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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Friday Note: Is the "Open" Agenda Open to Women? 

March 28, 2014 — By Ruth Levine

Are women part of the information equation? This is a question we’re starting to ask across the investments we make in transparency and accountability. So far, the answer is mostly, “We don’t know.” That’s not good enough.

Here’s a quick run-down of the scope of our involvement in the field of transparency and accountability: We support many groups that strive to make information available so that citizens can know what their governments take in and what they spend it on. For instance, we provide funding for organizations like the Revenue Watch Institute that press for the release of information about how much money governments obtain for access to oil, gas, minerals and other natural resources. Some of this is through advocacy around global standards for information disclosure, and some is through support to on-the-ground work at the national level in several countries. We help citizen groups like those affiliated with the International Budget Partnership press for public access to budget information, and we contribute to generating and using information about the quality of government-run health, education, and other services. We help groups working on behalf of those without a strong political voice to analyze that information and provide feedback to public officials about citizens’ needs and their assessments of the quality of services. All told, it’s something on the order of $20-plus million a year in grants.

It’s a big agenda—but maybe it’s not quite big enough.

What if women were being systematically excluded from this agenda? This could happen, for example, if women had less access to information than men, particularly through the types of technology-enabled platforms that are increasingly being tested. Given that in many low-income countries women are about 20 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone, it would actually be a surprise if there were not a large gender differential in information access. (The Millennium Campaign has a useful blog post on this point.)

Exclusion could also happen if the questions women have about what their government is up to were different than those of men – or were different than the questions we might think women would be interested in. Tools of transparency and accountability have sometimes been used to examine how much governments and donors spend on maternal health and family planning – we’ve sponsored some of that work ourselves – but surely questions of relevance to women go far beyond the reproductive agenda.

And exclusion could happen if women were less able than men to participate in the citizen groups that exploit the benefits of open data. Participation, after all, is rarely gender-neutral.

Yes, there are some bright spots, where those in the transparency and accountability world have paid attention to gender as an important social dimension. For instance, the International Budget Partnership has a long tradition of working on gender budgeting. And recently Publish What You Pay has set out to integrate the dimension of gender into its work, summarized here.

But the unexplored territory is far greater than what’s already underway. Overall, we’ve seen relatively little consideration of gender differences—or of mitigating the risk of gender bias—within the community of organizations focusing on transparency and accountability. In parallel, we’ve seen few organizations that are dedicated to advancing gender equality jumping into the arena of social accountability, despite the opportunities to, for example, take a gender lens to all those interesting Open Government Partnership action plans.

So we will continue to ask these irksome questions. More than asking questions, we’ll start exploring what we might do to understand—and to eliminate—gender-based differences in the lively and creative field of transparency and accountability.