2016 Democracy and Human Rights, Equality, Humanitarian Assistance Other

Beyond the Buzzwords: Approaches to Gender in Humanitarian Aid

Elisabeth Olivius

Considerations of gender have today entered the mainstream of international policymaking and governance to an unprecedented degree. Drawing on an analysis of key humanitarian policy texts and interviews with about 60 humanitarian workers in Thailand and in Bangladesh, this report identifies and analyses some of the most prevalent ways in which gender is understood and acted upon in current humanitarian policy and programming.

The report was presented during the seminar Gender in Humanitarian aid and women in African natural Resources Booms.

Main findings

  • Three approaches are derived from the analysis: the basic needs, the instrumentalist and the modernizations approach.
  • The basic needs approach is motivated by the classic humanitarian imperative to save lives and reduce suffering. This often leads to a focus on the numbers of male and female beneficiaries reached by, or included in, a particular programme. It is not well suited to foster awareness of the subtle and often unintended gendered effects of policies and programmes when these effects cannot be directly observed and measured.
  • The instrumentalist approach to gender in humanitarian aid rests on an understanding of gender as differences between women and men. The aim is not to transform traditional gender relations and power dynamics – rather the focus is on utilizing women’s difference and women’s reproductive roles to improve humanitarian effectiveness. This tends to naturalize and reaffirm existing gender inequalities and gender norms.
  • The modernization approach to gender in humanitarian aid is based on an understanding of gender as structural relations of power rooted in the cultural, social, economic and political systems. Societies affected by conflict or disasters are described as less developed but able to be transformed into modern, democratic societies with liberal values. Based on this simplified binary, humanitarian actors often fail to recognize the important role of local actors as agents of change.
Elisabeth Olivius is a researcher at the Department of Political Science at Umeå University. She defended her dissertation Governing Refugees through Gender Equality: Care, Control, Emancipation in December 2014.