Gender matters for policymaking: there is no better evidence than the experience of four women who, twenty years ago, became ministers in charge of international development in their governments and collaborated to develop new approaches to end global poverty. Eveline Herfkens from the Netherlands, Hilde F. Johnson from Norway, Clare Short from the United Kingdom, and Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul from Germany became known as the Utstein Four (from the Norwegian Utstein Abbey where they launched their collaboration in July 1999). They came together to challenge the policies of international institutions where decisions affecting global poverty were made and also to reform their countries’ own development programs to ensure they would actually help end global poverty rather than just promote individual countries’ narrow national interests. According to Sir Richard Jolly, “one is left amazed at the boldness of these four women and seriously doubting whether four male ministers would ever have the courage and commitment to do the same.” This is a story of women’s empowerment and the importance of working together.
Research suggests that women thrive in and enjoy cooperative team environments while men are often more attracted to competitive environments. An African proverb says “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” The Utstein Four went together and they went far. Collaboration is not glamorous. Networking is difficult and time consuming. Effective collaboration means people have to put aside their egos, share headlines with others, and establish processes with bureaucracies in other countries and other cultures.
The Utstein Four called their collaboration a “conspiracy of implementation” to contrast their action-oriented partnership approach with lofty but never implemented policy declarations and old-style aid according to which donors always knew better. They focused their attention both on issues affecting poverty globally and on issues of particular importance for women’s empowerment and poverty eradication. Their many contributions range from securing debt relief for poor countries and ensuring that relief actually helped lift people out of poverty to putting developing country partners in charge of setting priorities and implementing programs of assistance to helping promote and achieve the Millennium Development Goals agreed at the UN in 2000.
They worked and spoke less about gender as an abstract issue and more about poverty and the effect it had on women and children in terms of immediate suffering and powerlessness. Their very existence and actions as a group empowered women in developing countries, especially those which they visited. The impact is mirrored in the faces of the girls surrounding them in pictures taken when visiting poor neighborhoods across Africa.
Their policies focused on eradicating poverty, as women and children constituted then—and still constitute today—the vast majority of the world’s poor. Broad poverty eradication programs would need to empower women and girls. This meant first ensuring that all aid programs addressed gender issues. But this was not enough. This also meant requiring separate programs to promote job creation for women. It required changes in legislation to enable women to own and inherit property. And it required increasing and improving spending on education and health. More education for girls helped them to delay marriages, and pregnancies, and made them better able to make informed choices about family planning, nutrition and health. This results in a virtuous circle of fewer children, better fed and educated, with a better future for all.
Their collaboration lasted for only about half a dozen years as the original Utstein Four moved on to other positions. But their influence continued to be felt because their approach to improve aid effectiveness was codified in international agreements and practices of global institutions. Much has been achieved but some lessons have been forgotten and large challenges remain including many new ones.
In 2015, the global community agreed at the UN on a set of sustainable development goals to achieve by 2030. Progress has been much too slow. The world needs a new generation of leaders who can follow the Utstein Four and mobilize international action for sustainable development. It may be that these new leaders were impressed by a visit of the Utstein Four to their village or school 20 years ago, when they were young. Today’s leaders should prioritize encouraging developed country actions to eradicate extreme poverty. Given the limited progress that their elders have made so far, it will probably not be possible to achieve the UN’s goals by 2030. However, it would certainly be worth trying.
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