Rethinking Gender, Democracy and Development: is decentralisation a tool
fo r lo c a l e ffe c tiv e p o litic a l v o ic e ?
A seminar organized through cooperation between The United Nations Development
Fund for Women UNIFEM and VADO/WAVE, Italy
May 20-22 , 2001
Ferrara, Bologna, Modena
1. Executive summary
With support from the Italian Government, UNIFEM and Women’s Alternative Visions from
Everywhere (VADO/WAVE) organized a seminar entitled “Rethinking Gender, Democracy and
Development: is decentralization a tool for local effective political voice?”. The seminar took place
in Ferrara,Bologna and Modena, Italy ,20-22 May 2002. The overall objective of this seminar was
to give new momentum to the political commitment to gender–responsive transformative policies,
building on the lessons learnt during the Beijing decade through the identification of gender
responsive policy frameworks and key policy positions at the local level.
The seminar covered themes relating to: (1) decentralization from a women’s political agency
perspective, (2) decentralization as a tool to increasing women’s access to services and (3)
decentralization as a means for effective women’s participation in the formulation of local budget
and a more gender balanced allocation of local resources. During the seminar, the discussions of
local elections and women’s quotas, privatisation of services and public resources, assessment of
local budgets, were contextualised within wider questions around global governance, peace and
security, macro economic policies and role of the state. The participants emphasized that for local
governments to effectively achieve gender equitable, participatory local development, certain
elements have to be ensured. The discussions pointed out that the definition of human security
should address the increased vulnerability of women due to changing governance structures. In
times of conflict, populations at large and women and children in particular are placed in vulnerable
positions. Regional conflicts, ethnic disputes paralleled with the weakening of the state and of
multilateralism has strengthened multi national corporations as new actors who determine the
security of the people. Therefore, protection of women would require governance structures
whether at state level or local government levels or beyond that are efficient, participatory and are
governed by the rule of law ,international human rights standards and basic well being.
The participants included representatives of women’s organizations from the South and the North,
academics, Parliamentarians and government officials as well as UNIFEM’s Deputy Director,
Governance Advisor, field staff and others.
Over the three days, the discussion focused on the following themes:
• The overall conceptual framework: the questions related to the women’s movements their
role identification, their power structure (local, national and global) within the global context
• Political decentralization -- local vs. national and the need for defining what is meant by
participation (e.g. The PRSP)
• Decentralization of services -- privatization was a key question
• Decentralization of Budgets – the question of the macro economic policies seen from the
Experiences and reflections from the North and from the South were compared and exchanged, to
see if a shift of responsibility from the central to the local level can help provide better social and
economic conditions to those who most need them, and in a way which is closer to their specific,
unique needs. Different experiences from different contexts were presented: success stories from
some regions in the North – and the towns which have so beautifully hosted the seminar are an
example – but, unfortunately, other much less reassuring scenarios from the South. In fact
decentralization appears to be a phenomenon of the wider, global macro-economic picture, and its
ways vary according to the macro-economic and policy environment behind it.
The discussions placed decentralization processes within the context of global market forces and
the open markets, privatization, the role of the state within a globalized world and the challenges
facing women’s movement. The participants noted that decentralization could mean different things
to different players. Therefore, the need to distinguish between the different forms that
decentralization could take. What purposes is it there to achieve and whether it is devolving power
and resources or is it merely a decentralization of responsibility and accountability.
As an example, it was noticed that a “people based” or bottom-up regionalism is possible and
allows for wider democratic participation only in the context of an enabling social policy. The
examples of Emilia Romagna, Scotland and Ireland, were brought to the participants’ attention.
Their successes should be framed in the wider picture of their relationship with the EU social
policy. Or, the example of Porto Alegre in Brasil, where participation in local governance comes
from a strong organizational push from the workers’ side.
Northern countries have maintained a certain level of protectionism through maintaining certain
values on the market liberalization, taxation policies, social protection and social services.
On the other hand, experiences of the South, of those “highly indebted countries” where
decentralization comes along as an external condition to meet the requirements of international
finance institutions, and their macro-economic policy choices show a different picture. The shift of
responsibility to the “participatory” process in these cases seems to become a token exercise to
cover up for other structural shortcomings. It certainly represents a strategic choice. But whose
agenda does it contribute to, when it means lack of accountability and a free-way to privatisation
and foreign investment for the exclusive benefit of economic indicators? Whose agenda is making
water in the South into a commodity, and its availability dependent on the interests of remote
shareholders in the North?
It was pointed out that decentralization being encouraged as a form of governance that increases
efficiency, and performance, has been paralleled with cuts in public services, increased taxation –
where public services such as health, education, transport and water have been subject to
privatization in developing countries with external debt and financial restructuring policies. The
wealth of experiences brought in by the participants demonstrated the adverse effects on women..
It was visibly demonstrated how women’s unpaid labor has substituted governments’ subsidies
therefore becoming the new subsidy for AIDS patients care, for diminishing health services, for low
quality water, for lack of access to water, for land reform policies, …etc.
In this framework, it is clear that each decentralization process has a political agenda.
Decentralization is a process, and per se is neither enabling nor disenabling for women and for the
poor. But a political agenda has priorities, and priorities need to be negotiated. But who negotiates,
what, under which conditions? There is the need to be able to negotiate the social agenda of
decentralization, within the wider context of a globalized economy.
Whose voice is heard when it comes to decisions that impact on everyone? And most important,
whose voice is listened to? Who are the decision makers, and whose interests are they
representing? Social dialogue, with clear rules, clear actors, clear representation and transparent
accountability processes seem to be the mechanism to ensure that women are included in the
negotiation process as a strong and fully empowered actor. It must be the arena where power is
not only given by economic dominance, but where the voice of the economically disempowered is
heard, strong and loud. Participation as of a consultation process was discussed. But there is no
point in being informed or consulted, when there is no chance to negotiate priorities.
the issue of governance and the question whether women participate in decision making. And
when they are, are they making decisions, or just paying tribute to political correctness? Whose
priorities are in the agendas? Priorities are linked to resources , so to negotiate on priorities implies
to understand where resources go.
