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Ringing the alarm bell? What recent ODA trends indicate for gender equality

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Written by Nilima Gulrajani, Nerea Craviotto

Hero image description: Birds-eye view of money being exchanged for goods at a food market in Guatemala Image credit:Money exchanging hands at a food market in Guatemala. UN Women/Ryan Brown

When the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed in 2015, governments ambitiously committed to achieving gender equality as both a standalone and crosscutting objective.

Almost a decade later, alarming funding trends are surfacing that leave transformative ambitions for gender equality and women’s empowerment at risk.

In this blog, we examine preliminary 2023 figures for Official Development Assistance (ODA) to follow development finance targeted for gender equality. While these flows are not yet tagged by their gender components, we flag several concerns based on their indicative trends.

Following the money tackling gender equality

The United Nations (UN) estimates it will take 300 years to end child marriage, 140 years for women to be represented equally in positions of leadership in the workplace, and 47 years to achieve equal representation in national parliaments. This is partly due to the annual $360 billion gender funding gap in 48 'developing' economies.

Preliminary ODA figures for 2023 suggest there are new and alarming reasons to think global gender equality ambitions are scaling back.  First, multilateral allocations are down $2 billion dollars on last year, an important channel for funnelling global gender related resources within development finance. Global geopolitical conflicts are affecting the amount of finance countries are willing to invest in global institutions like the UN, that are typically harder to hold directly accountable and where unfriendly states may wield greater influence due to all members having equal representation (bar the Security Council, of course).

In the absence of alternative financing sources, this will put pressure on efforts to mainstream and advance gender equality and women’s empowerment via the collective normative and operational power of the multilateral system. For example, the new UN System-Wide Gender Equality Acceleration Plan that is targeting 15% of all UN expenditures with the principal objective of gender equality may be setback if philanthropic and private capital do not step up to fill the gap.

Meanwhile, ODA to the least developed countries in 2023 remains below 2021 levels and is growing at a slower rate. Many low- and lower-middle-income countries continue to struggle with rising debt, conflict and the ongoing impacts of COVID-19, with consequences for girls' ability to continue their education, ensures access to sexual and reproductive services, and gender-based income precarity. Least developed countries are especially vulnerable; for example, in 2022, 27 out of 45 LDCs register low equality or medium-low equality levels in the Gender Development Index (see Figure 1).

Reduced funding to countries where gender equality is needed most suggests a likely misalignment between gender-focused needs and donor allocation strategies. This is especially unfortunate given the costs of addressing gender inequality in the least developed countries is the lowest on a per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Finally, ODA fell in 2023 in countries that have traditionally championed gender equality and women’s rights, most notably Germany and France (see Figure 2).  France, the fourth largest funder for gender equality and women’s empowerment (2019-2022 period), recently cut 742 million euros from its 2024 ODA allocation, a 12.5% drop in its 5.9 billion euros budget.

Additional cuts to overseas spending are likely in 2024 given domestic fiscal pressures and expected growth in defense budgets in several G7 nations. For example, in Germany, international development spending in 2024 will be reduced by almost 2 billion euros compared to 2023, mainly on the bilateral side.  And the new right-wing coalition government in the Netherlands has announced 66% cut to the development budget (US$6.4 billion).

Upcoming elections in the US and Canada may also bring socially conservative parties to power risking cuts to ODA targeted at gender equality, especially as defense budgets and military spending are likely to grow at the expense of ODA.

Preliminary data suggests that aid allocation trends do not bode well for advancing gender equality. Money is obviously only an input in the fight for gender equality, but it remains one that looks increasingly at risk. In our next blog, we highlight how this changing profile of ODA spending is compounded by data gaps that leave us without a full or accurate picture of total global gender spending, and offer some ideas for how these might be fixed.