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Women and the SDGs: Partner Perspectives Panel


Women and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been discussed in the development community since the unanimous approval of the SDGs in September 2015. However, achieving the SDGs while ensuring we meet the needs of women and girls throughout the goals is a challenging task that can only be achieved through the creation of strategic partnerships among and between governments, civil society, and private sector institutions. In order to ensure the success and synergies of these partnerships, conversations are needed to understand the different perspectives and challenges each partner faces, and also explore what the SDGs really mean for women living in poverty around the world.

The need for this discussion was evident from the standing-room-only turnout for the August 9 Women and the SDGs: Partner Perspectives event convened by Plan International USA and the Women in Public Service Project at the Wilson Center. The panel featured noted speakers: Roger-Mark de Souza, Director of Population, Environmental Security and Resilience at the Woodrow Wilson Center; Tony Pipa, Chief Strategy Officer of the Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning at USAID; Natalie Co, Senior Manager at Accenture Development Partnerships; and Xolile Manyoni, Project Coordinator and Co-founder of Sinamandla in South Africa and a participant in Plan’s Global Women in Management (GWIM) program. Plan’s Senior Vice President of International Programs Ann Hudock moderated the discussion on how various partners can and should work together to move the SDG needle for women and girls.

After a welcome to the Wilson Center by Roger-Mark, Ann opened the conversation with an explanation of why women and girls are central to Plan’s efforts to realize children’s rights and gender equality throughout our programs in more than 50 developing countries. The Because I am a Girl movement implements programs focused on girls’ education, protection, and anti-trafficking; youth employment; adolescent sexual and reproductive health; and social accountability. This movement is committed to transforming power relations, so that girls everywhere learn, lead, decide, and thrive.

She continued by stating that Plan recognizes women are key to transforming these power dynamics to improve the lives of families and communities and to promote gender equality, particularly for young and adolescent girls. Thanks to our decade-long partnership with the ExxonMobil Foundation’s Women’s Economic Opportunity Initiative, Plan has reached more than 800 NGO women leaders, including one of the panelists, in 75 countries with leadership and technical capacity building through the GWIM workshop.

“I think one of the things we overlook when we talk about women’s leadership is just how important it is for young girls to see models of what the future can look like,” explained Ann. “So, when we talk about women’s leadership, I always think if you see it, you can become it.”

She then acknowledged that nowhere are women and girls more prominent than as partners to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. To ensure their direct engagement in the SDGs, Plan has embarked on a partnership with the International Women’s Health Coalition, KPMG, the ONE Campaign, and Women Deliver on a joint data and research initiative to measure SDG progress for girls and women over the next 15 years. The goal of the partnership is to produce an independent “tracker” that will become a trusted source of information for advocates, activists, governments, civil society partners, and others working to achieve gender equality.

“This is a really exciting initiative and it’s a contribution to global monitoring and accountability,” Ann explained. “We can use the evidence of where things are lagging in order to tailor our assistance.”

To gain insight into the panel members’ perspectives and experience, Ann asked each panelist to share lessons learned from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

“When we think back to the MDG process, there was a question, or many questions, on how the MDGs were rolled out,” said Roger-Mark de Souza of the Wilson Center. “How were they developed? And, the degree to which there were opportunities to provide input, data, analysis, and perspectives that were reflective of women’s priorities. So we learned quite specifically the need for a better process that was more inclusive and engaged. Part of looking at that process was understanding that there was a need for better data.”

Echoing those remarks, GWIM participant Xolile Manyoni explained that while her NGO and other local partners were aware of the MDGs, they were not part of their organizational or programmatic strategies.

“My lesson is there was not enough done to bring the information to the ground, where the women needed it the most,” said Xolile. “A strong effort should have been emphasized. I believe if you work with women, you bring women and girls together, you give them the opportunity to be a part of the solution, so they can start addressing these problems.”

Accenture’s Natalie Co explained that from a corporate perspective, the language of the MDGs did not resonate with the private sector. “This ineffective marketing to business led to limited private sector awareness and engagement with the MDGs. The process did not give a clear explanation, nor offer areas of opportunity for business to assist in achieving the MDGs,” she explained. “As we shift towards the SDGs, the process was more inclusive and did include business and the private sector.”

Natalie’s comments reflected the importance of the development and the private sector learning to communicate in the same language in order to move the partnerships beyond cash grants to a place that leverages both partners’ core capabilities.

“[NGO] program staff are the ones who really know the issues in the local communities, but maybe don’t speak to the private sector,” she said. “On the flip side, maybe the fundraising staff know companies but are not focused on the areas that are needed.”

Tony Pipa of USAID addressed the issue of silos within each sector as a lesson learned from the MDGs that was applied to the design of the SDGs. Using this as an entry point, Ann turned the conversation to the best strategies for reaching women and girls in achieving the SDGs. Tony explained how USAID is asking their missions to include the SDGs in their strategies and focus on creating local capacity to address the needs and the opportunities for women and girls to be engaged in the SDGs.

“When you think about the SDGs and you think of it as this integrated framework, the focus on gender and women’s empowerment is not just on goal five, it is about achieving progress on the framework itself,” said Tony. “So, having this type of conversation is really important because it really points to the centrality of this issue. It’s not just an add-on…We shouldn’t just be thinking about how to employ women as meter readers, although that can be great to give someone a job, but it’s also about engaging the next generation of women as engineers, as business leaders, as helping within the value chain.” Natalie shared information from Accenture’s recently published report, Corporate Disruptors: How Business is Turning Global Challenges into Opportunities, which describes how companies can use the SDGs for spotting opportunities to grow and “future-proof” their business, while generating significant societal and environmental benefits that their customers increasingly value.

“Our research showed that companies committing to the SDGs have more significant impact on their business, the community, and the environment,” said Natalie. “And, those with the strongest commitment view the implementation of the SDGs through the lens of value creation.”

From the perspective of a local NGO on the ground, Xolile gave three strategies. The first is to create spaces and opportunities for marginalized women to meet and dialogue, including traditional leadership. The second was for donors to increase access to grants to small, local nonprofits to coordinate these discussions. The final strategy she proposed was to use channels that were already in place.

“Where I come from, there is a structure that the local government actually introduced to the people. It’s called the ‘war rooms,’ which is a concept that brings together the community,” explained Xolile. “Collectively, this enables the community to deal more effectively with the issues on the ground of eradicating poverty and, also, it gives the responsibility back to the people on the ground, which is more sustainable.”

The panel discussion revealed the cross-sectoral cautious optimism for the SDGs. It also brought to light the need for more discussions like this one to refine the strategies that will be necessary to make the concerted effort needed to achieve the SDGs.

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