In the field of development, there are too many reports to count, but last month's U.N. report on the Post-2015 Development Agenda stands out because it contains a big idea that could change the future for billions of people. It says that investments in the world's poorest people won't generate the biggest possible return until we learn how to make sure women and girls benefit from them equally.
Investing in women and girls should justify itself. They make up half the population (and the majority of the poor), yet they've been neglected by the development community. Moreover, advocates and experts have known for years that when women and girls have the power to make basic household decisions, they prioritize education, food, and health care -- the stuff of broad-based economic and social development. In short, when we invest in women and girls, we are investing in the people who invest in everybody else.
Unfortunately, this fact hasn't always influenced the official development agenda. Take the example of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which have served as a charter for the development field since the U.N. adopted them in 2000.
The MDGs have been a big success because they narrow down a potentially endless list of priorities to eight discreet goals. My husband calls the MDGs the "world's report card." Since leaders know they're being "graded" on specific goals and targets (such as the child mortality rate), they use their resources more strategically. That's why the world has made impressive progress on many of the goals, starting with the first one (cutting global poverty in half), which was achieved five years early.
The negative corollary to the success of the MDGs is that the priorities not enshrined in the world's report card tend to get less attention. In some ways, that's what happened to women and girls. One of the current goals is specifically devoted to gender equity, but it includes only one target: to eliminate gender disparities in education. That's an important work in progress, but it's just one among many gender-related issues that matter in development.
Which brings us back to the U.N. panel's recommendations for what should replace the MDGs when they lapse in 2015. The proposed gender equity goal for post-2015 is much stronger than its predecessor. It includes targets for limiting gender-based violence and child marriage and for promoting property rights for women. It's tricky to strike the right balance between the concrete specificity needed to make the goals actionable and the complex reality of women's lives. (Indeed, this is a defining challenge across the development field.) The list of proposed targets in the report is a promising start.
However, the real breakthrough is the panel's recommendation that data on every single goal and target be broken out by gender (and also by other key categories like income or where people live). Disaggregating the data will tell us whether the progress we're making applies to women and men equally (or to slum dwellers and rural villagers equally, for example). This has not always been the case, and our inability to disaggregate this data leads to solutions biased toward men.