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Expertes en genre et connaissances féministes sur le développement

Christine Verschuur

Circulation de connaissances féministes et institutions de développement : lost in translation ?

A feminist approach to gender equality mainstreaming? The case of SDC

Ursula Keller

Note de l’éditeur

Référence papier : Keller, U. 2017 ‘A feminist approach to gender equality mainstreaming? The case of SDC’, in C. Verschuur (dir.), Qui sait ? Expertes en genre et connaissances féministes sur le développement, Paris : L’Harmattan. Collection Genre et développement. Rencontres, pp. 175-184. Acheter le .pdf chapitre éditeur.

Note de l’auteur

The analysis presented in this article is the personal opinion of the author and is not an official position of SDC.

Texte intégral

Who are the “gender experts”

1This conference explores the link between feminist knowledge production and how such knowledge travels and is translated into “gender expertise” in institutions and development policies. The debate is part of the controversy around gender mainstreaming: can it actually be a transformative strategy for rethinking the neo-liberal and patriarchal system, or has it simply become an integrationist model co-opting the feminist cause? Yet the conference wants to go beyond the critics of gender mainstreaming and instead shed light on the persons behind it, the experts “doing gender mainstreaming”, or the “gender-expertocracy” (gender expert bureaucracy). So we need to ask who are these people?

2As the Senior Gender Policy Advisor at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), I am one of these gender experts, representing the gender-expertocracy. My task is to implement gender mainstreaming at SDC. However, this is one identity only, and in my case, a rather recent one: as a social anthropologist, the early feminist scholarly works that influenced me included Ester Boserup’s works on the gendered division of work, and feminist critiques of the public-private dichotomy as a structural element of patriarchal systems and how this is conceptualised in different contexts. I worked for almost 15 years for a feminist peace organisation and a peacebuilding centre in Switzerland before I joined SDC and became a gender-expertocrate. I believe that most of us gender experts combine different academic and professional origins and biographies. We have travelled back and forth from NGOs, feminist organisations or academic positions to be gender experts in public or international institutions. We have thus multiple identities as gender experts, NGO activists and feminist scholars. Hence, a simple distinction between gender experts, feminist knowledge producers and knowledge holders is not helpful. Yet, the questions raised about feminist knowledge, about what happens to this knowledge once it travels through institutions, and about the role we, the gender experts, play in this, are of critical importance. We know this “travelling of knowledge” is full of traps – some minor, but some major ones as well. The title of this panel – Circulation of feminist knowledge and development: lost in translation? – is quite telling. SDC is an interesting case to explore some of these questions: how much gets lost, evaporated in translation (Ferguson 2015)?

SDC’s gender history and policy

3SDC’s gender policy defines gender equality as a key to poverty reduction and sustainable development for all; gender equality mainstreaming (GEM) is the method to implement it. When I took over my position at SDC, my predecessor advised me: just continue with a feminist approach to gender equality mainstreaming. What does this mean? If we look at SDC’s gender history, it goes back to the 1980s, in particular the Nairobi conference in 1985, which led to the first institutional efforts pushed by some collaborators, mostly women, to promote awareness for better inclusion of women and women’s concerns into SDC’s development programmes. With the Beijing Plan of Action in 1995, gender mainstreaming was added to the agenda, which eventually resulted in the adoption of the current SDC gender policy in 2003. The different phases reflect the transition from the Women in Development approach to the Gender and Development approach. Accordingly, the role of my predecessors changed over time: while in the 1980s (and early 1990s) the aim was to convince the male-dominated institution that development actually misses out on women, the mainstreaming paradigm was then required to position and shape the gender policy as a critical – feminist? – approach.

  • 1 Important to note: While this understanding is in line with SDC’s gender policy, the term “a femini (...)

4I define a feminist approach to gender equality mainstreaming based on three major conceptual understandings: the analysis emphasises, firstly, that gender relations are relations of unequal power and patterns of exclusion and discrimination shaped by structural inequalities based on patriarchal structures and values; secondly, that not all women are equal and that we have to look at multiple discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, class and age, as described in the intersectionality approach (Yuval-Davis 2006); and, thirdly, that the ultimate aim of gender mainstreaming is the transformation of gender inequalities into egalitarian gender relations that allow for and promote equal chances and opportunities for all women and men, girls and boys, regardless of their sex. The term gender equality mainstreaming is used within SDC to emphasise this transformative aim and goal1.

How good are we at integrating feminist knowledge?

5The question we have to ask now is: can we actually implement a feminist approach to GEM without falling into the traps of technocratisation and de-politicisation? I will outline my arguments along two axes: horizontally, referring to the process of integrating feminist knowledge as “gender knowledge” across the institutional landscape of a development agency, and vertically, referring to the depth and quality of feminist knowledge, i.e. what “topics” are considered gender expertise and what happens when that knowledge trickles down and is translated into institutional knowledge?

