Building sustainable development with gender equality and social inclusion in mind

Building sustainable development with gender equality and social inclusion in mind
By Valentina Girotto and Samantha Terry
Jul 3, 2023

Factors such as gender, age, caste, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, physical ability, and other categories of social difference often have complex relationships with one another, with interdependent advantages and disadvantages. This idea, known as intersectionality, is at the heart of Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI).

GESI is the collective term that is widely applied to recognize the complementary actions that are needed to ensure equal access to socially, economically, and politically valued goods, resources, opportunities, benefits, and services for all:

  1. Gender equality is the absence of any discrimination based on gender, with equal rights, responsibilities, and opportunities for everyone, without distinction depending on their gender. This means transforming the distribution of opportunities, choices, and resources available to women and non-binary people so that they have equal power to shape their lives and participate in the process, thereby increasing equality between people of all genders. Rights, responsibilities, and opportunities will not depend on the gender that society attributes to each person, ensuring that everyone has equal access to socially, economically, and politically valued goods, resources, opportunities, benefits, and services.
  2. Social inclusion refers to the process of improving the terms for individuals and groups to take part in society. It also describes how improving the ability, opportunity and dignity of people disadvantaged on the basis of their identity to take part in society. It makes the ”rules of the game” fairer.

See our UK PACT GESI Guidance for a full definition of these terms.

There is an important intersection between GESI and climate change

The full participation and equal involvement of women and marginalized communities is needed to achieve the three pillars of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, and social sustainability. SDGs 5, 10, and 11 address gender equality, reducing inequality, and creating inclusive cities.

Numerous countries have adopted the Leave No One Behind (LNOB) framework to fulfil their commitments to the SDGs. LNOB calls for addressing the causes of all forms of poverty, discrimination, and inequality. Discrimination and structural inequalities based on gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or race, religion, and disability commonly cause people to be left behind in economic, social, and political life. GESI plays a key role in adhering to LNOB principles.

An example of putting these principles into action is ICF’s work delivering the Nepal Urban Resilience Programme (NURP), a technical assistance program supporting three municipalities in Nepal. It aims to improve lives by ensuring urban developments are green, resilient to natural disasters, and inclusive of the needs of marginalized groups. ICF developed NURP’s GESI Strategy 2020-2024 to define a strategic approach rooted in the LNOB concept.

Disadvantaged groups in developing countries are also more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Therefore, any solutions to climate change must respond to these social dynamics by embedding GESI in climate action.

What are the challenges to gender equality and social inclusion?

The barriers to gender equality and social inclusion are numerous and varied, depending on national and local contexts. Barriers can be structural (discriminatory laws, restrictions on human rights, lack of access to services, resources, employment opportunities, etc.) and social (gender-based discrimination, violence and harassment, expectations that women prioritize caregiving roles over paid employment, etc.).

Addressing these is a long process due to the systemic changes required and the challenges of social norms, practices, and ingrained behaviors. Examples include:

  • A lack of awareness and understanding among key actors of the interplay and interconnectedness of gender and social inclusion.
  • Meaningful action can be hindered by a lack of capacity, resources, and knowledge, even where there is awareness and understanding.
  • Concerns that GESI objectives can detract from technical targets can create barriers if the decision-makers’ priorities are narrowly defined as technical rather than societal.
  • Identifying entry points and opportunities for meaningful GESI integration can be challenging and can create barriers. However, applying a GESI lens is essential to protecting the well-being and empowerment of all citizens.

What pathways can we take to create an equal and socially inclusive world?

Here are eight practical steps:

  1. Targeted GESI action

    Without targeted GESI action, climate mitigation and adaptation efforts could easily become explicitly technical, making GESI challenging to embed. This risks reinforcing existing injustices and power imbalances. Mitigate this by adopting approaches specifically designed to target marginalized and vulnerable groups as beneficiaries. These consider and respond to the needs of all citizens and what prevents them from being met, particularly the marginalized or excluded. Decision-makers can achieve this through activities targeted at:

    • Empowering marginalized groups to access and control productive resources and assets.
    • Developing inclusive and equitable policies, programs, and planning processes.
    • Actively engaging marginalized groups to design beneficial policies and plans.
    • Applying strategies that are GESI sensitive, responsive, and transformative.
  2. Mainstreaming GESI

    Even in the context of highly technology-led climate efforts, mainstreaming GESI prevents inadvertent harm and ensures benefits are distributed fairly. This is the process of assessing the implications of any planned action—including policies or programs, in all areas and levels—for women and excluded groups. It’s a way to make everyone’s concerns and experiences integral to the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programs in all political, economic, and societal spheres. Everyone benefits equally. It focuses on rebalancing unequal power relations, reducing disparities, and ensuring equal rights, opportunities, and respect for all irrespective of their diverse characteristics. ICF’s work in Nepal demonstrates how this can happen in practice.

    NURP has conducted numerous activities targeted at building strong, GESI-sensitive policies and municipal practices across the project’s three focal municipalities. These include:

    • Supporting the development of municipal GESI policies.
    • Developing a Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB) tool.
    • Providing GESI training for an array of municipal stakeholders.
    • Reviewing annual strategies, plans and budgets through a GESI lens.
  3. GESI transformative change

    A GESI-transformative approach focuses on outcomes over outputs, emphasizes the effectiveness of the program for marginalized groups, improving gender equality and social inclusion across it. This goes beyond improving the condition of women and girls. Instead it improves their social position by working across several levels simultaneously. It goes further: tackling unequal power relations for groups that are marginalized because of disability, ethnicity, religion, caste, sexual orientation, age, poverty, migrant status, geographic location, type of household, education and literacy, employment, or housing status.

