Integrating a gender perspective in international NGOs’ humanitarian operations 2/2

Temps de lecture : 12 minutes

Integrating a gender perspective in international NGOs’ humanitarian
operations 2/2

February 26, 2021

Written by Aidalaye Diop
Translated by Chloé Lusven

The first part of this article is available here

While it is true that INGOs (international NGOs) have understood how necessary and important it is to have a gender perspective in the implementation of their projects for a while, they did not create the ensuing models and normative framework. For the past few years, the environment around humanitarian action has been constituted of many partakers, challenges and issues hindering the humanitarian principles of the intervention. Even if the principles of independence and neutrality put forward by most INGOs takes on its full meaning at the operational level, it cannot be applied to getting funding. As gender sensitivity has been put forward by the political scene and international organizations, it became the cheat code to getting funded. In this article, we’ll see in which way INGOs’ dependence on international organizations’ funding and its conditionality undermines their freedom and more or less prevents them from integrating more gendered perspectives in their humanitarian operations. We’ll report on the funding race INGOs are subjected to, as a way to better understand their incapacity to free themselves from “the one that pays decides” directives and we’ll expose the resulting restrictions that limit their freedom which leads to the impossibility of developing gender-based projects as set out in their agenda.  

The funding race is a brake on gender ambitions for INGOs 

Although most INGOs present themselves as apolitical and detached from any strategic positioning on the international stage, one cannot say that their strategies in terms of gender have not been influenced by donors and how demanding they are depending on the context and the amount of money invested. Coupled to the politicization of humanitarian stakes brought by donors, the 2011 financial crisis in Western Europe, where the most important donors come from (France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom…), Brexit and the current health crisis have increased political pressure on funding international aid. Even if some problematics such as gender are being put forward and presented as priorities, one cannot say that the means are being given to organizations to achieve the given objectives or to conform to funding restrictions and obligations.

Donors encourage efficient interventions from an operational point of view but mostly from a financial point of view, whatever the issue, no matter how important gender is becoming in the humanitarian context. Crises and conflicts are multiplying everywhere and the lack of funding jeopardizes the speed of humanitarian action, NGOs become asphyxiated by the donors’ pressure, especially as they collaborate with several different ones. Moreover, depending on context and how severe a conflict is, humanitarian assistance can be compromised and the way the aid is given or how the beneficiaries are selected too can become a source of tension. As we have seen in the first part of the article, organizations often struggle to establish a rigorous and complete framework and pressure adds another difficulty to their commitment to gender.

In order to understand the dependence of NGOs from global institutions, one has to keep in mind that part of the funds allocated to humanitarian aid, emergency relief and development comes from states and international organizations such as the UN. A budget is determined according to a theme, answering the sustainable development goals established by the international community, then handed to an agency dedicated to managing this budget with clear objectives, such as gender equality. These agencies then rely on NGOs through call to tender mechanisms to carry out these missions[1]Sylvie Brunel, « L’humanitaire, nouvel acteur des relations internationales », Revue internationale et stratégique, no. 41, Jan. 2001, p. 93-110. DOI 10.3917/ris.041.0093. When an NGO wishes to act for gender equality or to integrate gender into another project, which is for exemple, primarily based on water and sanitation, no matter how committed they are, they have to comply with the donor and their conditions. Even more so because they are competing with other NGOs and given access to funding is difficult, it is often forced to adjust its gender goals downwards. This phenomenon is accentuated when the organization does not have its own funds or public fundraising mechanisms or the support from private organizations that do not ask for a detailed expenditure report as is the case with international institutions.

Indeed, even if NGOs are nonprofit organizations, their operating mode and the race for funding through calls for tenders means they adopt similar strategies to those of companies in a competitive environment. In the same way as companies, they are subjected to negotiating power struggle between the client (the donor) and the supplier (the NGOs). This tough competition forces NGOs to minimise their costs in order to obtain a grant. When a development agency sets itself a target such as increasing women’s political participation in Lebanon for example, the organizations that are more likely to get the funding are the ones already based in one or several regions or towns where the call to tender will be released. By having NGOs compete against each other, the donor makes sure that NGOs have the right behavior and efficiency, which means NGOs have to give up some costs such as training gender experts or putting in place a deep and complete gender analysis[2]Elbers Willem, Arts Bas, « Comment joindre les deux bouts : les réponses stratégiques des ONG du Sud aux conditions imposées par les de … Continue reading

When NGOs have not already integrated gender as a transversal or main issue in how their structure operates and the implementation of their humanitarian agenda, the race for funding and its drawbacks makes it impossible to integrate these new costs or expenditures. They are thus limited to basic gender analyses and/or to give up the spot to other more experienced or independent organizations which, depending on their commitment, will be able to go beyond funding to fill the gap and therefore take concrete action on gender.  

Macro-environmental factors influence NGOs because they are depending on international aid to fulfil their humanitarian agenda, and they find themselves enslaved by institutional powers and the ideology they promote. In this way, donors have a stranglehold and negotiating power over NGOs, that are price sensitive, and even more so when they depend on public funds. Hands tied by the costs of a determining project in getting the call for tenders, NGOs have to offer services similar to other NGOs and discouraged from proposing a gendered model, compatible with their ideology, because they lack the financial means. 

From an operational standpoint, the donor also establishes the procedures that the NGO[3]Dauvin, Pascal. « Être un professionnel de l’humanitaire ou comment composer avec le cadre imposé », Revue Tiers Monde, vol. 180, no. 4, 2004, pp. 825-840. must respect and can suspend funding or even ask for a refund if they consider some expanses are ineligible, i.e. non-contractual, leaving close to no leeway to NGOS. In parallel to this tough competition, the constraints faced by NGOs are often driven by accountability, through which, the donor demands that the NGO reports on the use of funds allocated, including through intermediary, biannual and annual reports on monitoring activities and expanses which will be checke
d during external audits and allow donors to verify the eligibility of expanses[4]Anne Le Naëlou, « Pour comprendre la professionnalisation dans les ONG : quelques apports d’une sociologie des professions », Revue Tiers Monde, vol. 180, no. 4, 2004, pp. 773-798.

From a contractual standpoint, the grant agreement to an NGO implies that they fully submit to the terms of the contract which are more or less standardized by the donor. As a result, the INGO has to comply to the approved budget and has limited flexibility to incorporate costs when it comes to gender as it needs to report on the use of funds. It is difficult for them to integrate a gender perspective or hire a sexual and reproductive health expert (if necessary) after signing the agreement without informing the donor and/or start over the concept paper process and justify how necessary the funds or budget realignment is. Even though international organizations have integrated gender to their agenda for a while, they still allocate very little funding to more in-depth expertise or projects in the field. When they decide to integrate a gender perspective even if they do not have the means or the expertise, they have to give up internal and administrative operating costs, thus threatening their sustainability. 

Donors’ conditionality in integrating gender for INGOs

When a new project is funded, the service provider implements the project according to the terms defined in the contract, and promises to respect its conditions. This also applies to gender, since, the NGO has to comply to the definition and goals defined by the donor and to give frequent reports. The contract defines the contributions, role, responsibilities and obligations of each party in the implementation of the project according to the awaited results without which they will not get further funding and/or the future funds will be blocked. The INGO has to conform and reflect the gender strategy wanted and advocated by its funder. Depending on the donors, reporting procedures can be more or less restrictive. For example, the UNHCR and the European Union have specific project reporting modalities and frameworks as well as variable gender evaluation criteria. When an organization multiplies funding on the same project, it has to juggle between very different gender indicators without the option to create its own framework because they have to report to the one financing.    

All of the donor’s track records state that gender reference tools and frameworks should be made available to partners so that they can integrate this strategy, in the same way as the donor in their humanitarian agenda, as any service provider that would complu with the requirement and terms of a contract.  

If one takes the example of UNICEF[5]United Nations Children’s Fund; United Nation agency founded in 1946 for the improvement and promotion for the condition of children.

in its Gender Programmatic Review, one can see that the agency has developed a 2018-2021 action plan to integrate gender equality in all programmatic results. In this regard, the organization has developed two key themes reflecting its priorities : equality between girls and boys in fighting discrimination in access to medical care and education, and fighting against gender-based violence and social determination of roles and each one’s place. The second theme is developed around assistance and support to all children, regardless of gender and age. UNICEF puts these directives at the heart of its strategy by integrating gender on all scales and encourages all its partners to integrate into their programs implementation and the deployment of their strategies through a standard framework that allows apprehending, in any given country, all problematics and consequences connected to gender in UNICEF’s focal areas.  

The organization then submit its partners to different modalities and tools to adopt their strategy and to produce narrative and financial monitoring and assessing reports in line with its reported framework.

Despite their desire for independence, impartiality and neutrality, INGOs are torn when responding to calls by donors with fixed political ideologies. They become the provider of oriented missions since most of them do not have their own funds and their funding mainly come from international donors. INGOs who have not already integrated gender are hindered.

The difficulty of writing project proposals and integrating gender expertise

When writing proposals to answer a call to tenders by a donor, the INGOs do not always have the technical personnel needed for the mission to bring a more precise and technical vision of gender stakes and gender equality. The program department has to provide all technical inputs. Projects are often centered on individuals’ essential and strategic needs, as seen in the first part of this article and leave little to no room for digging into the experts’ work.  

Donors want in-depth approaches, a certain gender expertise, results and a concrete and specific implementation of projects they support but do not give the organizations the means to reach these goals, especially in terms of gender

It still is difficult for an INGO to rise on top of the funding race when it has not freed itself from integrating gender. It has to make sure it has the expertise and necessary tools for analysis and interpretation of gender data. INGOs who have not integrated this approach at their headquarters’ level to guide field team in their job are left to their own devices. They therefore have to work with better equipped partners on the issue, and gain experience on the field to improve themselves through the feedback and recommendations of donors. 

Donors who have oriented their wishes and ideologies, suppose that NGOs have already mastered the savoir faire and are content by just implementing the general framework except the gender approach as a methodology implies specific knowledge and tools. It is not enough to just “do gender” and destroy data to improve gender equality. Ground work has to be implemented no matter if it is based on needs or rights, if an expert’s technique is not solicited, what is the real impact of humanitarian action? 

Therefore, there is a paradox between the donors’ position on gender and the real implementation of the process and methodology that allow a concrete integration of gender in the humanitarian agenda. Even if organizations want to integrate that problematic in their programs, they would not be able to do so and would face financial and time constraints that would weigh on their behavior and the way they take into account the problematic. This shows an appalling difference of discourse from those same donors who say they are activists for gender equality in humanitarian programs, but are keeping an investment logic. 

Actors are not ill-willed but the donors’ imposed procedures are so heavy and demanding of good results that efficiency and quickness in implementing actions while being accountable for the use of funding and the progress of activities is too possible. The tools given by the European Union for example remain objective, economic, performance indicators but that are disconnected from the details and complexity of gender perspectives. Once again, the donors’ engagement paradox on gender equality puts a brake on getting to the bottom of the theme by the organization they fund. 

The organization is sensitized but as of today, its financial dependence from institutional donors is so high that they have to integrate these questions to their strategies or do the bare minimum to not lose the funding. The competition is getting harder and harder and one can wonder if the interests and ideologies are created and manipulated, then the humanitarian organizations would lose their raison d’être to become puppets in the hands of the funders of financial and development aid because “whoever pays decides”. 


conclusion, the INGOs’ dependence from donors characterizes the nature of their relationship, even more so when they are institutional donors and have an influence on the preparation and implementation of projects, and, on a larger scale, on the NGOs humanitarian agenda, especially in terms of gender. 

They impose their conception of the notion of gender, the criteria that they want to put forward, the type of project, the thoroughness of the gender analysis but also the tools and indicators of evaluation and monitoring. They control the realization of the projects they fund through constant reporting and conditionality of disbursement of funding tranches according to the obtained results. If they do not give the means to lead a reflection and thorough research in terms of gender, donors expect to receive a detailed analysis that matches the goals put forward in the international agenda. They impose a framework, monitoring and rules without necessarily giving the means to achieve them.  

Therefore, this asymmetry of power has consequences on the autonomy and strength of INGOs because they depend on institutional resources, they cannot invest in research and the development of qualified personnel with the required technical skills. Administrative costs are just about covered by donors and if the technical intervention has no direct connection to the project, the INGO has little to no influence to convince them to fund this cost. At the same time, the multiplication of short funding periods and high demands prevent INGOs from diversifying their resources, pushing them to focus on spending that will guarantee their survival and, maybe in the end, diverts them from their main mission, and/or negatively impact their long-term previsions. Although ambitious and eager to integrate gender into their agenda, INGOs are facing many obstacles, which appear to be primarily financial.

If, in the first part, we have seen that INGOs were swept by the institutional political wave and had not created the tools and manuals for integrating gender, we can once again see that international organizations are in charge. Whether they like it or not, INGOs have to integrate gender in their projects to ensure their sustainability but also have to submit a set of procedures and tools backed by funding. An INGO’s freedom and its degree of commitment to gender are ineluctably linked to their financial independence and their independence from governmental institutions.


  • Institutional sources :

DG ECHO, European Commission, « La question du genre dans l’aide humanitaire : Besoins différents, assistance adaptée (SWD (2013) 290 final »

UNICEF, Gender Action Plan, 2018-2021

  • Academic sources:

Brinkerhoff, Jennifer M., Partnership for International Development : Rhetoric or Results ? Boulder, CO : Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002

Brunel, Sylvie, « L’humanitaire, nouvel acteur des relations internationales », Revue internationale et stratégique 2001/1 (n° 41), p. 93-110. DOI 10.3917/ris.041.0093

Comité québécois femmes et développement de l’Association québécoise des organismes de coopération internationale – AQOCI, « L’institutionnalisation du genre : De la conceptualisation théorique à la mise en pratique », May 2008

Coordination Sud, « Accéder aux financements : les financements publics français. Comité interministériel d’aide alimentaire (CIAA) » published in 2015

Dauvin, Pascal. « Être un professionnel de l’humanitaire ou comment composer avec le cadre imposé », Revue Tiers Monde, vol. 180, no. 4, 2004, pp. 825-840.

DiMaggio, Paul Joseph, « Interest and agency in institutional theory » in L.G. Zucker (ed.), Institutional patterns and organizations culture and environment, . Cambridge, Massachusetts : Ballinger Publishing Co. 1988, pp 3-21v

Elbers Willem, Arts Bas, « Comment joindre les deux bouts : les réponses stratégiques des ONG du Sud aux conditions imposées par les de fonds », Revue Internationale des Sciences Administratives, 2011/4 (Vol. 77), p. 743-764. DOI : 10.3917/risa.774.0743. URL :

Elbers, Willem and Arts, Bas,  « Comment joindre les deux bouts : les réponses stratégiques des ONG du Sud aux conditions imposées par les de fonds », Revue Internationale des Sciences Administratives 2011/4 (Vol. 77), p. 743-764. DOI 10.3917/risa.774.0743

Fowler, Alan, The Virtuous Spiral : A Guide to Sustainability for NGOs in International Development, London : Earthscan, 2000(a)

Hessel, Stéphane, « À quoi sert l’ONU ? », Le journal de l’école de Paris du management, vol. 68, no. 6, 2007, pp. 16-23.

Hudock, Ann (1995) « Sustaining Southern NGO’s in resource-dependent environments »Journal of International Development 7(4) : 653-667.

Le Naëlou, Anne, « Pour comprendre la professionnalisation dans les ONG : quelques apports d’une sociologie des professions », Revue Tiers Monde, vol. 180, no. 4, 2004, pp. 773-798.

  • Manuals

Manuel Gestion du Cycle de projet, Europaid, version mars 2001, p. 24 (

The Sphere Project: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, Protection Principles. PracticalAction Publishing. Bourton on Dunsmore, UK, 2011

Women, Girls, Boys & Men, Different Needs – Equal Opportunities, a Gender Handbook for Humanitarian Action, IASC; Gender Handbook for Humanitarian Action, 2017

To cite this article: Aidalaye DIOP, “Integrating a gender perspective in international NGOs’ humanitarian operations 2/2”, February 26, 2021, Gender Institute in Geopolitics


1 Sylvie Brunel, « L’humanitaire, nouvel acteur des relations internationales », Revue internationale et stratégique, no. 41, Jan. 2001, p. 93-110. DOI 10.3917/ris.041.0093
2 Elbers Willem, Arts Bas, « Comment joindre les deux bouts : les réponses stratégiques des ONG du Sud aux conditions imposées par les de fonds », Revue Internationale des Sciences Administratives, Vol. 77, April 2011, p. 743-764. DOI : 10.3917/risa.774.0743. Available on:
3 Dauvin, Pascal. « Être un professionnel de l’humanitaire ou comment composer avec le cadre imposé », Revue Tiers Monde, vol. 180, no. 4, 2004, pp. 825-840.
4 Anne Le Naëlou, « Pour comprendre la professionnalisation dans les ONG : quelques apports d’une sociologie des professions », Revue Tiers Monde, vol. 180, no. 4, 2004, pp. 773-798
5 United Nations Children’s Fund; United Nation agency founded in 1946 for the improvement and promotion for the condition of children.