This is how the issues of gender budgeting, and gender economics in the wider sense were
tackled, as a powerful tool to understand how, when and what should be on the priority list.
Budgets are that deceitful “technical” and “neutral” area where political statements are translated
into concrete action. In the dynamics of power, the capacity to negotiate must be linked to the
capacity to understand and gain ownership of the mechanisms ruling the economy. Perhaps, it is
not only matter of understanding, but actually being able to propose new “engendered” economic
Gender budgeting must be read in this wider context. First, as an analysis of the gender impact of
economic choices: an additional tool to clarify the links between objectives and results, between
policy statements and concrete practice. But we can further look beyond this, touching upon the
possibility to analyze and intervene in the wider choice of economic policies, at all the different
levels that, from that “very high up” of the global context, have a very concrete impact on
everyone’s lives, from the individuals, to the family, to the local community. The University of
Modena has taken up this challenge with a new course in gender economics, which should be
welcomed with gratitude, as a new, important effort to contribute to building capacity and expertise
in this key field of study and action.
From the different experiences, it can be concluded that decentralization can be a tool for stronger
representation and for improving the lives of the poor, particularly poor women, on two main
1. when it is the result of an endogenous process, born so to say from bottom-up, out of the
need that people have to make their voices heard (and normally they would be heard
through the power of organization)
2. when it is supported by social and economic policies at the macro level, which sustain and
promote democracy, local development, transparency and social dialogue.
Conclusions and Follow up:
The elements ruling our world, politically and economically have set new paradigms for women's
rights, gender equality, sustainable development and peace. Therefore, we are all forced to
reconstruct our approaches and explore innovative routes to achieve these goals. For our UNIFEM
team, the content of the discussions will be carried over to our annual Strategic Planning
Workshop during which we will be working on developing our four-year business plan for the years
2004- 2007. The discussions at the seminar raised many questions for UNIFEM. Institutionally, we
will seek to respond to these questions whether in terms our mandate as the women's Fund in the
UN, our constituents, our role as advocates for gender equality within the UN system, and our
approaches to mainstream gender even when the stream is not our ideal one. We will try to see
how we can strengthen links with the women's movement in the North as well as the South
responding to the existing challenges.
On a more programmatic level, the seminar will benefit the Economic Governance programmes
within UNIFEM. For one, the Gender Budgets, which is currently being implemented in 14
countries, will be looking at local level budgets. The Economic Governance programme will also
seek to examine macro economic policies, and their implications for men and women and different
social groups. It will seek to explore implications of privatization of social services and public
resources such as water and land. As noted in the concluding session, what is important at this
point is to provide the proper paradigms to assess markets, states, and policies from a gender
equitable, socially responsive and participatory perspective. While admitting the limitations we
have in determining the design of this world, at least we should be able to demonstrate and
advocate for the design that best serves women and humanity at large.
Vado Wave assembled a final report which was discussed at national level and was used as a
basis for a seminar held in Florence at the European Social Forum.
The Florence seminar on “Sustainability of politics and politics of sustainability” opened a debate
on the theories and practices of feminism, its cultural and political heritage and its ability to tackle
effectively the issues raised by the global social forum movement.
The results of this discussion will be assembled and brought to the World Social Forum in Porto
Alegre in January 2003.
2. Historical background
Much has been written lately about the way in which decentralization holds the potential of
promoting more efficient, transparent and participatory decision making as governments adapt
national development plans to respond to the challenges of globalisation and liberalisation of
markets. Much of the world is right now deeply involved in decentralisation processes. The World
Bank estimated that 84% of the world’s “developing countries”, with a population exceeding five
million, claim to be engaged in some form of transfer of authority to local governments.
The process is not new. No country in the whole world is governed by just one central national
power. Political power is split, not only along the classical lines of horizontal divisions (judiciary,
executive and legislative powers), but also along vertical and territorial lines: a central government
and local, peripheral forms of government devised as antidotes to excessive concentration of
power, to protect pluralism, contrast the overwhelming power of the majority, mediate national
interests with those of individual cities, local communities, or local regions.
The history of federalism and of the national states shows the different forms of interaction
between centralizing and decentralizing political decisions.
In many cases, as in Italy, the institutions of local government are older than those of national
governments; self-government of the major European cities goes back to the Middle Ages. Many
municipalities in Italy (Ferrara is one such case) still use the old “Palazzi Comunali” as seats of
municipal administrations. But what is left of this history refers more to local cultural identities than
to any significant continuity of the institutions of self-government.
Local governments, everywhere, were deeply reshaped by the national states. In northern
European countries (Scandinavia) local governments, strengthened during the XIX century, are the
major political actors in the implementation of public policies and delivery of services (70/80 per
cent of civil servants are in local governments). In other regions of the world local governments are
not equipped to carry out these tasks.
In countries, which have been under colonial rule, the history of the relationship between central
state governments and local governments is obviously different and should be studied in depth in
order to understand the meaning and effects of recent decentralization processes.
In these regions, decentralization is often perceived as a new chapter in the history of colonialism
and of dependency on the western states; something brought by donor agencies, foreign “goods”
which people either accept out of dependency or refuse as something alien, which does not belong
to local history.
Although deeply linked with the reasons and the history of democracy, local governments are
always “minor” governments; yet they are given more and more attention in almost all countries in
Decentralization is often presented as opposed to globalisation processes. Referring to the
tradition of thought which, in the XIX century, praised local city governments as “schools of
democracy” for the people and as mediators between centres and peripheries, revitalizing the myth
of municipal democracy and, in some instances, of the Greek “polis”, local governments are now
cherished as the “new” antidotes to the new excesses of sovereignty.