6The hypothesis that I want to share with you is that feminist knowledge is important for us as gender experts in a development agency – it is our analytic backbone. We can integrate some of it into the institution to shape policies and programmes, but it is often spread thin (horizontally) and light (vertically). We work with thematic and analytic shortcuts. We, as gender experts (often being more “theme managers”), manoeuver between cleverly using institutional discourses, investing our personal commitment to “buy in” our colleagues, and do a bit of “policing” from time to time to invoke the moral responsibility from our management.

The horizontal axis – speaking the language of the institution

  • 2 The result orientation is based on aid effectiveness principles and the so-called Result-based Mana (...)

7As the gender focal point, I am in charge of further developing the gender policy and formulating positions – this sounds pretty powerful. In reality, competences, power and resources are limited, but there are spaces and opportunities for influence. How does this work in practice? Let me illustrate the institutional challenges and opportunities by outlining the following two notions: first, the ambiguity of gender equality mainstreaming as a transversal theme and, second, the discourse around the ambition for demonstrating effective and measurable “results”2.

  • 3 The SDC gender policy marker is based on and aligned with the OECD DAC Gender Policy Marker that di (...)

8Let me first talk about gender equality being a transversal topic. At SDC, the broad and common understanding of GEM is integrating gender as a transversal theme. The SDC gendernet, with focal points throughout the organisation, is the structure to implement this. The designation of gender equality as a transversal theme actually means that the topic is of particular importance, as stated in the SDC gender policy. What happens in the institutional reality is that gender equality tends to be “everywhere and nowhere”: as a transversal topic, gender is often included in a more “implicit” way only. It is less visible and therefore accountability is limited. Also, in SDC’s conceptual understanding, gender as a transversal theme is not a “real” topic because a “real” topic requires expert knowledge, including the necessary human and financial resources. Instead it is expected “that technically everyone” can apply it which is, by the way, also efficient and cost aware. “Everyone” is not a gender expert, but with the help of a toolkit and checklist that we, the one gender expert, provide, we can “do gender” transversally across the institution. This narrow reading and understanding of gender equality mainstreaming does, of course, play into the technocratisation and de-politicisation of the gender equality cause. While some critics claim that “doing gender” has mostly become “helping women” (Ferguson 2015; Cornwall 2007), I see a different challenge at SDC: since everyone understands that gender is not about women only, approaches addressing women’s specific discriminations are not regarded as “real gender”. Gender remains abstract in its transversality while at the same time “women” as a topic has disappeared. Integrating a gender lens gets thus easily reduced to the notion of “gender sensitivity” to promote equal numbers of men and women in programme activities, with the related proliferation of data and statistics that are de-contextualised and deprived of analytical value. More sex-disaggregated data is a positive development, and it must be considered a success compared to the previous invisibility of women/gender. Yet we are still usually lacking a sound analysis of gender-specific discrimination and exclusion from projects, a clear definition of what kind of gender-related changes we are aiming for, and data that are able to capture these changes. Also, analyses of how financial policies and budget flows are related or targeted to redressing these gender inequalities, both in the institutional context of SDC and within the project planning, are rarely conducted. The SDC gender policy marker3 does measure the percentage of the overall spending that can be qualified as gender-relevant interventions, but the quality of the data is difficult to establish and thus questionable.

9This leads us to what I see as an institutional opportunity – the issue about “gender results” (GENDERNET 2014, 10-14). Result-based management has become the mainstream in development practice. It reflects the ambition to move from a focus on activities to an emphasis on the changes and impacts that have been achieved, based on a previously established theory of change and a related “result chain” (outcomes and impacts as against the output). Adopting this same logic, I, as the gender expert, now require a shift from “implicit transversality” towards an “explicit gender results approach”. Applying the results approach means aiming for transformative objectives to address and overcome gender inequalities. This is an analytic approach, and therefore a challenge for the institution. Returning to the topic of the chapter, circulation of feminist knowledge means translating feminist concerns into gender equality results.

The vertical depth – analytic shortcuts

  • 4 The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted in September 2015 by the UN General Assembly, (...)

10How successful are we in doing this? How much is lost in translation? This leads me to the vertical axis: what constitutes feminist knowledge, what topics are considered “gender expertise”, and what happens when topics are taken on in the institution and trickle down? Can feminist knowledge be absorbed by the institution to achieve some of the transformation we aim for? Let me illustrate opportunities for and challenges inherent in unpaid care and domestic work, a topic that has been “lifted” on the global development agenda with the newly adopted 2030 framework for sustainable development4. This feminist niche topic has become an item on the global agenda – a truly remarkable feat.

