UN-Women Celebrates Goals, Not Results

| July 5, 2017

When governments garner controversy for their spending programs, their supporters tend to defend them as gentle and generous guardians of the marginalized populations under their jurisdiction. In the eyes of these supporters, certain government programs are lifelines for people who cannot find help anywhere else. Such thinking conflates a government in theory with its policies in practice, shrouding both in an aura of nondescript beneficence. While this view can command compelling economic and moral justifications in specific cases of egregious neglect, it falters in cases where government activity fails to fulfill its protective mandate by wasting money on broad operations with a low return-to-investment ratio or prioritizing issues of questionable consequence. The June 12 pre-session meeting of UN Women’s Executive Board at times exemplified these extremes of organizational inefficiency.

From the outset, the panel of executive committee members assumed a defensive stance and worked to allay anticipated accusations of failing to translate UN Women’s spending into impacts and inventing priorities in retrospect in order to recast as solutions the externalities of its actions. This took place prior to the discussion of its 2016 Annual Report or its 2018-2021 Strategic Plan. That gambit invited many an opportunity for panelists to emphasize and reemphasize the group’s commitment to getting buy-in from those involved, as well as teasing of new strategic partnerships in the works. Such statements made the meeting feel less like the evaluation of a major UN entity and more like a bumbling start-up (e.g. Uber) pre-emptively attempting to downplay the implications of its latest scandal.

All the speakers spoke at length about the necessity of cultivating local ownership of UN Women’s initiatives, i.e. making the organization’s projects relevant and important to the daily lives of people within the communities targeted for intervention, with a special emphasis on men and boys. The exact reason for the importance of buy-in from men and boys never came up, but it is most likely necessary, given the prominence of males in areas in which the UN determined that women need support. Interestingly, the panel came under fire during the first Question and Answer session for what certain national delegates perceived as a misrepresentation of “gender equality” to favor females. One of the panelists responded by agreeing that equality encompasses males as well as females, and noted that thirty percent of UN Women’s employees are men. Another panelist jumped in to assure the delegate that UN Women expects this percentage to increase in the coming years at every organizational level. When the panel attempted to shift the conversation by repeating the assertion that “gender equality is key to the UN’s peace and security goals”, the national delegates responded with what felt like disinterested silence.

The assertion of a link between gender equality and UN peace and security goals speaks to a broader current in the discussion and the apparent thought of UN Women in general. The organization operates in accordance with its conviction that gender equality underpins the success of most every UN millennium development goal. Few would dispute this, but several national delegates demanded clarification on how that insight translates into policy and impacts across the different sectors of UN Women’s activities. UN Women’ s annual report for 2016 makes frequent reference to a chart displaying that the organization achieved 29 of its impact indicators, has 22 on track for eventual achievement, and 20 off track. Critics cannot deny that these numbers reflect competence. However, the delegates present inquired how UN Women made those determinations, and how it will proceed in light of them. The group of panelists did not provide compelling responses. Their answers tended to make recourse to previous talking points, as the following selected delegate questions and UN Women responses.

“Why do you categorize natural disasters with peace and security…?”

“Because that’s how most other groups categorize them.”

“How will UN Women cover its funding and resource gap?”

“By widening and deepening our donor bases. Also, forming strategic partnerships with groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

“How does UN Women foster local ownership of projects?”

“By balancing the needs and interests of local people and prioritizing buy-in.”

Following two rounds of such blasé questioning, the confident panel fielded a question from the delegate of the Russian Federation, which simultaneously capped the conversation and defined the meeting. Yet “question” does not encapsulate the nature of the encounter. Russia’s delegate, after commending the panel on the progress it had made in clarifying the language of its annual documents, challenged the panel to justify a litany of instances where its language left too much ambiguity or otherwise departed from the discussions at previous meetings, UN-wide consensus, and relevant UN resolutions. The “question” lasted about forty-five minutes, and the answer thirty, as one panelist flipped through page after page of notes she had taken on the delegate’s question, taking care to explain the language where possible and seeming to roll back the conflictual language in all others. Much of the exchange’s substance derived from what it had omitted. Neither the delegate nor panelist addressed issues such as strategic partnerships, categorizations, or the deepening funder bases. Those seventy-five minutes, the most substantive of the entire meeting, addressed UN Women’s major shortcomings in achieving gender parity and committing to appropriate language in its strategic plan and the articulation of its projects. By the end of the exchange, it became clear that UN Women recognized that it must craft policy goals which its supporters can support in a multilateral setting before it spends the next year drilling into funder bases with new strategic partnerships.


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