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Originally published on ADB Avenue, 1 March 2017

Unsung gender equality hero: Chris Spohr

In celebration of Gender Month, we are honoring Asian Development Bank (ADB)’s
unsung gender equality heroes. They went the extra mile to change women’s lives through
their work in development projects. They have proven that anyone can advocate for gender
equality, even without a “gender” job title. Chris Spohr shares his thoughts.

Why do you advocate for gender equality (mainstreaming) in your
projects? Why does it matter to you personally?

At the risk of sounding too academic, the evidence on the importance of gender
equity is undeniable. This is why, for example, most of the world’s conditional cash
transfer (CCT) programs transfer cash to females. In visiting poor communities in the
Philippines, for example, I saw again and again that CCT cash grants in the hands of
mothers and grandmothers translate into greater investment in children’s education,
nutrition, and health, thus helping break multi-generational poverty traps.

Education is another good case in point. Part of my
dissertation looked at broader long-term impacts of
education for poor girls who continued schooling, thanks
to a 1968 policy shift towards universal lower secondary
education in Taipei,China. In adulthood, those females
were more likely to be employed in formal wage labor,
were less likely to marry at a young age, had fewer
children while investing more in their children’s
education, and perceived themselves as more
empowered.

But if that sounds cold and academic, the other half of
my answer could conversely be labeled as “naïve
idealism”. From my earliest childhood, I’ve always been
deeply troubled by inequity of opportunity in the world around me. Why should one
person face a road paved in gold while another is destined to a constant struggle
simply due to the household into which they were born or their gender? So yes, call it
a cliché, but I joined ADB to help fight poverty and inequity, including gender
inequity.
How do you go about addressing gender issues in your work?

To me, the starting point in formulating any project is an in-depth understanding of
the development context. In terms of gender, that means looking beyond simplistic
story lines and avoiding copy-pasting “solutions” from one country to another.
Gender issues are often highly nuanced and also interlinked with other dimensions of
poverty and inequity. Looking at education in Myanmar, for example, gender parity
has been reached on aggregate in basic education, while females pull ahead in upper
secondary and significantly outnumber males in higher education. However, in many
poor households and rural communities, girls face particular challenges to access.
There are also clear gender issues in terms of education-to-employment linkages.
While females comprise more than 60% of university graduates, they remain
underrepresented in the formal employment, despite recent improvements.

Finally, it may go without saying, but addressing gender issues means assessing
challenges facing both females and males and identifying solutions to address those
specific challenges.

What challenges do you face?

In some contexts, my being male poses a basic challenge: i.e., in view of local norms, it
may be difficult to access and have frank discussions with female stakeholders,
particularly given that tight mission timelines don’t often allow the luxury of time to
build trust. The flip side, however, is that being male may ironically give me more
credibility in the eyes of male government counterparts in advocating for gender
issues.

Another challenge is facing perspectives of “We don’t have gender issues here.” To
preempt this, I often try to start the discussion with a statement like “While education
here is more gender equitable overall than in many countries in Asia, the evidence
suggests that boys and girls dropout from school due to different challenges, hence
requiring different solutions.” It’s also important to understand and cite the
government’s own policies: framing the discussion in terms of helping a ministry
deliver on its own gender-related policy statements may get you a lot farther than
focusing on “ADB requirements.” Finding local champions can also be particularly
important.

Thirdly, there are of course technical challenges, particularly given that gender issues
are often complex and intertwined with other challenges. The only answer is to invest
time and energy in consultations and quantitative and qualitative analysis.

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Can you give us an example of a successful advocacy on your part to get
gender integrated into a project/program notwithstanding the
difficulties?

Though it’s a work in progress, one example that I’m really proud of is ADB’s
engagement in Myanmar’s education sector. In 2012, Myanmar was emerging from
decades of isolation and faced a tremendous dearth of evidence on even the “basics”
in the education sector, to say nothing of gender dimensions. In close collaboration
with other development partners, ADB supported a government-led Comprehensive
Education Sector Review, which helped explain challenges facing the sector, including
gender dimensions, and resulted in Myanmar’s first evidence-based education sector
plan in decades. That intense up-front work and the relationships built paved the way
for expanded ADB support to help resolve those challenges. For example, we’re
currently facilitating cooperation between the ministries of education and of social
welfare as well as civil society groups to formulate a new secondary education
curriculum that will be more sensitive to gender and other socioeconomic
dimensions, while improving learning and workforce outcomes for females and males.
A newly approved loan on Equipping Youth for Employment Project will help the
government carry forward this and other critical reforms in secondary education and
technical and vocational education and training.

For the first time in 7 years we will be unlikely to meet our 45%- at-
entry gender mainstreaming in operations target in 2016. Why do you
think this has happened?

Perhaps this partly reflects a competition of “CAD vs. GAD” (contract &
disbursements vs. gender & development). If projects will first and foremost be
assessed in terms of CAD, contributions to gender equity and poverty reduction may
take a back seat. This may also be a byproduct of ADB’s efforts to increase lending
volumes and greater focus on middle-income countries and much larger projects and
policy- and results-based lending. More broadly, it may reflect the ongoing tug of war
between ADB’s identity as primarily “a lending institution that just happens to do
development” or “a development institution that uses loans as one of our
instruments”. We, of course, are both a bank and development organization, but in
my 16+ years here, I’ve continuously felt like we’ve been struggling to strike the right
balance.

At the same time, I do think that operations respond to leadership. For example, in
recent years, I think that ADB’s Southeast Asia Department has stepped up its game
on gender, due to a combination of management’s emphasis on gender and
dedication of front-line staff.

Chris Spohr is Principal Social Sector Specialist based in ADB’s Myanmar Resident Mission
in Naypitaw.

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Learn about how ADB supports gender and development.
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