By Evy Peña

Fatema Z. Sumar, Executive Director of Harvard's Center for International Development (CID), and Mara Bolis, CID Research Fellow, join Harvard Kennedy School student Evy Pena in a thought-provoking conversation about gender and international development—reflecting on the sector's progress, current status, and the path ahead.

As we step into Women's History Month in 2024, we cannot ignore the  challenges facing women and girls globally. Rather than celebrate, we must acknowledge that women, girls, trans and gender nonconforming people in developing nations face a disproportionate lack of access to opportunity, security, employment, housing, and food. In other words, gender is not only the fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)—it underpins every other goal on the list. These disparities highlight the need to address gender-related issues holistically and urgently. 

Harvard’s Center for International Development (CID) is ready to take on the challenge, bringing together research and practice to reimagine a world where all people can thrive, regardless of their gender identity. This year, gender takes center stage for CID’s Global Empowerment Meeting (GEM)—the Center’s annual conference—which will explore what works to advance gender equity, with a particular lens on both the challenges and opportunities emerging from developing countries and the role society needs to play. In the inaugural episode of our Road to GEM podcast series, I sat down with two key individuals at CID: Executive Director Fatema Z. Sumar and Research Fellow Mara Bolis.

"Whether you're a corporation, government, or public school district, if you leave more than half your population behind, you're not going to achieve your goals," emphasized Sumar. “We know the solutions, we have seen successes, so it's not that we don't know what to do. But do we have the political will and scale to be able to do it?”

Throughout the last decades, the gender approach in the international development sector has evolved from a “women-only” view to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people. But the sector has not come far enough.

“There is still a tendency to conflate gender with women and stuff for women…we started with an approach called women in development. We understood that wasn't working,” said Bolis. “We shifted to the point that the World Bank is adapting its gender strategy and bringing LGBTI into how it approaches this work on gender.”

In order to understand the gaps between the goals and progress, it’s helpful to look at funding gaps. According to statistics from 2020, there was an annual funding shortfall of $450 million, hindering progress toward the 2030 Agenda. Shockingly, for LGBTI initiatives, a report by the Global Philanthropy Project reveals that 70% of surveyed funders lack a specific strategy against the anti-gender movement.

Assessing the funding needs of the gender movement requires us to go beyond the evaluation of numbers. It involves delving into the intricacies of how funds are distributed, designed, and managed in order to adequately reflect the needs and voices of beneficiaries and organizations on the ground.

“You have to be willing to rethink the system—how these organizations and institutions hold their power,” said Sumar. 

For Further Reading:


Tune in to CID's Road to GEM24 podcast series as we discuss gender in international development with leading academics, policy makers, and practitioners.
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