Reaching out to ‘the furthest behind first’? Gender & Social Inclusion in Practice

FROM: Zenebe B. Uraguchi, Marcus Jenal – 05. February 2020

Is it possible to achieve a better future for all? Good question, but hard to deliver in practice. It’s easy to be skeptical about inclusive development. Call us naïve, but we strive and innovate to put inclusive local actions at the center of the regional and global development agenda.

There’s a growing body of evidence on how exclusion leads to economic and social ills. On the flip side, inclusive development is a proven driver of vitality and prosperity for all – with a potential of creating thriving communities, as well as better ideas and innovations.

As part of our efforts to improve the employment perspectives for youth, 36 development professionals from six projects in Eastern Europe gathered at the end of January in Belgrade for an Outcome Harvesting workshop. One of the topics discussed was assessing changes in gender and social inclusion and understanding the contributions of the projects to these changes.

Overall, we’re happy about the progress towards inclusive development.

Why working in an inclusive way matters    

Are inclusive development and achieving economic growth mutually exclusive goals? Some development projects seem to think so, and hence they choose or prioritize the one over the other as their main goal. Often, they then pursue parallel approaches – one for ‘reachable groups’ and another for ‘disadvantaged and excluded’ groups. This means treating inclusiveness and growth as two different aspects of development.  

What we’ve learnt from the Outcome Harvesting data from the projects in Eastern Europe challenges such an approach. Put simply, the experiences of projects in Eastern Europe show that inclusiveness is at the heart of shared prosperity. Previous external reviews as well as regular internal strategic reviews (based on monitoring and results measurement data) have confirmed that gains from innovative business models facilitated by the projects were built on contributing to inclusive labor market systems.

At the same time, we need to be honest and recognize when market system development is the best and most realistic way to make meaningful impacts on the lives of disadvantaged and excluded groups, and when not. While there aren’t ‘ready-made solutions’ to exclusion and poverty, the projects in Eastern Europe have invested in substantial efforts and resources and consequently made good progress in including women and other social groups in labor market systems. For the projects, being inclusive goes beyond the moral imperative of ‘doing good’. It’s a fundamental ingredient to achieving growth and wellbeing.

The work of the projects in Eastern Europe also shows that gender and social inclusion isn’t simply aiming for equal numbers of men and women and social groups in all interventions of projects or treating them in the same way. Rather, the projects seek to understand better what the key institutional barriers to inclusion are and design solutions to facilitate transformative changes – in the behavior, relationships, actions, activities, policies, or practices of an individual, group, community, organization, or institution. This, in turn, requires clear vision and practical strategies from the outset.

Pathways to inclusion

During the Outcome Harvesting workshop in Belgrade, we identified three key elements of discovering successful pathways to social inclusion.

Knowing the disadvantaged and the excluded  

Projects start their interventions by defining disadvantaged and excluded groups and understanding their barriers. Groups who are disadvantaged and excluded are heterogeneous – women, ethnic minorities, internal migrants, living in remote areas, with disability and others.

Asking the right questions helps identifying the social norms, processes and mechanisms that prevent these groups from accessing opportunities they need in order to get out of exclusion and poverty, and the implications of this for communities’ wellbeing.

Inclusion by design: targeting

Knowing disadvantaged and excluded groups is half the work done. Figuring out exactly how to target them is also crucial. The reason is obvious: unemployment and poverty reduction strategies are likely to fail to reach disadvantaged and excluded groups unless they’re specifically designed to do so (i.e. ‘inclusion by design’).