11Feminist economists have brought attention to the dimension of care, in particular unpaid care work, as an analytical lens to be included in macroeconomic analysis – the care economy. Unpaid care work is invisible, time intensive, of low value and unaccounted for in macroeconomic data; and, it is work universally done mostly by women. Analysing the unequal distribution of unpaid (and paid) care work provides critical insights into social norms defining the gendered division of labour; it leads one to the social and economic structures underlying and perpetuating gender inequalities. It is probably the best indicator of how persistent patriarchal structures are rooted in our societies.

12SDC, together with the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) and the University of Bern, has done substantial work on the topic – probably more than most other agencies (Bieri et al. 2011). With the 2030 agenda, we now enter a new stage in the journey of the topic: unpaid care work is now a target in the global gender goal.

Unpaid care work in development practice

  • 5 The SDC gender policy requires a gender analysis for any intervention; this is being done more ofte (...)

13What happens when unpaid care work as a feminist economic topic is translated into development practice? The three Rs used to voice the different actions required can help illustrate this: recognise and value (both in terms of economic and societal importance); reduce; and redistribute unpaid care work. The “care lens” is about recognising unpaid care work as work that is being done, giving it a societal and economic value of its own, reducing it through technology and infrastructure development and better redistributing the burden of it between men and women and between families and the state. Let me now share a few observations on how unpaid care work as a feminist topic has been “absorbed” at SDC5.

14On a programme level, the care question has been taken up in particular in the context of programmes implemented in rural economies on smallholder farms, of value chain analysis and of women’s economic empowerment. The simplified question we ask is: how can women’s income, productivity and their contribution to economic development be increased if they are spending most of their daily time performing reproductive/care and domestic tasks such as taking care of children, fetching water and fire wood, cooking and washing?

15If we look at the concrete activities and measures that result from this analysis, we find that in many economic development programmes, some types of child care arrangements are included, and training or community meetings are (sometimes) adapted to women’s (domestic) work schedule. Also, there is quite a broad understanding that investments in rural infrastructure, e.g. improving water supply to facilitate access to drinking water, are not only a contribution for improved health results (which obviously has important gender implications), but also a critical factor for girls’ access to school due to the reduced time burden for fetching water. Some programmes even measure the time reduction achieved through these investments, although this is still an exception.

16But the implication of the time used and time gained is hardly ever analysed or recognised as a strategic gender result per se. If such analytic links and connections are made, an economic reading prevails: the additional time could and should be invested in productive activities to enhance women’s economic empowerment and reduce women’s poverty. In this reading, “time is money”, and the disproportionate amount of time many poor women use for unpaid care and domestic work is unproductive and inefficient – an economic loss. The potential of women’s time is recognised, but mostly as an “untapped” economic resource.

17As a gender expert, I can use and play with this discourse by highlighting women’s additional time as a critical factor and opportunity for individual, economic and/or political empowerment, and as a precondition for “achieving sustainable development and economic growth”. This is “smart economy” – the key slogan to push gender equality high on the agenda in the context of the 2030 framework. However, in my daily practice, in training programmes and workshops, I highlight the risks of such an approach: the danger of overburdening women with responsibilities that often come without additional rights and power. Also, questions around decent work are pertinent. I emphasise women’s wellbeing and their self-determination (do they actually want to work more?) as a critical factor for gender equality and the promotion of women’s empowerment in its own right – and not as a contribution to global economic growth (see also the critical analyses and case studies in Bieri et al. 2011).

18If we revisit our three Rs of the unpaid care work nexus, we can quickly identify that we address mostly two of the three Rs: recognise – in the sense of making care work more visible and attributing value to it; and reduce – reducing the time burden in order to invest the resulting time gain in more productive activities. It is about women’s integration into productive/paid work schemes, with certain considerations to avoid or reduce the double burdening on women. But what is almost never addressed is the question of redistribution, although it is redistribution that has the potential to transform the underlying structural inequalities, specifically the gendered division of paid and unpaid care work.

19This should not surprise any of us here. It is in line with the wording of target 5.4 of the new Development Goals, which mentions recognition/value and reduction, but not redistribution. Instead, it refers to “shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate”. Redistribution of unpaid care work points towards the root causes of gender inequalities; and most importantly, it must go beyond the private sphere of the household and requires public policy answers to promote more egalitarian gender role models. Obviously, this is more controversial since it questions the underlying social and economic structures of our societies, both in Switzerland and in the development contexts where SDC is working.

20The “economic reading” is the one that is being picked up easily, the one that trickles down; it fits into the dominant liberal development model in which gender equality is a “business case” (Ferguson 2015). Moreover, it builds on an individualistic paradigm of empowerment as individual autonomy (Oduro and van Staveren 2015). A “feminist reading” of unpaid care work would entail questioning our development model, embracing the feminist critics of growth and accumulation, and re-assessing what has value, how it is accounted for, and the implication it would have for public policies, namely regarding social protection and gender budgeting.


