Foreign Policy Blogs

Rights, research and responsiveness

Sorry for the inconvenience, courtesy Andy Roberts/Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

You may have heard of the U.N., but have you ever heard of UNRISD? Perhaps not – as a research institute they aren’t going to grab as many headlines as the WHO, UNESCO or the Security Council. Yet the work they do is just as valuable, the latest example being a new program exploring when and why states respond to women’s claims, e.g., turning protest into policy.


The U.N. Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) was established in 1963, as an autonomous research institute within the U.N. system. Its focus is “guided by the conviction that effective development policies depend crucially on an understanding of the social and political context.” Informed by this approach, a research program dedicated to examining the hows, whens and whys of states responding to women’s claims will run from 2013 through 2015, with a focus on Asia — more specifically, China, India and Indonesia.

Research has already shown that while countries may be leaders in some areas of gender equality and women’s rights, they can also simultaneously be poor in others. As articulately noted on the project’s news page, “With a better understanding of why some issues gain policy traction while others are neglected or obstructed, advocates for women’s rights will be better equipped to articulate their demands and strategize for gender-egalitarian change.” Referring to recent news, one could think about Saudi women’s boycott of the ban which prevents them driving. While a slowly growing number of women (and men) are agitating for change, research looking into whether it is likely to gain traction (rather than news headlines) is somewhat absent.

It has already been acknowledged that focusing just on women’s movements would be too restrictive and also misguided, as existing papers have suggested that other key actors, such as the political elite and transnational forces play a large role. Furthermore, the diffusion of ideas happens through multiple channels, greatly expanding the scope of this ambitious programme.

Policy Evaporation
In the introductory Policy Note, the authors introduce the concept of “policy evaporation” whereby specifically gender-oriented policies evaporate within bureaucratic structures. A DFID paper describes the process so:

“Since the early 1990s, many governments, donor organisations and NGOs have taken significant steps to mainstream attention to gender equality in their work. Repeatedly and consistently, evaluations of gender mainstreaming have found that policy commitments to gender equality “evaporate” in planning and implementation processes, with the result that impact on women’s and men’s lives is very limited.”

Sound familiar?

Even if the policy becomes law, there is still the issue of effective implementation. words are nice, but money and resources are what puts the nice words into practice. The Policy Note highlights that even on a ‘hot topic’ like violence against women, action is often limited to passing legislation, “but without the necessary follow-up in terms of institutional change, resource allocation and policy coordination across different sectors.” One stream of the UNRISD program will therefore specifically focus on the question, “Once policies or laws have been formulated or inscribed in constitutions, what determines the extent to which they are implemented?”

This is an ambitious project which will hopefully deliver research capable of effecting real change and allowing for theory to be used in practical situations to the benefit of women, society and humanity. All the best, UNRISD!



Cate Mackenzie

Cate works as an editor in Zürich, Switzerland. She holds an MA in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich, and a BA (Hons) in International Studies with Political Science from the University of Birmingham (UK).

She has previously lived and worked in Fiji and the US.