08 April 2005 - 10 April 2005

The role of women in the developing world

Chair: Baroness Margaret Prosser

Ditchley has not for some time attempted a conference on women’s issues and the Director thought that he ought to correct the imbalance before his UN credentials faded into the distance.  The result was a weekend of non-stop debate and conversation, passionate intensity and a spirited drive for practical results because they matter so much.  Far be it from the Ditchley team to suggest that this was because the normal proportions were reversed and women formed 75% of the participation.  While we had to acknowledge that the voice of the developing world was not broadly enough represented, the range and depth of expertise around the table, both in policy making and in fieldwork, was impressive; and it was moving to hear the varied accounts of personal experience from participants determined that our deliberations should make a difference.

The primary task of the conference was not so much to initiate new approaches as to search for an implementation strategy for well-established goals which are not being met quickly enough.  The first part of the conference was, naturally enough, devoted to descriptions of the extent of the problems for women in the developing world, stemming not just from conflict, critical though the situation is in so many places, but also from sheer poverty and the complete lack of basic health and educational facilities.  The ravages of HIV/AIDS, still on the increase amongst women especially in Africa, have to be added to this depressing picture. 

No-one contested that addressing the needs of women in the developing world and rapidly increasing their participation in the management of their societies, at local and national levels, would make an impact.  Our challenge was to suggest how.  While the conference went into detail on many specific ways in which this question could be answered, there was one thematic response which encapsulated all the others:  make men understand that gender equality and justice for women are in their interest.  To achieve this, participants were clear that the facts had to be gathered and the right methods of presentation and implementation needed to be adopted, avoiding the language of confrontation.  Persuading both men and women that a much more balanced partnership had to be constructed was the key step.

The conference eloquently expressed an overwhelming frustration that rhetoric had not yet given way to determined action.  While specific moves in particular places needed to be tailored to the circumstances and carefully timed, there was no better time than now for global action and no more efficient tool for the promotion of all the Millennium Development Goals than the empowerment of women.  While male-female partnership was essential, women themselves had to be listened to not just as a matter of fairness and balance, but because they had a vast experience in the areas which needed to be addressed in the field of conflict resolution and economic development generally.  The example of Rwanda, where women made up 49% of the national legislature following an intense decade of conflict, was cited as case study of how partnership might work, even if the situation in Rwanda still needed huge attention.

We therefore catalogued a number of steps which needed to be taken with some urgency.  Change was essential and it needed to be organised.  Since the critical instrument was collective action, women themselves should be better organised, should be encouraged to network nationally and internationally, must develop the right objectives and slogans and must communicate their needs.  The detailed answers would be different in each society.  But all the deficient areas had to be addressed. 

Within each nation or society the legal framework had to be adapted.  This had happened throughout most of the developed world and, through the adoption of UNSCR 1325, an example had been set at the global level.  The right laws needed not only to be introduced in developing countries, but to be seen as effectively implemented, which as one participant noted was not always the case even in the developed countries that had adopted a new legal framework.  There were several advocates for quota systems, not necessarily where human rights norms and laws for a modern society were already established, but where numbers of empowered women would make an immediate difference.  There was much discussion of the 40/40 system, which ordained that no representative institution should have less than 40% participation by either men or women so that neither gender had more than a 60% majority.  This would bring with it a much more productive division of labour between women and men and would set in place a framework in which women had a much wider range of choice, not least between devotion to their strong family ties and their wish to contribute to the wider community.  The conference advocated a broader debate on the 40/40 concept. 

With this came the view that gender balance should be institutionalised into everything we did, whether in developed or in developing societies.  That did not detract from the importance of establishing ministries for women, together with the resources to fund their work.  Both approaches were necessary.  This principle of adapting the institutions could also carry the message of partnership between men and women going beyond the political structure and into civil society, the churches and other religious hierarchies and the professions. 

There was some discussion of the Millennium Development Goals themselves.  It was always possible to change or expand them.  But the conference concluded that nothing with a greater impact was likely to come from changing them and that the best policy was to get behind them and implement them.  The Goals themselves were seen as achievable.  There was a suggestion that reproductive health should be explicitly included in the MDG, to link with the effort on HIV/AIDS;  but not if that would open the box of MDG adaptation and detract from the whole initiative.  Eradicating poverty would carry so many other benefits with it that this focus should not be lost.  This did not mean that HIV/AIDS should not be addressed with much greater vigour and funding, since the evidence showed that across the developing world women were so much more vulnerable than men.  It was time to classify the disease as a huge threat to global security and to understand that it could not be dealt with without improving gender relations within each community and in a way tailored to the cultural and other circumstances of each community. 

