The decision of the Minister of Culture to stop funding for the library and knowledge center of KVINFO contradicts the role Denmark has decided to play globally in the area of gender equality. This is sad.

This article was first published as an op-ed in the major Danish daily newspaper Politiken on 30 March 2017.

the young democracy of bhutan

Certain experiences in your life will forever be recorded in your memory. Maybe because circumstances will only allow you to experience it once in a lifetime. Maybe because the experience is so unique for reasons having to do with basic human, cultural, moral and similar reasons.

A public debate has started about what KVINFO as an institution should and should not be doing, and this has motivated me to share a few unique experiences. I hope that they can contribute to a broader understanding of why heads of government, politicians, researchers and activists around the world believe that Denmark is a ’role model’ in the field of gender equality.

We start at the foot of the Himalaya mountains, in the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan, in March 2012. A few years earlier, the King told his people that he had decided to ‘hand back’ democracy to them, although many were far from convinced about the wisdom of this idea. After all, things were just fine as they were, with the King at the helm. With political parties entering the political scene, things would just end up in disagreements.

Political parties competed for the first time in the parliamentary elections in 2008, and in 2011 elections for municipal councils took place. Women ran in both elections, but only a few were elected. There is no doubt that women in Bhutan are very powerful in many respects, and they enjoy equal rights with men. However, it was a new phenomenon for women to participate in politics.

As the Director for the newly established Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy (DIPD), I was responsible for Bhutan, and the Board had decided that we would start out with support for women participation in politics, both at national and municipal levels. This was an area where Danish expertise could be useful.

Following months of detailed studies and communication with relevant stakeholders, we suggested to establish a platform, where women could share experiences, be educated to run an election campaign, communicate with voters, and much more. The platform should not be interpreted as a critique of the state structures, but rather as a way for women to cooperate with the authorities, based on their own ideas, which is a tradition in Denmark. It should also be remembered that Bhutan is a rather centralised society, with clear and hierarchical decision-making structures.

This was the background for my presence in a hotel in the western part of Bhutan in March of 2012. I wanted to participate in the first ever national meeting of women who had participated in the first democratic elections in 2008, as well as those elected for municipal councils in 2011. It was a truly historic meeting, with around 200 participants from all corners of the mountainous country.

sacrifices to participate

I was not the only Dane in the meeting. The former Director of KVINFO, Elisabeth Møller Jensen, had joined me. Partners in Bhutan, including the government and the relevant ministries, had requested a presentation of the ’Danish Model’ for gender participation in politics – a model often referred to by the present Prime Minister of Bhutan as the ’Hundred Year Model’.

My own institute and I personally did not have any particular expertise about gender equality, although I have worked with issues of women’s empowerment and gender eguality in the field for many decades. It was therefore natural to invite KVINFO to come on board, since KVINFO is the key hub for research, knowledge and communication about gender issues in Denmark.

It had been a long day, with numerous official speeches, also from Elisabeth and myself, presentations for working groups and reporting back on the conclusions from the working groups. We had never before seen such a level of energy and enthusiasm, once the women had been given a go ahead to share and discuss, and the joy of being able to discuss experiences, barriers and solutions among themselves. For most women, this was probably the first real conference they had ever participated in, and they were enjoying every moment of the day.

After dinner, we sitting in the living room of the hotel, allowing our heads and bodies to get some rest at an altitude of 2000 meters, enjoying a cup of tea. Then a large group of women started to dance spontaneously, moving around and around in a circle, singing in the local language, smiling and talking at the same time. Now and then women would break free from the circle and approach us, to talk and tell, with cheeks flushing and eyes smiling.

They would talk about the three days they had used to travel from their home in the mountains, walking along steep and narrow paths, to get on the bus that brought them to the hotel. Some women brought their toddler.

They would explain how this was their first opportunity in a lifetime to leave the village and get the opportunity to meet other women and share their experiences, a luxury of overwhelming and incomprehensible proportions.

They would let us know that when leaving tomorrow, they would spend another three days returning to the village and family, not knowing exactly how friends and family would react, since not all of them had been positive about going in the first place.

global exchange of experiences

Since this first meeting, the women have met regularly, organized by BNEW (Bhutan Network for Empowering Women). In the 2016 local elections, twice as many women were elected to office compared to the 2011 election. Around 3000 women had been trained to run for office, learning how to speak in meetings, what the role of an elected official is, how to represent your community, what it means to be active in a democracy.

