WEE and Dutch development cooperation: 2000-2022

In 2008 MFA created the largest bilateral fund for women’s organizations worldwide, with WEE as one of its three priority themes. In 2011 MFA formulated an ambitious international gender policy outlining a track of stand-alone gender policy and a track of gender mainstreaming. In both tracks WEE was an important component. The first fund for women’s organizations has been succeeded by similar funds until this day. The gender mainstreaming efforts were intensified especially after 2014.

2000 - 2014: Political attention for women’s rights dwindles, then picks up again

 The political priority attached to women and gender in the 1990s dwindled between 1998 and 2008, as Gender and Development (GAD) was overtaken by other priorities. It was somehow assumed that gender mainstreaming was achieved. The only exception was the theme of sexual and reproductive health and rights, which was made a priority in 2003 by Minister van Ardenne. At the embassies, the position of Women and Development / gender sector specialist was discontinued and their numbers gradually declined to zero by 2014. Some of their tasks were taken over by colleagues.

However, in 2008 the then new government reactivated its international gender policy, prompted by concerns that progress on Millennium Development Goal 3 on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (MDG3) was lagging. The government held public consultations on new topics for development cooperation, that led to a number of Schokland Agreements between the government and civil society. In one of these Agreements MFA committed to create a fund to benefit local women and/or their organizations. Subsequently, MFA created the MDG3 Fund (2008-2011). This Fund was globally recognized as the first and largest bilateral fund for women’s empowerment. Women’s economic empowerment was one of its three priority areas, along with political empowerment and eliminating violence against women. Among the grantees were two international NGOs that were linked to the labor movement. Their projects contributed to increased awareness of women workers’ issues in trade unions, and the establishment of organizations of domestic and informal workers.

In 2011 MFA formulated an ambitious international gender policy note. The note reconfirmed the need for a two-track approach: a track of stand-alone gender projects and a track of gender mainstreaming. A special paragraph was devoted to women’s economic self-reliance. The policy note combined a rights-based approach with a ‘smart economics’ approach, arguing that more economic power for women would contribute to the growth of prosperity for all.

2015 – 2022 Gender stand-alone track: from MDG3 Fund to FLOW to Power of Women

The MDG3 Fund was much lauded by the international women’s movement. Its collective impact  was positively assessed in 2012 by AWID (the Association for Women’s rights In Development, an international feminist network). The 2015 evaluation by the MFA evaluation service IOB had some more reservations.

MFA continued comparable stand-alone funding for women’s empowerment after the MDG3 Fund to this day. The first Funding Leadership and Opportunities for Women (FLOW) program ran from 2012 to 2015, the second FLOW program from 2016 to 2020, and the current Power of Women program runs from 2021 to 2025. Implementation modalities and budgets varied somewhat between the programs, but all retained economic and political empowerment of women and combating violence against women as key areas of intervention.

These programs allowed MFA to select the most innovative and promising approaches designed by (women’s) organizations worldwide. WEE results achieved by FLOW grantees varied from ratification of ILO conventions 177 (on Home Work) and 189 (on Domestic Workers) by national governments, to high levels of male engagement at the household level.


2015-2022 Gender mainstreaming intensified 

Practical implementation of gender mainstreaming still proved challenging, also in the economic domain. WEE tended to be ‘mainstreamed away in the course of project design and implementation. This was especially likely when project implementation was contracted out to external partners, many of whom lacked the required commitment or expertise. A policy evaluation on women’s rights and gender equality (2007-2014) (IOB Report ‘Sense and Sensitivity’, 2015) came to similar conclusions.

This policy evaluation reinforced efforts to intensify gender mainstreaming. For WEE, new opportunities had arisen when in 2013 the portfolios of development cooperation and trade were merged under one minister, and that minister (Minister Lilianne Ploumen) also championed women’s rights. In 2014 a Task Force Women’s rights and Gender equality (TFVG) was created in the MFA to better integrate gender equality across the ministry’s departments. (Also see: Interview Mushfiqua Satiar: Covid pushed women in the IT Sector)

The TFVG started to work closely with two key departments for WEE: the Department for Sustainable Economic Development (DDE) and the Department for Inclusive Green Growth (IGG). Within the Department for Social Development (DSO) collaboration was already close with the division for Strengthening Civil Society, that provides funding to NGOs in all thematic areas. In 2020, the TFVG developed its Theory of Change (ToC) for women’s rights and gender equality. It includes WEE as an important strategy.

Gender mainstreaming was evaluated again in 2021 by the IOB (MFA evaluation service). This study mainly assessed organizational aspects and preconditions for gender mainstreaming. It indeed noted several steps forward. For instance, the departments that were most relevant for WEE - DDE and IGG - had included gender equality in their Theories of Change (internal policy notes). The Theory of Change of DDE referred to creating better opportunities for women to find employment and gain an income, to strengthening their economic position as entrepreneurs and employees and to ensuring that the private sector respects women’s rights.

Gender capacity and gender expertise have always been constraining factors in the ministry. This was certainly valid for the domain of WEE. To compensate for the lack of capacity, the TFVG created and funded a Gender Resource Facility (GRF) in 2014. This was a pool of external gender experts that could be called upon by ministry departments and embassies. GRF was operated by a consortium of KIT Royal Tropical Institute and Femconsult Consultants on Gender and Development. The GRF helped kickstart several efforts to mainstream WEE in projects working with the private sector, for example through support to organizations as IDH (Initiatief voor Duurzame Handel / Sustainable Trade Initiative) and Solidaridad. Also, the GRF trained staff of the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO in Dutch), the agency that manages the development programs and projects that are implemented by Dutch private companies. Gender mainstreaming in RVO managed programs had proven challenging.


2022: A Feminist Foreign Policy for the entire MFA!

The policy choice for a Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) in mid-2022 by the Dutch cabinet means integrating gender equality not only in development cooperation but in all aspects of Dutch foreign policy, which is likely to further enhance WEE.

This FFP is being elaborated into more details at the time of writing of this section (February 2023).