21I believe the example of SDC, in general, and the topic of care, in particular, demonstrate the areas I, as a gender expert, work in, as well as the limits. Feminist knowledge has made its way into the institution, and it informs and shapes our analyses and policies; we can speak the language of the institution and take advantage of it. But the impact and traces that remain are spread thin, and we work with thematic and analytic shortcuts – key messages that are boiled down, simple and static (Ferguson 2015). The message that is being picked up is “We have to think about child care! when introducing the concept of care. Working from within the institution, I say, at least this!

22While we cannot avoid the dilemmas and tension that come with an economised gender equality approach, we also should not underestimate the subversive spaces the daily practice and interaction in an institution provides. Yet, to identify these spaces, the understanding of feminist knowledge is important as an analytic backbone and compass to navigate between a pragmatic, step-by-step approach and ambitious visions and convictions. I therefore would argue that we need feminist gender-aware experts in institutions, combined with tactical cleverness and political sensitivity, to make a small difference. But will we change the mainstream and transform the system from within? No. Is this our sole responsibility? No. This is a “multi-stakeholder task”. We have to build and reinforce alliances across institutions, between practitioners and academics, and with local and international feminist networks.


Bieri, S., L. Frankhauser, A. Sancar and N. Stolz. 2011. Added Value. Contributions to Gender Equitable Economic Development. Bern: University of Bern, Caritas Switzerland and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

Cornwall, A. 2007. Revisiting the “Gender Agenda”. IDS Bulletin. 38 (2): 69-78.

GENDERNET (DAC Network on Gender Equality). 2014. From ambition to results: Delivering on gender equality in donor institutions. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Ferguson, L. 2015. This is Our Gender Person. International Feminist Journal of Politics. 17(3): 380-397. DOI: 10.1080/14616742.2014.918787

Oduro, A. D. and I. van Staveren. 2015. Engendering Economic Policy in Africa. Feminist Economics. 21(3): 1-22. DOI: 10.1080/13545701.2015.1059467

Yuval-Davis, Y. 2006. Intersectionality and Feminist Politics. European Journal of Women’s Studies. 13(3): 193-209. DOI: 10.1177/1350506806065752


1 Important to note: While this understanding is in line with SDC’s gender policy, the term “a feminist approach to GEM” is not an official term used in the institution and I rarely refer to it in my daily work.

2 The result orientation is based on aid effectiveness principles and the so-called Result-based Management approach, which most development agencies have adopted.

3 The SDC gender policy marker is based on and aligned with the OECD DAC Gender Policy Marker that distinguishes between transversal, relating to the significant integration of gender equality as a cross-cutting theme in interventions, and gender-specific, where gender equality is the principal objective of the intervention.

4 The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted in September 2015 by the UN General Assembly, includes among its 17 goals a stand-alone goal on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls (goal 5). Target 5.4 addresses unpaid care and domestic work and reads as follows: “Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate”.

5 The SDC gender policy requires a gender analysis for any intervention; this is being done more often implicitly than explicitly. According to the SDC guidelines, a first step is always to analyse the gender roles and division of labour between women and men: who does what kind of productive and reproductive tasks? Including a care economy lens in this step means also asking how much time women and men each use and have available for productive and reproductive tasks. And what are the social, economic and political gains related to these tasks and roles? Based on this analysis, key gender issues (gaps and challenges) are identified and aspired changes of the interventions defined.


Ursula Keller est conseillère en politique de genre à la Direction pour le développement et la coopération suisse (DDC) du Département fédéral des affaires étrangères. Dans sa fonction, elle apporte des conseils et un soutien au siège et aux bureaux sur le terrain pour la mise en œuvre de la politique de genre de la DDC et dirige le réseau mondial de points focaux genre de la DDC. Ursula Keller est une experte en genre et droits des femmes dans les contextes de développement et de construction de la paix et a une grande expérience de travail au Proche-Orient et en Afrique. Dans ses missions précédentes, Ursula Keller a dirigé le projet de Centre de consolidation de la paix à Swisspeace et a travaillé pour le cfd, une organisation féministe pour la paix travaillant pour la coopération au développement et la paix et les politiques migratoires. Elle est titulaire d’un Master en anthropologie sociale de l’Université de Zurich.

Ursula Keller is the Senior Gender Policy Advisor of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) / Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. In her function, she provides guidance and support to headquarter and field offices for the implementation of SDC’s gender policy and leads the global network of SDC’s gender focal points. Ursula Keller is an expert in gender and women’s rights in development and peacebuilding contexts and has extensive working experiences in the Middle East and Africa. In her prior assignments Ursula Keller was project director of the Center for Peacebuilding at Swisspeace and worked for cfd, a feminist peace organization working in development cooperation and peace and migration policies. She holds a Masters degree in Social Anthropology from the University of Zurich.


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