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What does it take to be a gender expert in development?

This post, originally authored by Lisa Cornish on 17th January 2017, is republished with permission from Devex.

Today, it’s common knowledge that women are an important focus of aid and development programs — they are drivers of health and education at home, yet also a demographic at risk of violence and poverty.

To better target programs and distribute aid most effectively, gender experts have become sought after in the development sector. But they weren’t always at the forefront of development thinking, explained Arthi Patel, one of Australia’s leading gender specialists. After 15 years of working in the Australian aid program for AusAID and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Patel is now working as a gender specialist with Palladium to support the implementation of DFAT’s Business Partnerships Platform. The job is allowing her to get hands on and show the private sector why women are an important consideration in business models.

“For me, the job is looking at where the opportunities are for women,” Patel told Devex. “Where are they in the process? Are they consumers? Are they workers? Are they producers in the supply chain?”

As a pioneer of gender specialisation within Australia’s aid program, Patel’s road to her current position has been a winding one. She sat down with Devex to discuss her path and what it takes to be a gender expert today.

Arthi Patel (left), one of Australia’s leading gender specialists, in Nuwakot, Nepal. Photo by: Arthi Patel

Starting with social justice

Patel told Devex she has always had a strong interest in social justice, which shaped her career path. “Gender expert,” though, was not necessarily her initial career direction.

In the 1990s, Patel’s interest in social justice led her to a career as an immigration and human rights lawyer working in Sydney. But she wanted to understand more about the immigrants and refugees she was working with.
“In terms of how to bring rights to life, I have always been more oriented to behavioral change,” she told Devex. “Where are things, what are the roles and how can they be changed?”

A two-year stint as an Australian volunteer working in Mongolia exposed Patel to the development side of the social justice equation. And a new career path was set. She returned home and completed a master's degree in international and social development, then began her first years working within the Australian aid program.

Still, it took some time for her to claim the title of gender expert.

“AusAID went through a process where they wanted generalists, not specialists,” Patel explained. “The emphasis at the time in AusAID was on good contract management. I was able to develop my own expertise, but it wasn’t until around 2010 or 2011 that AusAID had become big enough to commit specialist streams, including gender.”

The organizational structure within AusAID in 2002 did not allow Patel to learn from others about gender issues, so she had to look outside for inspiration.

Learning from the best

Patel sought to collaborate with experts far and wide who had new ideas that could improve the way Australia understood developing countries and development issues. And it was an opportunity for Patel to learn from them — a strategy she recommends for those old and new to the development sector seeking to better understand approaches to social justice.

“It was important to bring outside expertise in my job and not being closed down with ideas,” Patel explained. “I looked out for people I had respect for who were doing work in my area of interest. I would also do reading outside of what was happening in Australia and through my job, I was able to get in people to do analytical work to better understand the dynamics of the places we were working in.”

Through this approach, Patel learned the importance of contextualizing development programs, including the roles of men and women within developing countries, to deliver successful outcomes.

“That is pretty much a prerequisite of doing good development,” she said. “A lot of the time you see programs run out without contextualization. Things have improved over the past 20 years, but it is still an issue that we are often outsiders and understand very little from the country context.”

Bringing gender to the forefront

“I come from the perspective that everything is gendered,” Patel said. “It is not a question as to whether gender is an issue — it is there. What we should ask is how it is there and make that transparent. People may try to say that men and women are equal, but that is wrong. And accepting that makes the rest of the process equal.”

Despite strong views on the importance of gender and enough external support to understand the value of gender in the aid program, Patel needed to press AusAID to take risks supporting this new analytical approach to aid. Drivers of Change in Vanuatu was one of the research projects Patel pushed. It looked broadly at the real drivers of change in South Pacific Ocean nation Vanuatu — political and social — and what was going on in relationships and power structures at home and within the community.

“I spoke a lot with AusAID about undertaking this study as it really was a risk,” Patel explained.

But the success of the project changed the way AusAID looked at gender: “For this analysis, gender was front and center. It was shared as far and wide as possible so Australia could have an honest conversation with Vanuatu about what the aid program should look like and would be effective. It was quite experimental, but it turned out to be a really effective piece of research.”

And it was a new research trend Patel proudly associates herself with.

A transforming role

Now working from the outside of the aid program, Patel has a stronger understanding of how in demand her work and gender specialization has become.

Her role includes supporting projects from round one of the Business Partnerships Platform in identifying women within their supply chains and analyzing the impact on women. For round two projects, currently under consideration, Patel is providing important input into the value partnerships will have on women in the developing countries.

Gender was one of the social objectives DFAT had articulated for round one of the partnerships, but it wasn’t a mandatory requirement for proposals. Even without this extra push, there was a lot of interest in gender issues, Patel said.

“That gave DFAT confidence that they can engage business in this discussion and enabled DFAT to specify gender equality as one of the primary objectives within the round two application form — gender had to be included as part of any proposal.”

BPP applications now show diverse private sector capability in supporting women.

“Some companies have been thinking about it a long time and it is part of their corporate structure,” Patel explained. “Others are new to it and want to understand how to create opportunities for women. There is a global shift going on with corporations seeing the benefit of a strong social justice.”

But BPP proposals also show strong demand for the private sector to access gender knowledge within DFAT.

“Many of the proposals said they wanted to work with DFAT for their gender expertise, but this is expertise that is overwhelmed internally,” Patel said, making her role as a liaison between DFAT and the private sector an important one.

She meets DFAT’s gender team regularly, but believes they are stretched with current resources. Having this gender role within the BPP allows DFAT to ensure gender continues to play a prominent role, she added.

Sharing gender expertise

Patel is not the type of person to sit on her knowledge — from her early days in AusAID she has been delivering training courses to build awareness of gender and social issues in development. Her vision is for gender to not be specialization or expert capability within Australia’s aid program.

Everyone has what it takes to be a gender expert, according to Patel.

“I want to make sure my colleagues and DFAT are confident in doing this and it is not just me coming in as a gender expert,” Patel said. “My vision is to create a shared understanding and give people the skills to do this much more widely. I want to propagate gender awareness and encourage as many people to continue this work and make it part of all development projects.”

For more information on the Business Partnerships Platform visit the Minister for Foreign Affairs website, and don’t miss BPP’s partner profiles. You can also read our BPP announcement here