Incorporating a justice and gender lens into the development work of CSOs

By December 9, 2020 NMedia

Incorporating a justice and gender lens into the development work of CSOs

Addressing structural issues while remaining relevant


Interview with Julia Sanchez, ActionAid Secretary General







We recently talked to Julia Sanchez, who serves as ActionAid Secretary General and CIVICUS Board Chair, on how to incorporate a justice and gender lens – two of ActionAid’s strategic objectives – into the development work of CSOs, and how to be accountable for these actions. With an extensive experience in leadership positions in the international development sector, including many years working in the Global South, Julia also served as CEO of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation between 2011-2018.

GS: What does it mean that ‘social justice’ and gender equality’ are strategic objectives for ActionAid?

JS: We focus on power sharing and on systemic change which are long-term efforts but key ingredients when we talk about justice.

ActionAid is a global federation made up of 47 country offices, mostly located in the Global South. So, power relations, power analysis and shifting power are concepts which are very present in our work. This is a long journey but one that we must embark on if we want to talk about justice. In other words, we cannot have a justice agenda if we do not start with the power analysis and the understanding of power dynamics, as well as a commitment of doing whatever we can do in shifting power.

While I am relatively new to ActionAid – as I joined earlier this year -, I knew that it was one of the pioneers of the human rights-based approach (HRBA), while it had also pioneered a feminist approach much earlier than many other organizations. The combination of the HRBA and the feminist approach contributed to the adoption of ActionAid’s strategic objectives on social justice as well as gender equality & women rights.

Gender inequality is the most enduring social injustice. Regardless of whether the focus of an organization is on farming or environmental issues, there is always gender component to it. Then, the question is how to make the link that their issue is not devoid from a gender lens. For instance, in the case of an organization supporting small farming, one can look at the conditions of men farmers and women farmers and their consequences.  Currently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we see that women are being affected in so many different and more severe ways than men; for instance, women’s jobs are being cut first and gender-based violence at home has increased.

So, whether you are part of a small or large organization working on other issues as their core mission, incorporating a gender and social inclusion lens, by doing a power analysis and making that link with their core theme or subject, is crucial. By embracing the justice and gender perspective, it may help an organization see the main issue in which is working in a different way.

For ActionAid, being committed to these strategic objectives is a work-in-progress. When working on a transformative agenda it is important how we do our work, what we work on, whom we work with and whom we are accountable to. While we are accountable to donors as well as to each other as part of a federation, we are mostly accountable to the right holders from the communities we work with. Thus, accountability is crucial as our work (or from other development organizations) is not a charitable activity.

GS: Which initial steps or actions can an organization take in order to incorporate a justice and/or gender lens to its own work?

JS: For these complex concepts -such as systemic change-, how do we facilitate a dialogue at local level? Participatory planning is a tool in the development sector that has been around for some decades, which provides the opportunity to talk to communities about their issues, while bringing the question about how it affects people differently. For instance, racial injustice is a hot topic, so – if we have not had such conversation – we must have a conversation about how racial injustice affects women and men differently, or young people vs. old people. The same applies to whether an organization focusses on water or environmental issues, as the question remains on how these issues affect women and men differently.

Posing this question in a simple way and allowing people for themselves to do power analysis – without calling at such – will make evident that there are different dynamics within a community which determine people’s varying access to resources. So, when we plan our programs – regardless of the topic of which we as an organization may focus – we need to bring this lens into account. For instance, I remember the work I did in Guatemala decades ago where communities members drew about their resources or assets and it became so obvious that women were working 18 hours a day and doing several different things in comparison to men, and that there was a clear gender imbalance.

We can also ask – for instance – if an organization is collecting gender disaggregated data to kick start the analysis about how to bring a gender or justice lens into the topic upon which an organization is working.

It is important to interrogate or challenge ourselves how we remain relevant as a sector. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has made injustices and inequalities so obvious to all of us. At the beginning of the pandemic, people said that this disease did not discriminate. On the contrary, it does discriminate because it impacts disproportionally on marginalized people. So, we must question ourselves whether the work we are doing is addressing these underground structural problems such as inequality and discrimination. Otherwise, we will do interesting work, but we will not be getting to the bottom of the issue. In sum, we need to adopt these lenses to inform our work, as the organizations that do not make that shift might lose relevance.

GS: How can the inclusion and gender perspective be also embedded within an organization’s own processes?

