ethnicity, age, religion, social class, etc. In expanding the focus to social (in)equity, the intention was to encourage more explicit country-level analyses of power relations, and reflection on the implication for our programmes. Although a counter-argument to this decision was that it could distract focus from specific gender issues, from the field there was broad appreciation of the “combined” perspective.