This opposition might not hold once it is exposed to deeper analysis, yet it can be useful to show
that the nature of the relationship between centres and peripheries has deeply changed since the
last century, in fact is rapidly changing while we discuss it; it changes also along “geo- political
lines”, according to different local contexts. In order to establish a common ground of shared
meanings, it seems necessary to agree on some basic definitions of concepts related to
3. Definition of concepts around decentralization
Local self-governance, centres/peripheries, localism, context, participation, subsidiarity
During the seminar, the participants raised a number of concerns about the use of language and
the need to deconstruct the definition of concepts in order to reflect a more socially aware and
gender sensitive understanding.
In order to discuss politics and decentralization, it is necessary to start with definitions of the two
concepts: what is politics? what is decentralization?
Politics, suggests Liss Schanke, “are the processes – international as well as national – that
decide who gets what, why and how”.
When it comes to decentralization, the problem is not that there are many definitions, but that the
concept is unclear. Schanke proposes to use the following definition:
“Decentralization is a process in which a higher public government level passes functions and
responsibilities down to a lower one”. This definition implies that decentralization in principle takes
place between two different levels of public government. Decentralization can of course be linked
to privatisation – i.e. passing functions from the public to the private sector – but this is not an
integrated part of decentralization as a concept. The word decentralization focuses on the process
itself, not on the result, the system of governance. There are many countries that have had
decentralized systems for generations. The difference between decentralization and local self-
governance is important: decentralization is a top-down process; local self-governance is a bottom-
up process. This definition is the one preferred in some areas, (as different and far apart as
Norway and India) because it refers to a goal that people can understand and to a process that
people can own and control. It also means that decentralization is the process, not the goal. (For
the same reason, in Norway, terms like “gender mainstreaming” were substituted with equality or
equity between men and women, which is a goal people can relate to.)
The meaning of the word “decentralization” has been rapidly changing, because globalisation has
changed the spaces of political power and the structures of interdependency. We might even come
to the conclusion that globalisation reshapes or even destroys centres as political public spaces so
that discussing decentralization, in our age, might mean, first of all, discussing how centres are
created and re-created and how peripheries and margins are produced.
Women have a particular interest in this issue, since they have experienced for centuries in their
bodies, their spaces, their cultures, the tension between being centres and margins at the same
time and the full understanding that what is labelled as “marginal” or peripheral might have in itself
all the elements to be and to become a centre.
According to Devaki Jain ,working on language is not an academic exercise; it is in itself a way of
“negotiating” political space.
As an example, we can recall the opposition “globalism vs. localism”. We might find out that
women have always underlined the importance of context, which is a way of referring to the
concrete reality of where we are, of situating ourselves, of giving value and importance to our
situated experience. But “context” is not exactly the same as “local”: it is a richer and more flexible
concept, which can refer to the different layers and networks of relationships also across territorial
borders. Jain suggests that it might be more consistent with the tradition of feminist thought to
replace the word “localization” with “contextualisation”.
Another concept, which is often attached to decentralization, is “participation” which is often used
to qualify democratic governance. Discussing the case of Mozambique, Isabel Casimiro, stresses
the importance of distinguishing between democracy, participation and decentralization, since you
can have a high level of popular participation in the absence of a multi party democracy, while the
latter does not guarantee, per se, political participation.
There are risks in what we call participatory democracy, since it can easily be high jacked by very
undemocratic forces. When spaces are opened to minorities, the problem is which minorities.
There are plenty of negative examples in Europe in this field.
Finally, in order to fully understand decentralization policies, the concept of “subsidiarity”, is
crucial. This is often used as a normative principle, which means that “powers should be given to
the lowest possible level of government (i.e. closest to the people/citizens), if this is capable of
managing this power in an adequate manner. The higher levels of government will then play a
“subsidiary” role, meaning that they can intervene only when the lower levels cannot perform their
tasks satisfactory. This principle overturns completely the traditional system of national states
according to which, the main functions of government pertain to the centre -the state-, which will
choose whether or not to delegate them to sub-governmental bodies. 1. The meaning of this
principle is double: on one hand, we have what is called horizontal subsidiarity, which regulates the
interface between society (its associations, groups, etc) and public institutions of government,
stating that the latter can intervene only on issues which cannot be solved by individuals and
groups on their own. On the other hand, vertical subsidiarity, which regulates different levels of
government (local, national, super national).
We can see, through the analysis of this concept, its ambiguity: how it can be used both as a tool
for freedom and democracy and as tool of destruction of solidarity and connectiveness. Combined
with neo liberalism as it is happening in many areas nowadays, subsidiarity can have fatal effects
on fundamental rights.
Having agreed on the shared meaning of these basic concepts, there is a need to gain a better
understanding of decentralization processes identifying advantages and constraints, differences
and similarities in various contexts.
One way to identify different types of decentralization is to refer to what is being decentralized.
Which decisions, which activities, which resources.
The themes proposed for three of the sessions of the seminar cover some of the crucial areas of
• Decentralization of political governance.
• Decentralization of social services
• Decentralization of fiscal resources.
4.Gender and decentralization
While we can gather rich information and in depth analysis on decentralization processes around
the world, we know much less on the impacts of different forms of decentralization on women.
There have been several experiences, monitored by UNIFEM, which demonstrate how a focus on
decentralised and local governance offers innovative opportunities for promoting gender equality
and women’s rights. (Sander) We have seen women in Africa seize the opportunity to engage in
decision making at the local level to push the national agenda towards outlawing genital mutilation.
In the US women are using the power of local governments to have approval of the Convention for
the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which remained difficult at
national level. On the other hand, the monitoring of the implementation of commitments like those
of CEDAW or of Beijing platform for action is still based on the reports made to the U.N. by central
national governments which might be contradicted by local authorities were they given the chance
to voice their perception of women’s situations in their contexts.