Of course we ran up against the two hoary chestnuts, political will and funding.  Both were vital and both were in short supply.  A higher level of resources would have to come out of the global discussion on financing for development, but it would be made easier by a more concentrated debate on what could be achieved by collective action and by enlarging confidence that the commitment of resources would actually bring results.  There was a disconnect in this area which needed to be addressed, but we worried that the leadership was lacking where it mattered. 

As for political will, there was an interesting and rather depressing exchange in one of the working groups which pointed to the tendency in development ministries, and at senior political levels more generally, to design development programmes with a national or political label and not to contribute with more vigour to effective global programmes built on good analysis.  Because of this it was proving difficult to develop a global strategy on women’s issues and on the eradication of poverty.  It was time to get the message to politicians that they needed to sell their gender and development policies more on the benefits to be gained from successful economic development and reduction in conflict than on the basis of national labels or political programmes. 

A detailed discussion developed on the education of girls.  Although there were one or two questioning voices, the majority were in no doubt that a focus on the education of girls would bring the highest development return from finite resources committed to education.  While there was some debate about whether this should be just primary education, or primary and secondary education together, it was agreed that education which produced a sustainable effect probably meant taking girls at least up to the level of grade 10.  Within this, sexual education for boys and girls was critical at an age which affected attitudes successfully (for instance, an earlier start might be necessary in Africa than elsewhere).  In all these areas the greater dissemination of best practice was necessary and existing programmes should be evaluated and expanded.  A parallel thought was that younger people should be brought in to the whole effort of implementing gender equality goals, both through their schooling and through participation in relevant community programmes.

The economic and social working group examined the instrument of micro-finance.  It was pointed out that this was more of a poverty eradication instrument than a real economic tool.  But the lesson needed to be learnt from the areas where it worked well, while understanding its limitations.  If properly adapted to local circumstances, it improved women’s confidence and their willingness to participate politically within the community;  it promoted greater food security;  and in empowering women financially it also gave them greater bargaining power to negotiate sexual relations.  Care needed to be taken to ensure that programmes were financially sustainable and allowed graduation out of the micro-finance level to a broader participation in the economy.  The conference also worried that men often felt threatened by the focus of micro-finance schemes on women:  relative judgements needed to be made within each community context.  Most schemes ought to include men and elderly women, to spread responsibility;  should be linked with access to education and with access to markets;  and should include, if necessary, arrangements for extending land ownership and adapting inheritance laws.

The conference did not duck the question of why men tended to resist change in most of the areas we discussed and whether their receptiveness could be improved.  Participants attempted, not always successfully, to find the middle way between promoting unrealistic reform and offending human nature.  It all came back to persuading both men and women that the programmes being advanced were in the interests of everyone.  The economic imperative was central to this.  What men thought they gained from the exclusion of women from commerce, employment, ownership and other economic areas was being lost in society divisions and conflict.  The slow progress being made in the developing world in spite of the resources being deployed was evidence that change was needed.  The goal of gender equality could not be set apart from the economic motivation.  Both from the grass roots upwards and from senior political levels downwards, the message had to be coordinated that the full participation of women in every aspect of society and its economic and social workings was essential.  This was going to be a marathon, not a sprint, and the criterion of sustainability was one of the most important elements to instil in any programme.  In the end, however, it had to be understood that this was not a matter of men versus women, it was a question of development policies that worked against those that did not. 

Ditchley acknowledges its fortune in this conference to have been able to draw on experience and constructive thinking of the high quality found in our participants.  We also benefited from a Chair whose determination to find practical answers, sense of humour and steadying hand contributed to a remarkable weekend.  With the Sunday farewells came a strong determination that we should not just leave things there:  stimulating action by those with the power and the resources was essential.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression


Chairman :  Baroness Margaret Prosser

Chair, Women’s National Commission.  Formerly:  Member, Central Arbitration Committee (2000-2003);  Equal Opportunities Commission (1987-1993)


Ms Avril Benoit

Journalism Fellow, Massey College, University of Toronto;  Chair, Give Girls a Chance, CBC Radio.

Ms Adair Heuchan

Counsellor, Trade and Development, Canadian Mission to the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations;  Canadian International Development Agency (1985-).

Ms Andrina Lever

President, Lever Enterprises.

