How do we make sure aid investments are efficient, services provided are accessible and affordable, and results are sustainable? These are all tall orders to be sure, but one clear solution emerged from our event in New York last week: donors need to make gender equality a central priority.   

Alongside the Commission on the Status of Women’s 60th session, CGD co-hosted an event with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) called “Gender Equality: The Basis for Sustainable Infrastructure and Services.” The event focused on the links between gender equality and many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as MCC’s specific approach to integrating a gender lens into its operations.

CGD’s Mayra Buvinic and Sarah Rose joined MCC’s Michelle Adato, Pamela Kasese-Bwalya, and Bonaria Siahaan. The panel explored how incorporating a gender lens into MCC’s work enhances its impact and sustainability, as well as areas where future progress is needed. From the discussion, here’s what we learned:

What is MCC doing to promote gender equality?

MCC Senior Operations Advisor Michelle Adato outlined aspects of MCC’s gender policy, which calls for gender to be integrated at every stage and level of its compacts. The policy mandates the hiring of gender experts and the collection of sex-disaggregated data, as just two aspects of MCC’s approach.  

But as Adato explained, “policy is not enough.” So MCC is taking steps to incorporate gender equality into its operations in other concrete ways. MCC makes sure that female-headed (often the poorest) households in Cabo Verde, for example, have access to essential infrastructure at a price they can afford, by differentiating prices for water and sanitation services according to individuals’ ability to pay. 

Additionally, Pamela Kasese-Bwalya, Zambia’s Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) CEO, explained that her team organizes consultations with project beneficiaries (women and men), at times through door-to-door meetings, to make sure that projects meet their needs and address their (at times gender-specific) constraints.

Finally, Senior Policy Analyst Sarah Rose discussed how MCC's use of conditions, combined with an approach that prioritizes and values country ownership, can play a role in supporting legal reforms that promote gender equality. Rose cited the example of MCC’s compact with Lesotho, where, during the compact development process, many local stakeholders identified the need for a change to a national law that relegated married women to the legal status of minors. MCC conditioned its investment on a reform of this law, providing important leverage that helped empower supporters of the reform to push the change through. This example suggests that conditions – when they emerge from a country-led process – can be a “strong and relevant tool.”  

How does prioritizing gender equality strengthen MCC’s operations?

Pamela Kasese-Bwalya emphasized that “integrating gender maximizes the efficiency of a [donor] investment.” And Sarah Rose explained that making compact countries’ legal frameworks more gender-equal has benefits for MCC as well as women and girls, since it improves the environment for their partnerships. How so?

As the panelists discussed, when donors like MCC use a gender lens throughout their operations, unintended consequences (such as infrastructure that goes unused because its location or design doesn’t meet women’s everyday needs and constraints) can be avoided. And the measurement of accurate, meaningful results of a particular project – telling us how it affects its intended beneficiaries – can be maximized.

What’s left to do?

MCC has set an example for other donors through its approach to promoting gender equality, but all panelists agreed that limitations and obstacles remain. As Michelle Adato explained, though compacts may require the hiring of gender experts, those hired may not always have adequate qualifications for the job. As Pamela Kasese-Bwalya told us, though infrastructure projects may set targets to include 30% female contractors, a highly gender-segregated workforce may prevent that target from being met. And as Sarah Rose pointed out, limitations in the availability of sex-disaggregated and/or intra-household data may hinder MCC’s ability to capture the real impact of their operations on women and men. 

Bonaria Siahaan, Indonesia’s MCA CEO, cited another obstacle: attitudes regarding gender equality at a community level. Though Siahaan said that the Indonesian government has adopted gender-progressive policies, there is still a need to “socialize and sensitize” communities outside of the capital when it comes to valuing women’s contributions equally.

How can obstacles be overcome?

The panelists proposed a number of solutions to further improve MCC’s approach to gender equality. Sarah Rose suggested that MCC (1) look for champions in MCC and in partner countries that will prioritize gender equality; (2) establish and communicate clear-cut guidelines during partnerships; and (3) hold sustained consultations with civil society representatives and target populations, rather than just one-offs. In terms of working toward gathering more comprehensive, gender-disaggregated data, Sarah asserted that the onus falls not only on donor institutions like MCC, but also on external stakeholders – researchers, advocates, and those in-country – to demonstrate the demand for such data and to put it to good use. Here at CGD, we’re beginning to do just that, through our line of research and events that focus on donors’ approaches to gender equality, including our most recent paper, “Do the Results Match the Rhetoric?: An Examination of World Bank Projects.”

The MCC gender milestones and operational procedures are currently being updated to incorporate new lessons learned since their last review in 2011. We hope that the new policy continues the success that MCC has had in integrating gender into the full scope of its work, as well as builds on previous efforts by encouraging and incentivizing women’s inclusion in projects, in-country consultations, and results data.