We must also remark that women have questioned the system of representation, the capacity of
representative democracy to recognize differences, non-only on the basis of egalitarianism.
Subsidiarity is defined by Maastricht Treaty (1992), session 5 in this way “ In areas which are not of its
exclusive competence, The (European) Community intervenes according to the principle of subsidiarity, only
if and inasmuch as the objectives of action planned cannot be achieved by the member States and therefore
, with reference to the scope and the effects of the action, they may be better achieved at communitarian
level (At the level of the Euoropean Community)..
-Political decentralization is viewed by some as a key aspect of democratisation processes in many
countries. There are instances of national constitutions, which invest on local governments as
pivotal bodies in order to guarantee gender equality in political representation: in India one third of
the seats of local governments are reserved for women. Even this, which looks like an obvious
gain, might show some ambiguity once we go deeper into the story.
The same happens in conflict and post conflict situations. When authority and responsibility is
delegated to local governments, does the process of reconstruction and reconciliation, in post war
areas, always gain in speed and effectiveness, does it ensure participation of women and reflect
their point of view?
-Decentralization of social services opens up the challenges of the trend toward privatisation and
cuts in public spending effecting health care, education, transport, sanitation, energy and other
public goods. Is this link inevitable? How do we see the changing nature of what is public and what
is private in the delivery of services?
-With fiscal decentralization comes a focus on strengthening local governments’ ability to formulate
and manage budgets and collect revenues. In this field the experiences of gender budgets and
participatory budgets have shown a potential to generate women’s and men’s active involvement in
decision-making and to stimulate greater economic literacy in communities.
In all these three fields, while women and other groups which have been marginalized in access
and control over resources potentially gain from closer proximity to the seats of decision making, it
seems now clear that proximity in itself does not guarantee that they will have a voice. The
question is now to shape the tools by which to identify positive and negative aspects of these
processes and the conditions, which can allow effective ownership of political voice.
In order to set a frame for analysis and discussion on these issues, referring not so much to a
definition of decentralization (given its changing meaning through time and space) nor to the
assessment of its existence, we might focus on the possible answers to questions such as:
• What kind of decentralization processes provide new opportunities for securing women’s
rights and gender equality?
• More specifically: which are the conditions under which decentralisation offers
opportunities, which are the capacities and accountability mechanisms needed to ensure
that local decision makers promote and protect women’s human rights?
• And, finally, which indicators do we use to identify good or bad responses to
decentralization processes and how do we link the lessons learnt by experience in different
parts of the world?
The underlying assumption of these questions is that decentralization cannot anymore be
considered as a good practice in itself, a tool for promoting democracy and local ownership of
political spaces. The changing meaning of the process might include the possibility that
decentralization, under certain conditions, can hinder the implementation of international
commitments such as CEDAW or Beijing platform for action and may threaten the gains made at
national and international levels.
5. Risks and Concerns with decentralization
• Decentralization and globalization:
The language of women’s politics comes from a context in which, some years ago, women were
jubilant about the promises of globalization and multi-lateralism; but the situation has now
changed. Globalization has shown its negative face and its crisis.
The process of globalisation, it is said, weakens the national states and, apparently, strengthens
“localities” and their governments.
At the same time, globalisation shows that we cannot avoid tackling the issue of a new scheme of
international/global government. Most of the participants to this seminar are dealing daily with
international institutions, which affect the life of women and men at the local level. International
analysts who discuss what is often called a “crisis of sovereignty”, explain it either as a defect
(referring for instance the loss of effectiveness of the United Nations, the International Monetary
Fund and the World Bank) or as an “excess” of sovereignty referring to the many powerful actors in
the world today (economic, financial actors, mainly) which shape and condition national policies.
This is particularly clear if one looks at decentralization processes from the point of view of women
in poor countries in the South: from this perspective, the links between globalisation processes and
decentralisation appear strong and threatening. The chain of events, which lead to decentralization
as it is implemented in Africa, starts with adjustments policies. (Fall). The instruments of
adjustment policies were clearly aimed at opening doors for markets, for investment, in particular
for indirect investment. What was presented as a necessity, was a choice: “Why is it, asks Fall, that
in adjustment policies the choices are only made that would decrease government spending,
decrease consumption and the money supply, drastically eliminate subsidies? What does this
mean in a situation of poverty, of inequality and of gender inequality?” The picture that comes out
in answering these questions is a dim one. Governments are cutting expenditure and markets are
being opened; decentralization transfers to the local level responsibilities that government used to
have. Resources are cut; responsibility for the cutting is decentralized. Resources for providing
services will have to be collected locally: from the people, from the poor. In the meanwhile, the
investors, attracted by the conducive environment, will export the benefits with little or no control
from the state. They will also invest in the market of basic goods and services, which can now be
bought and sold through privatisation.
The marketing of water is a dramatic example. “When communities are being told that you are now
going to pay for the water because your pipes, your water will be sold to private companies who do
not even invest to improve the water system, they understand fully the effects of privation on their
lives”(Fall). In poor countries water is a women’s issue as are health and education. Someone
said water would be the oil of the 21st century. Privatisation and marketisation of water should be
considered an act of violence against women.
One might object that decentralization at least brings the level of decision-making closer to the
people who can engage in exercises of participatory budget and gender budget. But one should
not forget that the resources managed at local level are just “the small tiny amount” which is left
after governments have cut expenditures.
The case of Uganda, as described by Winnie Byamyima, shows that it is not possible to compare
decentralization in the rich and in the poorest countries. She refers to what is called “local
treatment of foreign investors in provisional services” which is being negotiated in Geneva among
the members of WTO. What the context of poor countries shows is a particular type of
privatisation which is happening at the same time in all countries that are borrowing from the World
Bank and IMF and were the target of decentralization programmes. This kind of privatisation is
linked with trade of services and is now the ground of a new system of dispute settlement between
foreign investors and the states. “In other words, our governments can be sued by a foreign
investor for treating a local company favorably in the provision of water to the poor “. A striking
example of privatization, in Uganda, is a law, just passed, to privatize agricultural extension
services, which means that rural women, who cannot pay for health care, will have to pay “to know
about the weather” and for water. While they might be given the possibility of tracking how the little
money allocated to local budgets is being spent, they have no voice in discussing how those
budgets were set, under which macroeconomic conditions.
• Local development does not mean the absence of national development goals.
The national states are still those who negotiate trade policies in ways, which may support or
hinder the potential for local government to respond to chronic poverty. National banking policies
may or may not support the sustainability of rural development banks. Central authority, at least in
the Philippines, still retains the more lucrative sources of revenue, including access to funding and
aid for development through bilateral and multilateral agreements. Local government units in the
Philippines and elsewhere in the south are found in very depressed areas, where they are unable
to gain enough resources from their constituency.
• Local political culture may be less supportive of women’s rights and women’s
participations if compared with national and global levels.
In the Philippines, for example, the local political culture is shaped by paternalism; powerful
political families run local governments through “local bosses” who need to maintain their power by
providing for the people. Furthermore, the women’s movement has been largely urban based, lead
by modernized and “globalised” academic professional women. When local women emerge in
politics, they are linked with paternalistic bosses of traditionally powerful families. The choice to
support these women in electoral and institutional politics has absorbed energies, which were
withdrawn from movement building and social mobilization at local level.
• Women’s groups often act as efficient service providers rather than active movers of
their own lives and champions of democratic participation at local level.
Local development projects, often financed by international organisations, act as safety nets in the
most depressed areas. Women who participate in these activities gain a new consciousness, but
they are not involved in political discussions
• Women’s participation in strategic discussions
Gender blindness in privatisation processes affects also U.N. agencies as it is shown by the case
of Kosovo. (Dobruna) In situations in which women were really active in society, when privatisation
was decided, they were excluded. Women’s impoverishment, in Central and Eastern Europe was
not addressed as a specific issue and women were also excluded from the process of discussing
strategies for the rebuilding of political and economic structures in the area.
In spite of the fact that UN resolution 12/44 stated that, before elections could take place, the UN
administration should “provide an international civil presence in Kosovo in order to provide an
administration under which the people of Kosovo can enjoy substantial autonomy”, the autonomy
granted to the people by the UNMIK administration seemed to refer only to the male population: in
fact no senior women were included in the UN administration; the reason given for this was that
“Kosovo women were not ready for that”. In a region were there are 163 women out of 100 men
and 38% of the graduates are women, this statement is obviously based only on prejudice.
• Decentralize bad governance?
A final caution on the risks of a non critical acceptance of decentralization points to the false
underlying assumption of most of the discussion so far: that decentralization is good governance
brought to the local level and that it can assume a negative aspect only if it is performed in a bad
way. What if what is decentralized is bad governance? What if we are talking about political
devolution in the face of a very corrupt central government and financial scams that are causing
bankrupt in very poor countries? (Arieta Matalomani Moceica).
6. Opportunities with decentralization
There are some positive examples of decentralization, which we should carefully consider, in order
to start building on them. The local gender budget initiatives, for instance, which are promoting
budget literacy; the examples in the Philippines, where women have been empowered to make
concrete demands on local officials for resources allocation; the case of India, mentioned by
Devaki Jain, where one third of local government seats are reserved for women: this is becoming
a challenge to local environments which are often very hostile to women’s involvement into politics.
Opportunities for women in decentralization processes have been discussed.
It is often found that local government units in the south are located in very depressed areas,
where they are unable to gain enough resources from their constituency. This can be a reason to
support local development policies. Having clearly distinguished between localism/ralism and
localization/decentralization (Francisco) in political and development programs, we can notice that
while the first are exposed to all the risks mentioned above, real localization and decentralization,
not necessarily proposed by national state, but generated from social political movements, might
be the broader terrain on which to build new power relationships.
Local development policies should also tackle the issue of devolution of services delivery
(Gumbonzvanda), meeting the challenge of effectiveness and quality and contrasting the trend by
which when getting closer to the people, services often loose quality and equality of access.
Local development can be seen as the other side of decentralization processes. It means shifting
from representative democracy to a participatory approach. (Pomeranzi) .New forms of democracy
have to emerge: one way to help this process is to support local development and multi level
system of governance which allow to link the micro level and local economic development to the
development of the state, to the changes in the state system and the changes at global level.
Decentralisation then means a shift to a multi level system of governance.
Voice and political space
Decentralization processes give a hope in that they can be an entry point for “muted groups” and
for women (Johnsson-Latham). The proximity of a political space may open an arena for
discussion of conditions, which are often perceived as given and non-changeable. When voices
have been raised, the crucial point is “who listens” to them (Rusimbi) and how to form coalitions,
which might “enforce” listening by those who claim to be interested in women’s voices.
Examples are given (Lamberti) of women defending a public space not because it allows delivering
of services (like a public library, trainings, etc.) but because it is a laboratory of direct democracy, a
visible and public workshop of participatory politics based on egalitarian relationships. Experiences
like these are now in danger of being dismantled by the local paternalistic policy of privatisation,
which transforms women’s relational goods into commodities to be sold as services on the local
market. This shows how crucial it is to identify spaces of negotiation of political power at the local
National and development goals.
The social and political public space which local governments must create in order to be effective,
may offer a perspective on national policies and development goals. Reversing the hierarchy
between central and local is a challenging exercise. Research on patterns of decentralization
(Shanke) is showing that there might positive relationships between effective local self-governance
and human development parameters such as equality, public expenditures for health and
education and female political and professional participation. There are several elements that may
have an effect on decentralization and local self-governance. Political and economic frameworks
(legal framework, political parties positions; transfer from rich to poor areas, regulations regarding
taxation); the kind of institutional channels that link the different actors; the level and kind of
participatory democracy demanded by the people and guaranteed/allowed by the government; the
interactive pressure of social groups, like women, who may link together civil society,
administration, national politics and development goals
A positive experience of
women being favoured by
decentralization is that of
became a constitutional
law in 1988 (Corral).
