Towards a new transformative development agenda: the role of men and boys in achieving gender equality.

Author:Hendra, John
Position:Beyond Exclusion - Report

The global discussion of the post-2015 development agenda has provoked wide engagement and dialogue. The discourse has revealed an evolving consensus on the centrality of social and economic justice, human rights and equality, and broadly-shared expectations for a truly transformative vision for development. This evolving consensus can be leveraged to promote a wider commitment not only to the universality of rights, but also to the universality of duties. One key aspect of this is the potential to leverage the recognition of such duties by men and boys as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for advancing gender equality. Efforts to address the impacts on women of patterns of unpaid care work and to end violence against women and girls are instructive in terms of the potential role of men and boys. The new development agenda can be a shared manifesto for change among those who recognize their role in achieving the goals of development. The extent to which it succeeds in bringing men and boys, as the disproportionate holders of power in the status quo, to make their full contribution to gender equality and development will be an important indicator of the new development agenda's success.


A global discussion of the post-2015 development agenda and its linkages to the proposed Sustainable Development Goals has been underway since the 2010 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Summit. (1) Arguably, however, the discussion of the future development agenda began even earlier, with the formulation of the MDGs in 2000, when supporters highlighted their merits, while critics argued equally assertively about their deficiencies. (2)

The ongoing debate on the strengths and weaknesses of the MDGs has provided key lessons that are being considered in the discussion around the formulation of new development goals. It remains to be seen whether the proposals based on these lessons will survive the political processes that ultimately determine the substance of the new development agenda.

Whatever the outcome, the discussion to date has robustly addressed fundamental development issues such as: linking environmental sustainability, poverty reduction and development more effectively; the centrality of gender equality and women's empowerment; the relationship between development and a human rights perspective; tackling inequalities and structural discrimination; framing development as a universal issue of shared concern and responsibility between the Global North and South; and data quality. (3) This contrasts markedly with the MDG process in 2000, which was, by necessity, a shorter and less transparent process during which technical experts provided the bulk of the content that was ultimately included in the goals and indicators.

The debate around the post-2015 development agenda has been more substantive and extensive. More importantly, the processes driven by the discussion have mobilized a wide range of constituencies and individuals across sectors to engage in a conversation about development. (4) This includes more than one million people who have participated in country and global thematic consultations led by the United Nations Development Group (UNDG). (5) UN Women has been closely involved in the process, including as a co-chair of the UNDG MDG Taskforce guiding these consultations, and as a co-lead with UNICEF of a dialogue on inequalities that generated 175 written papers, engaged 3,000 people in a dedicated online dialogue about inequalities, and engaged many more through broader social media sites. (6) However, the UN has not driven these consultations alone.

The issue of shaping the new development agenda is being intensively discussed by civil society, including by traditional human rights and development organizations, foundations, media, the private sector, and many others. (7) There have also been a number of major reports published on the topic by groups such as the UN System Task Team, the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (an independent panel to the UN Secretary-General), the UN Global Compact, the UN Regional Commissions and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. These reports have set out a framework and possible goal areas for the new development agenda. (8)

This unprecedented breadth of engagement represents a unique opportunity to pursue an evolving consensus regarding the centrality of social and economic justice, human rights, and equality, and to enact a truly transformative vision for development, that recognizes and addresses structural constraints and unequal power relations between different groups. We will argue that it is an opportunity not only to assert the universality of rights, but also to emphasize the universality of duties, whereby everyone becomes an actor for sustainable development, justice, equality, and security for all.

The post-2015 development agenda's ability to further galvanize consensus around a transformative vision for development will be the litmus test of its overall success. During this phase, it will be critical to examine not only the "what" of the new development agenda and its goals, targets and indicators, but also the "how," including the extent to which the most vulnerable and disadvantaged are engaged, participating in implementing the agenda, and holding decision-makers accountable.

Within this overall definition of success and in the context of the need for transformative change, a central objective of the post-2015 development agenda must be to realize gender equality and women's empowerment, since this is a key challenge of development and a synergistic factor in achieving progress towards all the development goals. (9) As emphasized by participants in thematic, regional, and national consultations, gender inequality and gender-based discrimination constitutes a pervasive form of inequality, which intersects with and reinforces other forms of inequality. Participants therefore called for gender equality and women's rights to be central priorities for the new development agenda. (10) To achieve this, we argue that the post-2015 agenda must fully mobilize men and boys in the effort to transform gender relations.


A key tension underlying the different perspectives of development is between a technocratic and a transformative approach. This has been highlighted by a number of commentators, and is evident in the analyses and various critiques of the current MDGs, as well as in the discourse around the post-2015 agenda."

The technocratic perspective emphasizes the need to find what works, including what is most cost-effective, and then to do more of it. This approach remains dear to many of those most committed to development, and heavily influences the patterns of expenditure of the majority of the approximately USD $125 billion of official development assistance that has been provided annually by members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Development Assistance Committee since the MDGs were agreed upon. (12) According to this perspective, the post-2015 development agenda's success will depend primarily on the extent to which it can guide development cooperation around what works, redouble efforts to deliver proven, cost-effective interventions, and help leverage resources to pay for them.

The transformative perspective, on the other hand, emphasizes a view of development that centers on the realization of human rights and a belief that development should therefore be guided by human rights standards. Adherents argue that development is an exercise in ensuring that those with power, or duty bearers, exert that power to the benefit of all rights holders. (13) On one hand, this perspective focuses on the decisions and actions of those with power; on the other, it emphasizes the need to achieve more equal power relations between different groups. It resonates strongly with Sen and Nussbaum's work on capabilities. (14) Many human rights advocates have argued that the MDGs fail to address issues of power and the impact of the decisions of the powerful on those who are in a weaker position. (15) They point to the lack of attention to inequality and structural discrimination in the MDGs, and the missed opportunity this represents to exert political leverage for policies that benefit the poorest and the most vulnerable. (16)

A rights-based approach to development has its challenges, and unsurprisingly, it is not always embraced by governments, which favor approaches that result in direct budget support, or by organizations that deliver technical support and advice as their core business model. (17) According to the transformative perspective, the post-2015 development agenda will be successful if it can reinforce and direct political pressure to shift the choices of those with power in the direction of more inclusive, sustainable, and equitable development patterns, and turn the balance of power in the direction of the poorest and most disadvantaged.

While those coming from each of these perspectives may recognize the value of the other, these perspectives lead to different visions of what the post-2015 development agenda should aim to achieve, and importantly, to different understandings of what constitutes success. For example, those focusing on a technocratic approach to poverty reduction continue to advocate for targets and indicators that aim to reduce extreme poverty, such as the proportion of people living on less than USD $1.25 a day. Those taking a more transformative approach aim to change the distribution of wealth, resources, and access to opportunities, instead of focusing solely on lifting the poorest of the poor out of extreme poverty. Supporters of this approach call for multidimensional poverty measures that account for other factors such as non-monetary forms of deprivation, that monitor progress below the average...

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