What does it mean for climate finance to be gender-responsive?

Gabriela Alberola is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research focuses on the politics of climate adaptation, violence against environmental activists, and gender disparities in accessing climate funds. She holds an M.A. degree in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, an M.S. degree in Watershed Science and Policy from CSU Monterey Bay, and a B.S. degree in Environmental Biology from the Universidad de Panamá.


Ruth Carlitz is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam. Her research focuses on the politics of public goods provision in low-income countries, from the perspectives of both governments and citizens. Her regional expertise lies primarily in East Africa. Ruth recently launched a 5-year project, “ClimateFiGS: Understanding the Allocation of Climate Finance in the Global South,” funded by a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC).

This text is part of a series of articles following up on the theme discussed at the 2024 SDG Conference in Bergen, encompassing the forthcoming GRIP research project: The Coming Contestation: Green Transition Finance and Inequality in the Global South


Last year, we were engaged by UN Women to conduct a study on ‘gender-responsive’ climate finance, focusing on post-conflict and conflict-affected contexts. The study sought to examine the extent to which climate finance reaching conflict-affected and fragile contexts responds to the distinct needs of people of different genders, as well as support for initiatives by grassroots feminist organisations. In addition, we aimed to identify structural and institutional barriers as well as opportunities to leverage the co-benefits of climate action for gender equality and women’s empowerment. The study involved desk research and literature review; quantitative cross-national analysis of climate finance flows; and qualitative analysis of country case studies in Guatemala, Haiti, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.  


The motivation to examine ‘gender-responsive’ climate finance reflects the fact that climate change does not affect all individuals uniformly. Instead, it magnifies existing societal inequities, including gender disparities. People from different genders face differentiated impacts from climate change that largely arise from entrenched socio-economic structures, which influence the distribution of resources, responsibilities, and power. These differentiated impacts require targeted understanding and interventions, including those related to climate finance, hence the interest in gender-responsive approaches.


When we began, the research questions seemed fairly straightforward. However, it soon became apparent that there were important gaps in our understanding and application of the term ‘gender-responsiveness’ — and moreover, that this was not exclusively an “us” problem. When discussing with colleagues, reading the literature, and interviewing key informants, we realised that there were important discrepancies in what `gender-responsive’ and adjacent terms meant to different people and in different contexts and that this made the work of researchers and practitioners in this space all the more difficult.  Terms like “gender-sensitive,” “gender-responsive,” or “promoting equality,” despite having specific definitions in academic papers and practitioner manuals, varied significantly from one source to another. They were often conflated in certain contexts and applied inconsistently across different sources. 


For this GRIP piece, we want to reflect on the challenges of defining and measuring gender-responsiveness in climate finance. Through sharing our experiences and ideas for future research, we aim to contribute to the ongoing conversation in this field. We hope that researchers, practitioners, and other interested parties will find these insights valuable in their own applications. 

Definitions and background 

Gender mainstreaming is the process of developing policies to address gender disparities across all issue areas (True and Mintrom, 2001). In contrast, gender-responsiveness refers to the degree to which policies and practices specifically recognise and tackle “gendered interests, needs, vulnerabilities and inequalities” through the design, implementation, and monitoring of social protections (Cookson et al., 2023). While gender mainstreaming and gender-responsiveness are complementary for promoting gender equality, they operate at different levels of policy and program development. 


Among current global climate initiatives, climate finance stands as a core element for effective action. Climate finance refers to financial resources delivered through various mechanisms such as grants and loans from bilateral, multilateral, and private sources mobilised from wealthy (“Annex-1”) countries to support low- and middle-income countries. In the context of climate action, gender considerations began to gain prominence at COP 2014 under the Lima Work Programme on Gender, which aimed to promote gender balance and integrate gender perspectives into climate policy.


Gender Equality Markers (GEMs) are tools implemented by international organisations to systematically track financial commitments towards gender equality (United Nations, 2018). Coding projects with a standardised gender rating allows organisations to assess the gender-responsiveness of individual projects or sections of their portfolio. In the context of climate finance, the OECD DAC External Development Finance Statistics database (OECD, 2023) serves as a key resource. Starting in the year 2000, this database used a three-point GEM system to evaluate climate-related financial commitments at the activity level. Activities are categorised as “Not Targeted,” indicating no gender equality focus; “Significant,” where gender equality is a deliberate but not principal objective; and “Principal,” for projects where gender equality is both the main aim and crucial to the design and outcomes.


Having clarified these key concepts, we now delve into our reflection on the challenges in defining and measuring gender-responsiveness. We have broadly grouped them into three main themes: administrative and technical challenges, challenges related to the political and social norms surrounding gender, and challenges arising from evolving definitions of gender.


The Challenges of Defining and Measuring Gender-Responsiveness 

Evaluating gender-responsiveness involves assessing how well a project or policy addresses gender-specific interests and needs. During our study, the absence of localised data for both targeting interventions and measuring effectiveness emerged as a key concern, but it wasn’t the only one. Broader concerns included the absence of local expertise, insufficient incorporation of traditional knowledge, and the exclusion of diverse perspectives—particularly of women with intersecting identities, such as those belonging to racial and ethnic minorities. Additionally, our interviewees described gender strategies as too “top-down”, impractical, and sometimes ineffective in benefiting the targeted groups.


We encountered two primary methods for evaluating gender-responsiveness in climate finance: in-depth case studies of small samples of projects and broad quantitative analyses using GEMs. While qualitative case studies were able to evaluate more nuanced aspects of gender-responsiveness, their limitation is in the uncertainty of their generalisability across larger populations or in alternative contexts. GEMs, on the other hand, provided a broader lens to assess gender-responsiveness across entire project portfolios. However, their simplified rating systems (typically 3- or 5-point scales) risk leading to imprecise quantifications of gender impacts.