Women were given
financial support, at the
Reconstruction and rehabilitation in situations of
local level, to keep the
Finally, examples of women’s involvement at the local level come from peace keeping and
reconstruction, rehabilitation and humanitarian assistance in post conflict situations. (Hannan-
Anderson) Experience has shown the importance of fully identifying and addressing gender
perspectives in situations in which states loose power and citizens are left with no legal protection.
The involvement of women in disarmament for development initiatives was successful in the phase
of collecting weapons which were seen as threats to human security, but when in came to decide
about which project should be brought to the community, women were left out.
7. Conditions for a gender responsive decentralization
A first conclusion of the analysis and remarks made above is to state that decentralization can be
seen as a way to ensure women that access to economic choice, which they would like to achieve,
only if at least five conditions are met (Fall) at the level of economic policies and choices.
1) If the economic devolution of authority is accompanied by transfer of resources instead of
being based on if the poor and of the women
2) If there is rigorous and conscious political will and concrete steps are taken to correct
gender inequalities and respond to the need to decrease poverty
3) If market mechanisms do not guide policy choices
4) If policies at the macro level and programs planning at the local level effectively bring
people to undertake economic diagnosis and identify economic outcomes that they would
like themselves to reach
5) If revenues collection takes into account gender and class.
A second level of conditionality which would ensure opportunities with decentralization,refers
to women’s political subjective agency. It might be useful to conceptualise it as “ active
citizenship”(Lamberti). Proximity of public spaces of decision-making as it is created by
decentralization, might provide positive support for women if coupled with active citizenship.
Proximity, not meant as a small physical space, but as the space of shared commitments, of
intentional tackling of problems, of fostering the “virtues of citizenship”: something which is
deeply needed in Europe and elsewhere in front of the insurgence of new forms of nationalism
and racism that might destroy people’s ability to coexist. One tool, which has supported
women’s politics internationally during the last decade, seems to be missing. This is the trust in
the existence of one strong, international and trans national women’s movement, capable of
• Empowering elements of decentralization have been identified: information, consultation,
effective human resources development, institution building through accountability
mechanisms, the development of a vibrant, well organized civil society which we cannot
presume that already exists in all communities. Empowering women means also to allow
them to identify the power structure, which subordinates them, and then to make strategic
choices. Does decentralization facilitate or hinder this? Does it effectively address the
existing gender inequalities in terms of opportunities and outcome, or does it perpetuate
these inequalities? The answer to these questions might be an indicator of the effective
achievement of the goals of decentralization processes, since one should always
remember that even when governance in decentralized, government officials can still be
very far away from ordinary people and particularly from women. (Hannan-Anderson). The
problem with empowerment, though, is that, being a process, it is hard to state when it
starts and when it ends since it is often treated as a goal in itself (Sinigaglia)
• Strong unions capable of representing women’s interests and monitoring gendered aspects
of unemployment and loss of jobs are also conditions for gender responsive
decentralization. Women’s work in the unions is in itself an exercise in decentralization and
local negotiation (Tyikwe) as well as in negotiating on gender priorities since most labour
unions are heavily male dominated organizations. From the perspective of the unions,
positive forms of decentralization of services can only be the result of active struggles and
active participation of the women themselves. (Mecozzi)
• Finally, the relationship between decentralization processes and the goals set to
governments by Beijing platform of action should be addressed. “What is the relevance of
CEDAW convention and its set of rights in providing a framework for local governance?”
(Simonovic). A way out of the constraints of particularly disadvantaged contexts might be to
use the tools of universal women’s human rights as a protection for women who want to
negotiate at the local level. These instruments can be used in direct negotiation between
local women’s groups and international institutions like the World Bank and IMF, which,
after all, have to comply with the Millennium Declaration, and are committed to the
millennium development goals.
8. Tools and implications for key stakeholders
To empower women’s agency in the current process of decentralization, different tools have to
be shaped to build a political and institutional practice of communication and interaction
between different actors. These actors move in different spheres and have different objectives.
In order to gain a bottom-up knowledge of society and an action capable of changing the status
quo it is necessary to establish a systematic network of many subjects, based on a mutual
recognition of the differences of contexts, places, interests, aspirations The actors involved in
defining the sense and content of well being, assessing the results of public policy and
establishing viable political practices are: the women’s movement, the local governments, the
international cooperation and the U.N. system. In this process also motivated individuals are
important. Belonging to different institutions (UN, national and local governments, public
administrations, universities, NGOs, etc.), they can offer a space, within their institutions, to
respond to the new perspectives opened by the women’s movements. The movement’s
capability of expressing women’s needs and aspirations, facing tensions, and challenging the
power structure leads to new institutional relationships. (Picchio)
The women’s movement
The strength of local and international women’s movements was identified by all participants as a
priority. How to build or re-.build this strength? It might be necessary, in order to move forward, to
shift the perception and imagination of the context we live in. This might produce a shift from the
language of “sisterhood is global”, to the image of a global community that emphasises global
citizenship (Francisco). A shift to a more explicit recognition of systemic issues of inequity of trade,
finance and monetary liberalisation, security and ecological risks that are being spun by economic
There is a crisis of globalization and a crisis of multilateralism which affects also the United Nations
and the role of UNIFEM.
There is a crisis of leadership which is a cross cutting issue which cannot be addressed unless
there are strong women’s organizations and strong women’s movements which are holding that
leadership accountable and question it even when the leadership is made of women committed to
engendering politicies; there is a lot of scope for figuring out how that partnership may become
more effective, more productive, more just and more equal” (Sandler)
Solidarity could be a powerful tool. There is a need to analyse the power relationships inside
international cooperation and sharpen the ability to look at the world with the poorest women’s
eyes (Fall). A need also to sharpen this capacity in U.N. bodies. The example of Kossovo is
enlightening: it took a very long time and pressure from women inside and outside of the region of
Kossovo before the existence of women was noticed even in the simple process of aid distribution.
