Brown University

How Can Donor Organizations Improve Women’s Political Participation? by Talia Brenner @Brown University

It’s common to see education initiatives, particularly those from multilateral aid organizations and NGOs, depicted as a panacea for democratic backsliding. Among these international organizations, women’s education especially has become depicted as a magic pill of sorts for democracy’s woes. This characterization comes across in studies such as this one, as well as in political rhetoric: “education is key,” “when women succeed, we all succeed,” and so forth.

Education, however, is no panacea for democratic erosion. There is no panacea at all for democratic erosion; the forces degrading democracy are too complex. Education initiatives are not a quick fix even for gendered oppression in democracies. A closer look at education and gender equity in Mongolia shows that women can indeed be highly educated and still lack concrete political power, and that the solution is more complicated than we may have initially thought.

Mongolia became a Soviet satellite republic in 1924 and remained so until pro-democracy protests starting in the late 1980s culminated in the country’s first multiparty elections in 1990. For most of the twentieth century, Mongolia’s communist government was modeled on the Soviet system. Soviet-sponsored public schools led to high literacy rates compared to the rest of Central Asia.

Since the beginning of its democratic consolidation in 1990, Mongolia has seen a feminization of education, where women are far more likely than men to complete higher education. This phenomenon is largely due to financial hardship that increases pressure on men to find paying work from young ages.

Despite high levels of education, however, women are extremely underrepresented in elected government positions. In the 2016 elections for the State Great Hural, Mongolia’s unicameral federal legislature, women comprised 25.9% of candidates running for office, and only 17.11% of those elected.

This trend shouldn’t be too surprising. Women are underrepresented in many national governments despite their high educational achievement. There are scores of reasons for this underrepresentation, and the phenomenon is certainly not isolated to Mongolia. Percentages of women representatives in the U.S. Congress, for instance, aren’t much higher.

It is clear, then, that education alone does not ensure women’s equal participation in government. And make no mistake: the underrepresentation of women among elected officials is a strike against the quality of a country’s democracy. It does not matter here whether the barriers that women face in equal government participation are formal or informal. Female citizens have disproportionately little power than would be expected given their percentage of the population and degree of qualification for government positions. Were these women men, they would likely not face the same sort of barriers.

Yet the international focus remains on initiatives for women’s education. Asian Development Bank, one of the most active aid organizations in Mongolia, continues to sponsor projects such as the recent development of an education sector master plan, which claims to prioritize gender equity. ADB does not cite democracy as a goal of this education plan, but strengthening democracy is one of the organization’s broad objectives, as with UNDP and the World Bank.

This is not to say that foreign aid agencies shouldn’t try to contribute to alleviating gender inequality and funding women’s education. Mongolia’s education system certainly isn’t perfect, and foreign donors have likely provided some improvements to the school system. Foreign aid for hard infrastructure projects has also hardly been unilaterally successful, and cannot be assumed to always be a better option.

Since education is not the magic pill to improving women’s political power, where else can donor organizations focus?

  1. Patronage networks. Mongolian administrative systems have traditionally been defined by clientelism, and patronage networks predominate at the federal level. We could expect underrepresentation in elected positions to deviate from trends about underrepresentation in appointed positions, since voting is freely determined by the entire electorate, not a few people—and Mongolia does have free elections. The assumption, however, that free and fair elections will lead to equitable rates of election across demographic divides overlooks the degree to which patronage networks can influence elections that are technically free and fair. Accordingly, Elin Bjarnegård and Meryl Kenny, in “Revealing the ‘Secret Garden,’” discuss the ways that informal party practices lead to discrimination against women in political recruitment. With improved transparency, women’s political participation would likely improve.
  1. Cultural attitudes and economic challenges. As in many other countries, women face persisting ideas about gender roles that prevent both voters and potential candidates from seeing women as fit for political office. Women who work outside the home usually deal with disproportionately low wages and poor working conditions, with little power to negotiate. This demanding work can hamper women’s ability to participate in politics. The burden of domestic work, exacerbated by Mongolia’s series of financial downturns, further block women from achieving political power. Men appear to be the main victims of these financial crises, since they primarily face the pressure to find paying work outside the home. These metrics, however, ignore the amount of unpaid domestic work that women are expected to do, especially in times of hardship when men work outside the home. Economic relief from aid organizations, then, would help free women from some of these constraints.

Donor organizations may not actually be trying and failing to interpret challenges to democracy. Gita Steiner-Khamsi comments in an article on “donor logic” that aid organizations’ allocation of resources more often reflects organizational capabilities than it does organizations’ perceptions of local needs. Still, it is clear that women’s education initiatives need to move beyond broad rhetoric about “empowerment,” and expand the channels for increasing women’s political representation from women’s education alone. Democracy will likely benefit.


Photo by Mongolian Parliament. (

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