This limitation of GEMs became apparent in our analysis of the OECD DAC’s External Development Finance Statistics database, which raised questions regarding the tagging of projects as “principal” and “significant” that did not exhibit clear gender considerations. For instance, two major projects—a $300 million transportation project in Alexandria, Egypt, and a $1 billion transportation project in Delhi, India — tagged as principal and significant respectively — did not obviously align with their gender tags. Such ambiguity highlights the challenges — and risks— associated with using GEMs to quantify gender-responsiveness on a large scale: relying on them alone is misleading when trying to evaluate the extent to which projects target or meet gender-differentiated needs.


Beyond such administrative and technical challenges, our research also confronted us with complexities related to the political and social aspects of feminism and gender. From our interviews to our quantitative analyses, it was clear that the process of collecting and interpreting gender data went beyond a purely technocratic exercise. Instead, it was deeply influenced by societal norms and the prevailing political landscape in each context. 


For instance, in rural areas with male-dominated asset ownership, women’s meaningful participation in projects at all stages is influenced not only by their objective access to participation but also by the local expectations of what is a fair or appropriate level of involvement for women in projects. This is particularly so when local norms diverge significantly from global movements toward gender inclusion. In Guatemala, for instance, both local and international consultants we interviewed observed scepticism in certain communities about acknowledging gender inequities and disparities. Although it is technically feasible to quantify disparities by gender and suggest measures for equality, the effectiveness of such interventions heavily depends on local interest, acceptance, and buy-in which are deeply influenced by prevailing social norms.


Our study involved interviews with 15 experts in climate change, climate financing, conflict, and peacebuilding, including NGO and IGO representatives, academics, and country-specific consultants. Acting as intermediaries between aid organisations and communities, these experts provided unique insights into the contrast between gender-responsive programs on paper and their actual implementation. For example, a consultant described a program in which women were officially listed as micro-loan recipients and managed training, reporting, and debt obligations, but the funds went towards businesses owned by male relatives, creating additional work for the women with little personal gain. While only anecdotal, these and similar examples from our interviews highlight the tension between the expectations and approaches of international organisations and the realities faced by intermediaries or local communities. 


An interesting challenge emerged when attempting to explore climate finance support for grassroots feminist organisations. On a broader scale, we found that international climate finance organisations rarely use the term “feminist” to describe their partnerships or projects, making it impossible to quantify support via text or database analyses of their portfolios. Similarly, during our case studies, key informants were unable to pinpoint any self-identified feminist organisations for us to contact, and our attempts to identify any through our networks were unsuccessful. While the explicit mention of “feminist” in project descriptions is not a prerequisite for tackling feminist issues, the absence of this terminology at least highlights a disconnect between the language used by international gender-focused organisations and the language used further downstream in the climate finance pipeline.


Beyond simple terminology or language choice, these challenges reflect the tensions within the broader political climate that influence discussions about feminism and gender worldwide. In Latin America and the US, for example, there has been a notable anti-gender backlash, with significant resistance to gender policies and the rollback of previously established rights (Zaremberg, Tabbush, and Friedman, 2021; Faludi et al., 2020). Europe is experiencing a parallel trend, where the surge of right-wing populism has heightened opposition to feminism, and the rights of women and LGBTQ+ communities (Dietze and Roth, 2020).


The final challenge we identified concerns the integration of intersectional, queer, trans, and non-binary perspectives on gender. Despite theoretical advancements and a trend towards inclusivity and intersectionality in both academia and practice, a considerable gap remains in applying these concepts within climate finance initiatives. Gender considerations in climate finance still predominantly rely on a binary understanding of gender, with `gender-responsive’ used as shorthand for addressing the distinct needs of women and girls. As our collective understanding of gender and intersectionality deepens, recognising the unique vulnerabilities of diverse identities to climate change and the need for climate finance to address these specific needs becomes increasingly important. 


The way forward

As researchers and practitioners in this field, how do we move forward to better address differentiated gender needs and vulnerabilities in the context of climate change? Having identified some of the key gaps, we have a few suggestions for future research and improved practice.


First, effectively addressing gender-differentiated needs calls for the intentional inclusion of local expertise, local knowledge, and diverse perspectives through the project pipeline from identification of needs, to design, monitoring and evaluation. Here it is important to keep in mind that participatory interventions are notoriously challenging (Kalb 2006), as communities are not homogenous, and the choice of which “local perspectives” to include is crucial. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that participatory inclusion understands and addresses diverse local tensions, needs, and interests.  


In addition, transparency regarding the final beneficiaries of climate finance is crucial. Currently, climate finance organisations do not consistently publish information on the subnational distribution of funds. Providing standardised details on project beneficiaries within established country administrative boundaries would enable better evaluation and course corrections, ensuring that funds reach their intended targets.


Regarding the performance and improvement of GEMs, future studies could investigate underexplored aspects of these tags, how widespread their adoption is, their consistency across various coders analysing the same data, or the extent to which they might overestimate or underestimate gender-responsiveness. Meta-analyses or case studies would be helpful in this endeavour. 


Finally, in terms of incorporating intersectionality and the expansion beyond binary gender models, future research could look into how these approaches are being incorporated and what the challenges encountered when implementing them. As highlighted in this piece, gender considerations in climate finance are influenced by local and global social norms and political dynamics. Future research should explore how theoretical concepts or policies from the global north align—or misalign—with local perceptions of identity, and how to better address intersectional vulnerabilities in the context of climate change. 



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