Every issue that Local First hopes to address is fundamentally a gender issue. Deeply entrenched gender discrimination is not merely a factor in poverty, hunger, humanitarian assistance and post-conflict reconstruction – it is a root cause. And unless that root cause is fully understood and addressed, even Local First solutions are apt to reinforce the patriarchal structures that gave rise to the problem to begin with.

The organisation where I work – The Hunger Project (THP) – learned this through direct experience. From the beginning of its field programmes in 1990, THP applied what can now be called a Local First approach. THP never posts expatriate staff, and instead creates locally led THP organisations in each country.

A woman in Tamil Nadu, India, gives her input on the village rehabilitation and development plan following the December 2004 Tsunami. Photo credit: John Coonrod / The Hunger Project A woman in Tamil Nadu, India, gives her input on the village rehabilitation and development plan following the December 2004 Tsunami. Photo credit: John Coonrod / The Hunger Project

When we began facilitating communities in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America to pioneer bottom-up, integrated rural development, the majority of initiatives focussed on improving the lives of women. This made sense: women were the majority of the poor and improving their lives also improved the lives of the family and the community. These first communities prioritised women-focussed programmes in literacy, microfinance, improved agriculture, water and sanitation: the usual actions communities pick to meet basic needs.

But these actions did not transform gender relations. Child marriage, keeping girls out of school to do chores, and grossly unfair divisions of labour persisted, perpetuating chronic malnutrition. This link was made glaringly clear by leading nutritionists in the 1996 Unicef Asian Enigma study. Our confrontation with this reality led to a dramatic redesign of our approach. We needed to combine our people-centered development strategies with high-leverage interventions for gender equality.

Simply addressing gender gaps in programme participation is not really a gender intervention. Real gender interventions start with gender analysis before program design begins.

Good gender analysis does not come from ‘outside’. Virtually every country on earth has a long-standing local women’s rights movement. Good gender analysis comes from listening carefully to local leaders on the front-lines of the women’s movement, and learning two things: (1) what are the specific barriers to women’s full and equal partnership in the issue at hand, and (2) where is the crest of the wave of women’s emancipation? What local trend – if empowered – would most likely catalyse social transformation?

In the countries where we work the answers were quite different. With indigenous women in Latin America, the crest of the wave was social empowerment – strengthening their organisations. In rural Africa, it was economic – putting women in charge of rural banks. In Bangladesh, it was the rights of girls. In India, it was political; the 73rd amendment to India’s constitution reserved 1/3 of seats in village councils and presidencies for women. As our new gender interventions took hold, we noticed that picking the highest-leverage place to start had a spill-over effect on other forms of empowerment. Attitudes and behaviours towards all forms of female empowerment improved: social, educational, political and economic.

Photo 2 - LF blog Thurs 5 Sept 2013 - John Coonrod While much aid was focussed on fishing families in Tamil Nadu, India, the December 2004 Tsunami's impact on farmers was devastating as it salted the farmland. Here is the first peanut crop after the community was successful in removing the salt. Photo credit: John Coonrod / The Hunger Project

Our progress on the gender front also reinforced our commitment to participatory local democracy. Given women’s multiple burdens and limited mobility – and given the key role of local government in addressing issues of most importance to women – empowering women’s leadership in local governance is a very high-leverage intervention.

We have found that a ‘gender first’ approach works even in humanitarian emergencies. THP is not normally a relief organisation, but when the December 2004 Tsunami hit villages in Tamil Nadu, India where we work, our teams immediately responded. The area was being hit with a second Tsunami of uncoordinated and often inappropriate aid. Our teams worked first with women elected to the village councils to take charge of the situation and create their own rehabilitation plans. These plans had the power of law, and successfully channelled outside help into the kinds of infrastructure the communities saw that they needed.

For the past year, THP (with the support of UNDEF – The UN Democracy Fund) has conducted a global survey of participatory local democracy and will soon release our findings during the 2013 UN General Assembly. One key finding: of the 35 countries we profiled, 20 now have some form of quota system for women. We are not aware of any country that has reached the UN target of 30% women in elected bodies without a quota system.

When released, this first ever ‘State of Participatory Democracy Report’ will be available at http://localdemocracy.net. It is our intention that it will be a useful tool to everyone in the Local First movement, as we work together for a future that truly works for people.

This article was also published on the Local First blog. Local First is an approach to international development that prioritises the views and leadership of people and organisations in the countries affected, over those of outsiders from the international community.