A new review of the United Nations’ gender architecture appears ready to weaken the organization’s ability to achieve gender equality, particularly at the country level. Conversations with former UN staff, UN Women personnel and gender equality advocates have informed our analysis of this review process.
The Feminist UN Campaign is composed of leading feminist thinkers in civil society, philanthropy, academia and former UN staff focusing on promoting women’s rights and gender equality at the institution. The campaign has been evaluating these efforts in the UN since António Guterres was appointed secretary-general in 2017 and declared himself a proud feminist. Although the campaign commended Guterres’s commitment to review the UN’s gender architecture in his “Our Common Agenda” report, it is regrettable that the independent review he commissioned, by Dalberg Global Development Advisers, missed an opportunity for an inclusive, feminist assessment of the system’s ability to deliver on gender equality.
Much like the system it aims to reform, the review falls short of its transformative potential. It fails to address persistent challenges, stops short of holding leaders accountable, worsens divisions, undermines the work of gender advocates and offers vague or politically naïve recommendations that seek to recreate past efforts without scrutiny. The proposed repositioning of UN Women’s role, intending to curtail its operational footprint, has become a particularly contentious issue.
Equally disappointing is the lack of a competitive selection process and limited chances for engagement and input by the people and groups most affected by the proposed changes. The informal release of the report last month has fueled speculation about its motives, perpetuating a pattern of limited transparency and openness with civil society. Guterres should officially publish the report and promptly initiate a dialogue with feminist groups and networks, especially those from the global South, to discuss the findings and recommendations.
While the review acknowledges commendable progress made over the past 15 years, it also reveals a bleak, if familiar, reality: ineffective gender mainstreaming efforts by a small number of marginalized and overstretched gender equality advocates; competition over dwindling resources that cannot be reliably assessed across the system; inconsistent leadership and accountability; unclear authority and mandates; a patriarchal organizational culture; and strained relationships among member states. However, analytical gaps, contradictions and a lack of clarity on key concepts, such as capacity and transformation, cast doubts on the validity and feasibility of the recommendations and the goals of the review itself.
It perplexingly concludes that “the lack of a shared understanding of gender equality” is the biggest challenge facing the UN today, while it overlooks member state obstructionism and the unwillingness of leadership to challenge the power dynamics that perpetuate a patriarchal culture in the system. Member states’ influence over funding decisions and leadership appointments across the UN actively de-prioritize gender equality, imposing scarcity and marginality as operational conditions. The recommendations, such as an across-the-board levy on UN agencies to support UN Women’s coordination work, the creation or elevation of gender units and the promotion of gender experts within UN entities, appear politically naïve and even disingenuous.
Furthermore, the review concludes that Guterres and his deputy, Amina Mohammed, “have the clearest and most unambiguous commitments to this agenda,” but it does not interrogate their choice of leader for UN Women, the sluggish progress toward achieving gender parity, reaching funding targets or rooting out sexual harassment. It is then surprising to see many of the bureaucratic strategies of past initiatives (including developing definitions, setting targets, submitting executive plans, establishing reporting lines) repackaged as new recommendations, without once asking leadership why they have failed and what will be done differently this time.
Despite limited resources and support, gender equality advocates continue to develop effective joint programming, notably at the country level. However, the review seems intent on sowing discord and diminishing their power and capacity, rather than proposing concrete incentives to understand, document and scale up successful efforts.
Proposals to reposition UN Women and reduce it to its contested coordination role risk further marginalizing it as the youngest, most under-resourced gender equality entity in the system. Suggestions that UN Women hold UN entities and member states accountable are unrealistic. Moreover, scaling back UN Women’s operations in countries, particularly activities addressing gender-based violence and advancing gender equality in humanitarian action, will create gaps in support and engagement with the UN for tens of thousands of women and girls.
It is quite clear that this review does not adequately reflect the perspectives of the constituencies that will be directly impacted by it. As internal meetings are expected to start this week at the UN to discuss the review, it is urgent to have its recommendations validated with these communities. We, as civil society and gender advocates, look forward to the official release of the report and call on the secretary-general to leverage the UN’s global presence to engage a wide range of influential organizations, especially from the global South, and to spark a much-needed conversation on the capacities and challenges of large, complex organizations for ensuring gender equality.
This is an opinion essay.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on the UN's gender equality review?