One of our key questions in the Outcome Harvesting workshop was: how does targeting work? This led us identifying three pathways:

  • Working in diverse sectors: this isn’t just done randomly. Selection of sectors such as ICT, tourism or agribusiness consider if a sector is relevant and offers opportunities to women, Roma communities, internal migrants and disabled youth. For example, Risi Albania has raised awareness of ICT Academy to understand the importance of inclusion of marginalized groups in ICT and to design courses to make inclusion possible.
  • Geographical targeting: working in geographical areas where minority groups live together, allows targeting to be effective. For example, the municipality of Kamza in Albania has the largest number of internal migrants; Serbs in Kosovo live in municipalities like North Mitrovica. The use of IT solutions, such as job portals, also help targeting, as the EYE project in Kosovo did with encouraging the companies who run the portals to also offer Serbian as a language on these portals, thus, ensuring equal access to job information for the Serbian minority.  
  • Engaging those who have the power and leverage: including public and private sector as well as civil society and community leaders to work with groups who are vulnerable and at risk of exclusion. This includes formal institutions such as the legal system, and informal institutions (norms and traditions) that influence gender roles in society.

Reaching the ‘hard-to-reach’

Disadvantaged and excluded groups are more likely to be the least visible, often becoming just numbers in targets of projects. They’re also more likely to be poor, as they face institutional barriers. To cite an example from the different analyses of the projects in Eastern Europe, labor force participation of women and other disadvantaged social groups has remained lower, wage gaps are high, and they’re overwhelmingly in the informal sector.

The visions of the projects in Eastern Europe are for women and other disadvantaged group to be active agents of change, rather than passive ‘beneficiaries’ of development projects. The projects involve disadvantaged and excluded groups during the selection of sectors, as well as in the design and implementation of monitoring systems. Targets are disaggregated by sex and social groups. Simply stated, involving women and other social groups follows adopting a ‘nothing about them without them’ approach.

Also, projects regularly track whether initial successes of interventions addressing exclusion are linked to significant changes for disadvantaged and excluded groups. This includes monitoring and reporting if interventions uphold the ‘do no harm’ principle, ensuring that the interventions don’t exacerbate existing vulnerability and exclusion.  

Putting strategies to the test

Realities on the ground are often more nuanced and all the above will remain just wishes without a well-thought through course of action. From the Outcome Harvesting exercise, we’ve identified additional two practices that projects in Eastern have been developing for the past few years. These practices make the pathways that we discussed above more integrated into adaptive project implementation.  

The first one is the need for explicitly allocating resources, such as budgets and staff for implementation of interventions for gender and social inclusion. In practice, this means incorporating a gender and social inclusion perspective at all levels of the budgetary process.

The EYE project has a Minority & Vulnerable Group Fund. Both Risi and EYE have dedicated staff for GSI. A twin track approach exists to design and carry out interventions — mainstreaming gender and social inclusion throughout every intervention and having sets of activities that specifically address women or other disadvantaged social groups. The interventions focus on policy areas (e.g. childcare, work conditions), social awareness (including knowing rights), and the business case for hiring women and other social groups. A good example is the work of Prishtina Consulting Group (PCG) in Kosovo that uses mobile apps and platforms for job matching services linking Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities with employers.

The second is having shared understanding among staff and partners on how exclusion happens and how development interventions can overcome exclusion. This’s a key plank for translating programmatic strategies and concepts into operational plans, such as yearly plans of operation (YPOs), annual staff recruitments, appraisals and training, as well as selection and engagement of partners.


Six years of testing ideas on gender and social inclusion in Eastern Europe suggest that inclusion isn’t just a moral imperative and social obligation; it’s also overwhelmingly an important policy and business case.

Data on exclusion are clear and sobering. Yet, progress at the local level is promising towards achieving the noble goal of ‘leaving no one behind’. Going back to the question ‘is it possible to achieve a better future for all?’, the not so secret but often elusive answers are: a) clear vision and doable strategies, b) explicit allocation of resources, and c) nurturing of shared understanding and linkages to adaptive operational actions.

Additional sources


Cover picture: Helvetas 


Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies
Marcus Jenal has been working in economic development for more than ten years. He started consulting in 2011 and is now a partner of the international consultancy Mesopartner. Marcus’ work has a particular focus on gaining a better understanding of economic systems and options to shape their evolution in a positive way. He also developed approaches to monitor and evaluate programmes that are facing uncertainties and complexity. He provides strategic advice to organisations and programmes on developing strategies and processes of discovery and sensemaking in complex and challenging contexts and is also an active researcher aiming to apply new economic theories to development.