JS: Let me share one example from ActionAid, which developed and adopted “The Ten Principles of Feminist Leadership.”  These principles are first and foremost internally and address how we work internally with each other, how we are governed, etc. The principles address the need for dismantling biases in our workplace practices and policies, the need for inclusion by building diverse teams; the need for responsible and transparent use of power by making our decisions – for instance, in allocating resources or selecting partners – transparently and communicating them openly; the need for accountable collaboration; and the need for respectful feedback by valuing constructive feedback for two-way learning and as a continuous approach involving those with whom we work. Several of these principles resonate strongly with the Global Standard on CSO Accountability’s own twelve commitments.

At the ActionAid federation, we have a small humanitarian capacity, but very well resourced to respond to humanitarian crisis in the places we work. We have the Humanitarian Signature which includes a feminist approach, and adopted the Ten Guiding Principles on Women Rights, Leadership and Protection in Emergencies. The Humanitarian Signature is an approach which centers on accountability to affected communities while shifting power and recognizing the leadership of local women and their collective action as part of humanitarian actions. The main difference is that any humanitarian work we do, it must be done withand through women groups on the ground. An example of it is our recent work in Beirut where our response plan to the blast in 2020 consisted of providing shelter and protection to women and girls affected by this emergency.  The underlying theory is that any humanitarian crisis is an opportunity to change the system and shift power. So, we are making small interventions as compared to other organizations, yet in line with our strategic objectives.


GS: What kind of support can be provided to CSOs to advance these two dimensions which are not necessarily their primary area of work?

JS: In ActionAid, we provide support both formally as well as informally. In our work across various countries, we work with local partners – whether local community groups or CSOs. So, we provide formal training as well as organize informal reflection sessions – both within the team but also with partners – on what it looks like, and how we translate the feminist principles in practice in our workspace, with the communities and the way we treat each other. In addition, we highlight one feminist principle each month, and we are encouraged to think about it while also promoting spaces to share and engage with it. While we do not include it in our contracts with partners, we put it out there for conversations and we invite them to join our dialogue.

Moreover, there are other organizations with specific missions – for instance, in protecting the environment – that are self-identifying as feminist organizations, that is, they identify as feminist organizations working on environmental issues. This is a slow but emerging trend that I have been witnessing.

The other side of the coin is how we can work with feminist organizations or women rights’ groups, so they realize that the issue they care about is important for everything else – for instance, for climate change. The same is valid for addressing justice issues. For instance, at ActionAid, we are embarking on a 3-year focused strategy on economic justice and climate justice – as part of our global 10-year strategy. Within this framework, we talked to our allies within the feminist movement who acknowledged that these two issues were important for them as well, because if climate justice is not addressed, there will be no women’s rights as this is an existential crisis. That is, they agreed that this is a women rights’ issue and not solely an environmental issue. So, when we engage on climate justice or economic justice, it is important that we engage from a gender lens by looking at the disproportionate impact on women, as well as within different kind of women – such as, marginalized women -, which will be impacted more severely and early on than other groups in society.

In conclusion, the work has to be done in both directions: with groups which are thematically focused, as well as women rights groups and movements, in order to help make the link between the issue and the right holders.

GS: How does ActionAid promote accountability around the Ten Principles of Feminist Leadership?

JS: The way the Feminist Principles have been conceived, they have to permeate our day-to-day work, so there are some check points. Yet, at the ActionAid federation, we monitor other issues that our members must fulfil, and there is the risk that they become a box ticking exercise.

ActionAid has made the tradition of turning issues into our organizational culture. For instance, we conduct participatory reviews once a year, when we sit with communities around the world at almost the same time of the year. This has been internalized within the federation, that is, it has become a habit or way of how we work. The Feminist Principles are following this tradition of the way we do things.

In addition, during our workshops, we usually ask participants what they would do differently when they go back to their jobs. That is, have we taken anything from the workshop that we will take with us and change the way we do your job every day?  If that is happening, then we are starting to change. Therefore, it is important to think about those small but tangible actions around which people can make a commitment.

However, being accountable for all ten Feminist Principles takes time, as it may be the case with the Global Standard for CSO Accountability. In a way, one can see the Global Standard’s twelve commitments similar to the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), where the whole package is needed at the end of the day. While we can talk about specific SDGs, the holistic approach is required. This is quite ambitious and difficult to achieve, yet change will only happen when we manage to do all of them. From my previous experience as President of the Canadian Council of International Cooperation (now Cooperation Canada), when the SDGs were launched, we obtained funding to help the sector to raise awareness about the SDGs. At that time, one of my colleagues suggested that we should send out the message that organizations were already embarked in implementing them. Thus, we came up with a calendar featuring all 17 SDGs and invited different organizations to showcase their work around a specific SDG. That is, there was an example for each SDG from one of our peer NGOs. It thus became less of a UN agenda, and closer to our organizations since if one of us was doing it, we can also do it.

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