Increased openness from the field is needed to continually adapt

UN Gender Training is a policy that aims to reduce harmful behaviours in peacekeepers and unintended negative effects of peacekeeping missions; but does this well-intentioned, academically based, and centrally designed policy actually work in real life? In this article, Lisa Carson of UNSW Canberra's Public Service Research Group discusses the need for openness and knowledge transfer to strengthen policy design and implementation.

Gender mainstreaming is an ambitious undertaking in any organisation, especially for large international institutions such as the UN. Often policies are designed and developed centrally at UN Headquarters in New York and then sent out to different sections to be implemented on the ground.  Implementation has to start somewhere, but what appears to be overlooked sometimes are the perspectives of those tasked with carrying them out. Their knowledge and insights are vital to understand the complexities involved and the potential for change.

One example of this is UN Gender Training for peacekeepers. Peacekeeping is one of the main ways that the UN Security Council carries out its responsibility for international peace and security. At the moment there are sixteen peacekeeping missions involving 112,207 personnel from 128 different countries. Gender Training for personnel was developed in the context of extensive peacekeeper abuse and coincided with the adoption of Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace & Security which was adopted in 2000.

According to DPKO’s 2004 Gender Resource Training Package, the aim of Gender Training is to reduce harmful forms of behavior and unintended negative effects of peacekeeping policies. The training sets out to improve the capacity of peacekeepers in three main ways. Firstly, through building a common understanding of the values they are to uphold when working for the UN, such as the ‘principles of equality between women and men and non-discrimination based on sex’. Secondly, by helping peacekeepers understand the social context in which they operate and the ways in which relationships between men and women are transformed by violent conflict. Thirdly, by developing basic skills of gender analysis and awareness of the positive and negative impacts that their actions can have on the host country. The training is intended to occur at three stages: Pre, In-mission and On-going and is generally carried out by Gender Advisers and Focal Points.

Based on confidential interviews I’ve had with staff in various peacekeeping missions, most appear to be over worked and under-resourced. Their passion and belief in the centrality of the work that they do is apparent and according to most, the strengths of the training revolve around raising awareness and contributing to a change in attitudes. Issues such as a lack of political will, finance, time, expertise, standardised materials, accountability and evaluation appear to all be at play. Whilst these are arguably features of any type of policy implementation, their collective insights reveal nuances that might not be at the forefront of those involved in policy formation. Most notably, some of the key issues center around the complexities of conducting training in heavily masculine and militaristic environments and questions about the usefulness of term ‘gender’.

In the area of peacekeeping there appears to be somewhat of a divide between policy formation and those who do the implementing. Recent research by Bustelo, Ferguson & Forest about The Politics of Feminist Knowledge Transfer has found that practitioners frequently feel that academically based approaches might not be realistic or practical, whereas academics tend to think that many practitioners are in danger of becoming technocratic and banal. This is perhaps an unavoidable tension, but one that needs to be reduced and requires further investigation.

Obviously, it’s impossible to gauge the full extent of potential complexities involved in implementation processes, but having mechanisms in place where staff can openly and regularly provide feedback, is an aspect of design that shouldn’t be overlooked. Such insights are extremely useful to monitor how things are going and to inform actions moving forward. To their credit, UN Women has some strategies in place such as an Online Community of Practice and formalised annual reporting, both of which appear to be a great start provided that staff have access and time to participate.

Ultimately, openness from those working on the ground needs to be encouraged, along with a continuing effort to balance top-down and bottom-up perspectives when implementing change.

Lisa Carson is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Public Service Research Group in the School of Business at the University of New South Wales. Her research focuses on the complexities of translating policy into practice at local, national and international levels. Her research crosses boundaries of policy analysis, feminist and gender studies, political science, international relations, institutionalist theory and sociology among others. She has published in Australian Journal of International Affairs and the Australian Feminist Law Journal. Lisa holds a PhD and Masters in International Relations from the University of Melbourne, First Class Honours from RMIT and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne.