Charting Change
Charting Change
Charting Change
Charting Change

Technology and Innovation

A feminist approach to open government

Three experts discuss the role of women in making governments more inclusive, responsive and accountable

Posted by Niki Wilson on April 10, 2019

Nnenna Nwakanma (right) and a colleague outside the home of a woman named Fifa (middle) in Dakar, Senegal, in 2018. Fifa, a former associate mayor in Dakar and an advocate for people with disabilities, collaborated in the process that led to Senegal qualifying for the Open Government Partnership. (Photo: Aldi Diassé)

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is a platform through which almost 100 countries and subnational governments have agreed to make official, measurable commitments to improving government transparency, responsiveness, accountability and inclusion.

Yet despite this progressive agenda, only 25 of the 3,100 total commitments made so far take gender into account. “The OGP is an undertapped avenue to address a lot of the political, economic and social disparities that are faced by women and broader gender communities,” says Allison Merchant, senior gender advisor with the OGP and Results for Development, an international health-and-education NGO.  

That’s why IDRC, Results for Development and the OGP have developed the Feminist Open Government Initiative (FOGO), which helps promote the creation of gender-aware OGP commitments. FOGO is also tasked with conducting research that demonstrates how gender equality makes governments more responsive to their citizens, and in establishing an international coalition of partners to help drive gender equality in open government processes.

Here, Merchant and her fellow feminist open government advocates Nnenna Nwakanma, who is an interim policy director at the World Wide Web Foundation, and Portia Taylor, who is a senior policy analyst with the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat and served as part of Canada’s Open Government team, discuss what prevents women from participating in open government, how things can improve and why gender equity in governance is important.

On how current practices limit women’s participation in open government
PT: Government can be seen and experienced as a vault that opens only according to special codes, and when certain people are aligned and given the OK. Open government needs to speak more broadly to women and meet up with their realities. It should be a way of improving the lives of women by showing direct action on the ground on the things that matter to them.

NN: There are social barriers to women participating, because meetings are being held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., which are the times a woman needs to take care of her children and go to work. If open government programs aren’t reaching women where they live and work, then there’s no way they’re going to participate. Open government initiatives also need to be able to communicate to all women in their own languages. If they don’t, women won’t engage, participate or take ownership.

AM: One factor is that open government practices have not yet been intentionally inclusive. We have some really great partnerships and gender commitments, but they’ve been kind of ad hoc and organic. It’s been very much about having the right people at the right place at the right time, rather than having an intentional strategy around diversity and inclusion within stakeholder reforms, co-creation processes and implementation.

On how open government and the Open Government Partnership can be more inclusive for women
PT: It takes careful work. Not just because it requires a lot of effort, but because it requires collective effort and the acknowledgement that women are not a monolithic group of people. It’s about making sure that women of different sub-groups get honoured and integrated and included in a way that works for them. In my experience, open government is more obscure to people who aren’t white. If we want this to be a really reflective endeavour, it must welcome both the participation of people that are non-white, as well as good conversations between people of all ethnicities and cultures.

NN: In Cote D’Ivoire, consultations are happening across the country. When administrators do that — when they go to the people — you get better consultations, better conversations. If you bring that idea down to the subnational level, to the things that really matter to these women, then they’ll be engaged.

AM: The OGP is looking for opportunities that have women-specific commitments that also consider where and how gender factors into some of our biggest core thematic areas. For example, we have a number of extractive industry and natural resources commitments within the OGP, but we don’t currently have one that’s gender-related. That’s a problem. Take water. Globally, women and girls are the primary water collectors for their family. In African countries, women are five times more likely than men to collect drinking water for the household. So to consider a water commitment without consulting women misses out on one of the core communities that’s most affected.

Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand and an ambassador for the Open Government Partnership, explains why gender equality in open government is important. (Video: Open Government Partnership)

On how gender equity improves government
PT: It makes more sense because it more closely aligns with everyday reality. When any group of people are excluded from informing the way a government acts, that government is going to be a little bit warped about understanding how things really are on the ground.

NN: Women in politics are the strongest drivers of feminization. The higher a woman’s placement in administration or at the party level or in politics, the more they serve as voices for other women and as role models to encourage other women to engage.

AM: Gender equality in governance can lead to better policymaking and can accelerate social outcomes. For instance, investments in women’s educations and health demonstrably improve outcomes for children and households in society. Too often, though, we think of policy and government data as gender neutral. But if we don’t think of gender within some of these contexts, it doesn’t get factored into public policy — and that makes our policies less effective.

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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at

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