In the second phase, that of reconstruction, in a country where 64% of the houses and
infrastructures were destroyed, women were not involved at all, while in the third phase – the
rebuilding of the political and economic structures – the only way by which women were included
was through electoral quota. (Dobruna)
Women’s associations in the south fighting against “discriminatory nationalism” (Moceica) look for
alliances among women of other developing nations, of former colonial states, like African
countries (and there are some exchanges going on in the sharing of statistics and research, but not
enough on decentralization), rather than itrying to draw any lesson from the European experiences.
Linking women through decentralized cooperation could be a powerful tool, if this kind of
decentralization will meet the conditions set above.
The role of the UN
The U.N. response in the context of decentralisation will depend very much on what form of
decentralisation we are talking about and what is driving it. (Hannan-Anderson). A very different
response is required if the process is initiated from the bottom, if there is a popular movement
driving this decentralisation. It is different if it is coming from the top and if the rationale is that the
government or the state wants to hand over responsibility for services in the context of budget
constraints, according to the mechanisms that were mentioned above: users’ fees, self help,
unpaid work of women and privatisation.
One of the lessons learnt from this discussion is the one concerning those situations in which
decentralisation is being driven as a condition for getting a grant or a loan. It is a challenge to take
this issue back to the U.N. Women’s groups and networks will be the key players here.
The U.N. should take its responsibilities, World Bank and the IMF too, although the kind of
experiences which were presented in this seminar are never heard in any of the discussions of
PRSPs. There is a need also to find innovative ways of being able to make women have their
voices heard in this context and UNIFEM will play a very critical role in supporting that.
Perspectives for the future, as highlighted by many participants to the seminar, can be translated
into a set of recommendations addressed to all the different actors involved in the process of
1) Research and production of local knowledge.
There is a need for research on local responses viewed not as passive reactions, but as forms of
knowledge, which inspire action, and strategies of survival. When stressing women’s
empowerment, there is a need for deeper knowledge of what women’s poverty is, starting from the
This can be done also by re-reading existing researches, looking for gaps and misinterpretations
due to gender blindness in the theoretical assumptions and in the interpretation of data and voices.
An example given is the re-reading of World Bank’s “Voices of the Poor” proposed by Gerd
Johnsson Latham. . Women’s voices often reflect the “status quo” and do not venture into planning
or dreaming for change.
Researchers have also a political responsibility in pointing to the relationship between subjectivity
and tradition, self-perception and objective situation and possibilities for change
Solidarity might flow from joint research on women’s poverty, especially if it is built locally starting
form the field where the research actually takes place.
New forms of interaction between Universities, local groups and International Institutions should be
further developed (Zambrano, Cuba case, See paper), while knowledge produced by and for local
development programmes should circulate inside the academic institutions (Shwarz, the case of
2) Economic education and analysis of macro economic policies
To develop a movement with a large base that understands what is at stake is a priority. Any
woman in the world can understand the issues discussed in the seminar. Women can understand
who is exploiting; they can understand what are the means of exploitation. But this understanding
must be linked to a critique of the macroeconomic vision of economic systems and their dynamics
in order to become a tool for effective political action. Programmes of economic education should
be designed. This is something UNIFEM can do and do it properly not only through the IMF
Documenting the facts is another challenge: it means looking at the process of decentralisation
and showing how women are paying the costs, how they are providing for the costs that the state
is not able to cover, but also trying to make the state accountable.
3) Applying gender analysis to budgets
The discussion at the seminar saw in the analysis and implementation of public budgets from a
women’ perspective a crucial tool for an ongoing process of research, action and social partnership
to make governments accountable to women. The focus of accountability is on responsibilities,
total workload, distribution of resources and the level of collective well being made possible by
economic policies. The practice of “following the money” and discovering its colour has a lot of
potentials because it allows going beyond the rhetoric of language and discloses the functioning of
institutional structures. It could also help in finding the sense of political and economic activity if the
definition and effective implementation of a common standard of well-being are assumed as
explicit political issues. The list of capabilities assumed as public responsibility can provide a
concrete space for assessing the impact of policy and tracing the distribution of resources to
different capabilities according to sex, class, age, ethnicity of the subjects involved.
The analysis of money and the distribution of resources, require a deeper focus on the critique of
current economic theories in order to deconstruct policies issued by the main international and
national economic institutions.
4) Mobilization and participation
Identify what alternatives, which institutional arrangements, which kind of alternative political
language are needed to gain that power which is necessary to control the political and the
economic domain, when the state delegates responsibilities . It is clear that “we cannot manage
without politics” (Jain) and that politics should start from as close as possible to people’s life.
People feel the need for protection and security from institutions, which should be very close to
where they are. In conceiving an alternative benign State, proximity to people’s life might be one
crucial factor to ask for.
There is a need to free the enormous potential of political activism that is still available at the local
level. Meeting the challenge of changing the language and the vocabulary of politics, reversing the
pyramid, thinking locally and acting globally can do this.
5) Distinguishing between different patterns of decentralization in the north and in the south
Decentralisation means different things according to the context and the nature of power and
gender relations between local, national and global levels. Decentralisation is very much
differentiated if we look at access to resources and control of resources-mobilisation. This means
that decentralization processes differ according to the role women play in mobilising and funding
the process, in providing for the means to sustain service provision at the local level, while, on the
other side, resources are collected by private corporations and being exported outside the
countries. These two aspects, typical of the South, may not appear in the North.
Referring to location is thus a priority in feminist methodology, which should facilitate comparative
analysis and joint action as a result.
