Development Work and Gender

Engineers Without Borders is a nationally registered charity which works in the sphere of international development work and systemic change. The organization has a large network of passionate individuals who self-identify as EWBers, and who connect with EWB through their University or Professional chapters, are National Office employees or have a history of collaborating with this organization.

The network is vast, but also closely knit and connected. In November of last year, a bunch of university chapters in South Western Ontario got together and hosted a retreat called “SWOR”. It was a weekend long event of cool workshops, thought provoking discussions and camaraderie.

At SWOR one of the sessions was hosted by Professor Hanson Nyantakyi-Frimpong, a teacher at Western University, about an agriculture development study he did in Ghana. He ran a pilot program with around 400 families to increase food security by teaching new techniques for farming and giving them seeds to diversify their crops and therefore their diets. They did this study with both woman-headed and men-headed subsistence farms. What became clear to me was that this study group provided an important insight into the gender dynamics that play a role in the developing world and by consequence development work.

In his study, he identified that before the program was implemented, and even to some degree after, woman-run households had a lower food security rating than men-run households. This was an interesting statistic and one that made me realize that gender should be an important conversation topic in all development work.

A lot of development projects have an inherent , systemic problem which reduces their impact on women. This can be caused by a skewed data set collected from a mainly male population sub-set or it can be skewed by ignoring the roles of men and women in society. For example, in the program described by Professor Hanson about diversifying a farms crops, women and men might have different opinions on which crops. The might base their decisions on different factors such as the flavour of the crop or if planting and harvesting it would not take away from the other duties they have to perform, such as taking care of children or managing the family finances.

Beyond agriculture, gender inequality is far reaching. If a development project is going to fund a policy that inadvertently encourages further suppression of women are the outcomes of this development project still positive? If it succeeds in its intended and measurable goals is the project still a success?

We already know systems are complex and implementing a change in one part will have unintended positive and negative effects in another, but with any project we can only identify what is measureable and monitor-able. If you are working in a society where cultural practices encourage this gender divide, how can a project work towards improving gender equality without undermining a society’s beliefs? How can we even go about identifying the degree of positive and negative effects which a project can create for women? These are all difficult questions, but I think the first step in taking into account gender in our work is to ask and keep gender inequality as an on-going conversation as we design, implement and monitor international development projects. Keep the conversation alive: email us your comments at or connect with us on our facebook page:

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