  4. Improving understandings of marginalized groups

    Lack of GESI awareness is a barrier to inclusion and equality. Improving understanding of barriers, injustices, and inequities faced by marginalized and vulnerable groups focuses efforts on identifying and addressing their needs. Awareness raising, capacity building, and analysis of context and location specific barriers all help to improve understanding.

  5. Challenging social norms

    Social norms can define roles for different groups and attitudes and behaviors towards them, restricting participation and benefits from climate action. Tackling social norms can be challenging. Social relationships and power structures are complex. Changes require flexibility and innovation, including collaborative engagement with groups to understand contextual challenges, nuances of power dynamics, and cultural norms. Policies and interventions can then be designed and delivered to realistically improve equity within appropriate time frames.

  6. Facilitating meaningful, inclusive participation

    Meaningful GESI action requires inclusive participation, where marginalized groups are empowered and provided with a platform to share lived experiences and needs. Meaningful participation is both inherently valuable—because of its role in respecting human rights, social justice, democracy, and reducing power imbalances—and promotes efficiency and efficacy. It legitimizes decision-makers’ actions, increases trust, promotes a sense of agency, and prevents corruption.

  7. Inclusive policy

    Strong and inclusive policies are an important mechanism to build inclusive action upon long-lasting GESI standards. An example is integrating a “just transition” approach into policy. Just transition can be defined as greening the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive for all involved. A practical example of this is ICF’s current management of the Green Recovery Challenge Fund (GRCF) and the Nigeria Country Fund under the UK Partnering for Accelerated Climate Transitions (PACT) program. ICF is supporting the funds’ objectives of supporting PACT grantees in their GESI activities to ensure that each project takes steps towards GESI transformative change.

    Through the funds, we support grant recipients to design and implement GESI-responsive projects, including:

    • Targeted GESI activities.
    • GESI mainstreaming across all project activities.
    • Improving understanding of marginalized groups among local stakeholders.
    • Challenging social norms in project geographies.
    • Facilitating inclusive participation with local stakeholders and communities.
    • Influencing inclusive policy within project locations.
    • Institutionalizing GESI processes within project operations.
  8. Institutionalizing GESI processes

    Institutionalizing the GESI process ensures accountability. All stakeholders are actively involved in the process by integrating quantifiable GESI metrics throughout decision-making and implementation, and beyond. Institutionalizing GESI can include ensuring its inclusion in policies and guidelines, promoting diversity among decision-makers, and promoting inclusive norms and behaviors.

What role do governments play in GESI?

Governments play a valuable role in carrying GESI concepts, priorities, and targets to have real, day-to-day impact on lives. This includes integrating GESI into policy, ensuring inclusive practices are implemented and monitoring impact to adapt to diverse and ever-changing needs. Therefore, it’s essential that governments prioritize GESI to ensure that all citizens are equally able to participate in and benefit from good governance, a sustainable economy, and well-supported social surroundings.

How is GESI helping urban resilience in developing nations?

Developing nations—many rapidly urbanizing—face specific challenges to GESI-responsive, resilient urban growth. For instance, socio-spatial segregation often leaves the poorest urban residents living in a city’s most densely populated areas, with limited access to services and resources. In many cases, these areas are low-income or informal settlements, with their associated environmental, climate, and disaster risks.

Due to intersectionality, urban poverty frequently interacts with and is exacerbated by marginalization related to gender, sexuality, disability, age, and racial, ethnic, or religious identity. Addressing unregulated urban growth inclusively addresses the discrimination and disproportionate vulnerability these communities face.

Transitioning to inclusive urban development helps a city’s social and economic resilience. These are equally as important as physical resilience to building sustainable futures. As part of our work in Nepal, ICF works through NURP to ensure that urban resilience initiatives in municipalities integrate gender-sensitive and inclusive approaches. Each of NURP’s targeted GESI activities pursues the objective of supporting municipalities to integrate GESI and LNOB into all municipal activities, at all stages of planning, budgeting, and program implementation.

Everyone has a part to play in building a sustainable future

Gender equality and social inclusion considerations are interlinked and present similar challenges.

Any approach to sustainable development must take these into account with issues such as climate change. GESI considerations can be integrated into all fields of work, from hiring policies and governance structures and policy development, through to considering the impact of any investment or actions that a company might decide to make. This is particularly relevant as companies realize the opportunities of working towards Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) commitments, SDGs, and other frameworks—and are paying more attention to this within their own governance structures.

Meet the authors
  1. Valentina Girotto, Senior Director, International and Urban Climate Assistance

    Valentina is an international development expert with more than 15 years of experience integrating gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) within sustainable development and climate transition strategies. View bio

  2. Samantha Terry, Junior Consultant, International Development

    Samantha (M.Sc.) is an expert in gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) with more than five years of experience in cross-sector GESI mainstreaming in urban development, resilience, and climate change adaptation for developing countries. View bio

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