6) A critical work needs to be done in order to challenge mainstream macro economic
This work has to be radical given the dramatic effects of current policy on livelihood, well being and
equality of women and men around the world. It is a difficult critique as it has to do with the depth
and passions of daily life and it is at a crossroad of many disciplines all shattered by feminism. A
feminist economic critical theory can only be done in a collective effort and building adequate
spaces of a scientific debate which has to be both rigorous and open, daring and prudent,
autonomous but not isolated. It has to be done outside and inside academic institutions. Moreover,
the new perspective has to be introduced as part of academic curricula. In the shift of analytical
perspective Journals and Associations such as Feminist Economics are precious.
Feminist economists in their works on budgets, unpaid work and macro economics from a gender
perspective have extended economic analysis to the non monetary sector that contribute to the
formation of social capital. The critique of the reductionism of the GNP as indicator of national
wealth undertaken in the Human Development Reports by UNDP provides a new ground. The
notion of well-being, expressed in human capabilities, has opened a new humanist space which
can be used to analyse economic activities and the complexity of living conditions in a less
reductive way. Nevertheless, the capabilities approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum
needs to be linked to the distribution of resources and to be articulated not only in terms of
personal inequalities but also of class and gender distribution of labour and income. This is the way
to disclose some of the forces inherent in the present economic system that cause persistent
poverty, recurrent subsistence crisis, growing inequality, all clearly visible from women’s eyes, if
not blinded by privilege or despair. These same forces feed conflicts all over the world.
7) We must also remark that women have questioned the system of representation, the
capacity of representative democracy to recognize differences, non-only on the basis of
The difficulty of coping with endemic conflict, deep insecurity, dramatic inequalities, together with
growing opportunities and luxury for some, requires both a poetic language, as that generously
shared with us by Pregs Govender, and scientific knowledge, able to take into account also the
complexity of making a life, in the South, in Transition Countries and in the North. The daily
techniques for survival and sense are different in different contexts, but anxieties, passions and
hopes are often the same.
10. Concluding remarks
The search for a common ground is not the search for minimum convergences among
stakeholders or between north and south feminists for more efficient utilisation of resources and
effective models of governance (Francisco). A need is felt to move away from what can be called
the managerial way of looking for common grounds, by identifying something that is manageable
and realistic; this approach also privileges cultural hegemony through some vague international
language that only leads to newly constructed stereotypes and creates otherness and exclusion
both on the economic and the political front.
It is important to have a language of international women’s human rights, but we should not
deceive ourselves: these are contested languages.
Rather, common ground must reflect the principle of equity or begin from recognition of inequity.
The “global public goods” discourse is ambiguous, because it says that as long as the neo liberal
framework works to ensure some minimum global goods, then we no longer have to talk about
equity. We need to begin from a recognition of equity and with the recognition of an immediate
need for achieving a playing field in order to create real opportunities, real policy options for those
who have to face chronic poverty. Through this trajectory it will be possible to build upon a new
vision of globalisation and to recreate sisterhood but on different grounds and with different ethics.
UNIFEM is challenged to move away from gender mainstreaming. Somewhere it has brought gains
but perhaps it is necessary to move towards a new strategy which could be defined as a strategy
of engendering care and human freedoms for sustainable development, so that it doesn’t have the
language “women" and “empowerment” in it. Such a program will confront more directly what we
are now seeing: the predominance of a marketisation within a governance that has lead to several
crisis: the crisis of employment, of social services, of resources, of political leadership,
representative democracy, crisis of institutions and multilateralism, of peace and of societies.
European society has put in power rightwing governments and that says something. It is no longer
the dictatorships in the south that is a political problem.
Some questions we need to be raising are the following: how have we been able to remain
accountable to a mass of women or have we? Feminists also have worked on the basis of
friendships and let’s not put that under the rug anymore. But this is not enough. How have we
reached out to other social movements? Do the other social movements even consider us a
What are the relationships among feminists in international institutions, feminists in political parties
and political positions, feminist technical experts and consultants, specialists on gender
mainstreaming, women activists and finally grassroots women? We have to locate and position
ourselves and be self-critical so that we can try to build or create new relationships. (Francisco)
Twenty five years ago, when women’s concerns were first put on the development agenda with
the first World Conference on Women, people talked about integrating women into development. In
this group we have moved a long way from that. We are talking about women transforming
development itself and its agenda. In many ways we are refusing the old simple answers, we are
refusing the old dilemmas “for the state or against the state”, “for the market or against the market”,
“for private enterprise or against private enterprise”. To this respect all the activities discussed in
this seminar and the people engaged in them are very forward looking. They are leaving behind
some of the old polarities of the 20th century. They are to move generally towards new visions in
very innovative and pragmatic ways. (Elson)
The contrast between the way in which women at this seminar have been looking around the world
on the issues of gender analysis and budgets, trying to transform budgets into a more gender
equal tool, and the way in which an organization like the World Bank works on structural
adjustments is deep and clear. People always analyze their local situation: what are the economic
and the social inequalities they are addressing, what do women want? What are the political
opportunities and structures? They come up with their own analysis. Working close to people’s
lives and perceptions is one of the things that we have to contribute and which contrasts so much
with the ways of working that of the conventional centers of economic policy. This is something
that should continue and be improved.
Finally, a series of challenges have been identified which require further work. An example among
others is privatization. Here, the issue at stake is not an either or, i.e. contrasting private and
public. There are many different forms of public management that have not been explored; for
instance there are a range of different ways in which public management can privatize, some of
them extremely negative, but not all. For instance, privatization to cooperatives of local people
might be a very different sort of idea than privatization to international business. There is now an
agenda about what decentralization means. Are we talking about reducing the power of the central
state? Who is it going to? Is it going to people at local level or is it going to international business?
The issues at stake are now many and clearly identified; the discussion about them has been
energizing. One could conclude with the words of a very famous Italian man, Antonio Gramsci,
who said: the watch word has to be “pessimism of the intelligence and optimism of the will”.”