Ms Maureen O’Neil

President, International Development Research Centre.  Formerly:  Interim President, International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development;  President, North-South Institute;  Deputy Minister, Citizenship, Ontario. 


Ms Andjela Jurisic

Formerly:  Programme Co-ordinator, International Medical Corps, Basra (2002-03);  Programme Co-ordinator for the Protection of IDP’s in Southern Dafur (2003).


HE Mr Kamalesh Sharma

High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.  Formerly:  Permanent Representative and Ambassador to the United Nations (1997-2000);  Special Representative of the Secretary -General to Timor.  A Governor, the Ditchley Foundation.


Ms Gabriela Matei

Director, Centrul De Studii Programme Pentru Dezvoltare, Bucharest.


Mr Brian Brink

Senior Vice President, Health, Anglo American Corporation of South Africa.

Ms Wendy Lucas-Bull

Director, Eskom, Aveng and Business Against Crime;  Member of Council, University of South Africa;  Member, Millennium Labour Council;  Member, Trade and Poverty Forum, German Marshall Fund.

Professor Gill Marcus

Formerly:  Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank, South Africa;  Deputy Finance Minister, South Africa.


Professor Valentine Moghadam

Chair of Section, Gender Equality and Development Section, UNESCO.


Ms Lesley Abdela

Senior Partner, Eyecatcher Associates;  Chief Executive, Project Parity Partnership for Peace.

Mr Reg Bailey

Chief Executive, Mother’s Union.

Mr Tony Baldry MP

Member of Parliament, Conservative, Banbury (1983-);  Chairman, International Development Committee (2001-).  Formerly:  Minister of State, MAFF (1995-97).

Ms Liz Chennells

Director, Women and Equality Unit, Department of Trade and Industry.

Mrs Juliet Colman

President, United Kingdom National Committee, United Nations Development Fund for Women.

Sir Evelyn de Rothschild

Formerly:  Chairman, United Racecourses Ltd (1977-94);  British Merchant Banking and Securities Houses Association (1985-89);  Economist Newspaper (1972-89).

Professor Geoff Dench

Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Community Studies, London.  Author.

Ms Philippa Drew CB

Director, Global Issues, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Dr Annette Lawson

Chair, National Alliance of Women’s Organisations.

Professor Geoffrey Oldham

Honorary Professor, University of Sussex;  Chairman, Board of Trustees of the Science and Development Network.

Dr Naomi Sakr

Senior Lecturer in Communication, School of Media, Arts and Design, University of Westminster (2001-).  Formerly:  Consultant to UNDP, Amnesty International.  Author.

Mr Nick Thorne CMG

Ambassador and Permanent Representative, UK Mission to the Office of the United Nations and other International Organisations, Geneva;  HM Diplomatic Service (1965-), with postings including Yaounde, Brussels, Manila, Helsinki, UK Mission New York.


Mrs Kristina Thorne

Project Manager, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Geneva, projects in Burundi and Somalia (2004-);  Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finland, postings in New York and Moscow (1996-2003);  United Nations Centre for Human Rights, Geneva (1995).


Lady Forester de Rothschild

Founder and Chief Executive Officer, ELR Holdings (2002-);  Director, Economist Newspaper.  Formerly:  President and Chief Executive Officer, FirstMark Holdings Inc.


Ambassador Harriet Babbitt

Senior Vice President, Hunt Alternatives Fund;  Director, Washington Office of Women Waging Peace.  Formerly:  Deputy Administrator, United States Agency for International Development (1997-2001).

Mr Ken Bacon

President, Refugees International, Washington.

Dr Ellen Chesler

Senior Fellow, The Open Society Institute.

Ms Isobel Coleman

Senior Fellow, United States Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations.

Dr Carol Mooney

President, St Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana

Miss Patricia Moser

Executive Vice President, International Women’s Health Coalition.

Professor Catherine Rielly

Associate Professor, School of Community Economic Development, Southern New Hampshire University.

Ms Brooke Shearer

Consultant, Global Health Strategies;  Trustee of the International Center for Research on Women and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research;  Member, Council on Foreign Relations.  Formerly:  Executive Director of Yale University’s World Fellows Programme.

Mrs Elizabeth Sherman

Research Fellow, Centre for Public Leadership John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University;  Founder, Centre for Women in Politics and Public Policy (1994).


Ms Zainab Salbi

President and Chief Executive Officer, Women for Women International, Washington DC.


Ms Nadereh Chamlou

Senior Adviser, World Bank, Social Development Middle East and North Africa Region.