This success should not be attributed to neither DIPD or KVINFO. It is primarily the result of hard work, strong commitment and amazing dedication by the women themselves. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the quality and credibility of information and advise from KVINFO has played a key role, as an inspiration and as a vision. This is in fact Danish development cooperation at its best – based on thoughtfulness, responsiveness and flexibility, and with an absence of finger pointing.

Both the Prime Minister of Bhutan and the first and only female Minister have confirmed this impression on several occasions over the years. The Minister has actually visited Denmark on several occasions, meeting with Danish ministers, MPs, mayors and KVINFO staff as well.

The impression was in a sense confirmed during the celebration of the 100 year anniversary of the 1915 Danish constitution that allowed women the right to vote. Together with KVINFO, DIPD organized a two-day conference in Copenhagen. More than a hundred women and men from around 20 developing countries – like Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar in Asia, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia in the Middle East, and Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe in Africa – to discuss common challenges that women around the world continue to be confronted with, when they wish to participate in politics on equal terms with men.

It can be discrimination towards female candidates, when political parties make decisions on who should benefit from funding to run a campaign.

It can be difficulties in having time enough to prepare for council meetings, when they also need to take care of children and housework.

It can be sexually oriented threats and direct violence levelled against female candidates, who dare stand up for women’s rights.

institutions make a difference

The most memorable and moving experience during the two days visit of our partners in Copenhagen was the participation in the march to Christiansborg, the Parliament, similar to the march than had taken place in 1915. Many Danes watching television that evening might remember the foreign songs and the dancing in the streets of Copenhagen, as if these guests from all corners of the world were celebrating their own right to vote and thus their full participation in their own democracy.

In a sense, this was also the case. Our partnership was not about money, but rather about travelling together through time and thought. It is not easy to establish such relationships, but really requires understanding and sensitivity based on decades of accumulated knowledge. Based on my experience working with KVINFO, this is a strength of KVINFO.

I have noted that the Minister of Culture, Mette Bock, states the following: ”The world is changing, and the struggle for gender equality takes many forms. Also new forms. The institution is not what is most important, but the results are.”

I can agree fully to the first part of the statement. My knowledge of KVINFO since its beginning as an institute in 1982 confirms that the changing environment has definitely impacted on the methods and approaches of KVINFO.

When I worked with gender equality at village level in Zimbabwe in the early 1990s, we did not know about the mentor-mentee approach developed by KVINFO later when working with women in Denmark belonging to different ethnic groups. Fortunately, when DIPD started working with women in politics in Tanzania and Malawi in 2014, we benefitted from the able leadership and knowledge of KVINFO. We did not ’export’ the Danish model, but we used it as an inspiration for our work in Africa.

This is actually what I would call ’globalisation with a human and Danish face’, and we need more of that type of globalisation.

The other part of the statement by the minister does not make sense, to be honest. Good institutions, working with clear strategies and a strong sense of priorities, resources and the right sequencing can actually produce strong and sustainable results. In fact, results do not suddenly come flying out of the sky. The Danish ‘Hundred Year Model’ is a testimony to this.

our democratic dialogue

This is not to argue that KVINFO should for time eternal remain with the same structure, mandate and strategy as it had when it was started. I have personally been responsible for institutions both in Denmark and internationally that had to undergo major transformations, at times because of external pressure, at times because it was deemed necessary by ourselves.

In general it is my experience that such transformations deliver the best results when they are based on an inclusive process and a mutually respectful dialogue. A directive from a Minister is neither inclusive nor respectful. And it is certainly not the Danish model for policy development and dialogue that I have been proud to use as inspiration for our partners around the world.

In recent years, we have seen many examples of governments around the world taking tough actions towards organisations and institutions in civil society, shrinking the space for what they are allowed to think and do. A key argument seems to be that such institutions are acting ’politically’, although the concept of ‘acting politically’ is rarely defined – apart of course from the understanding that you should not criticize or disagree with the government. Such governments will define everything they disagree with as ‘political propaganda’.

Whenever I received guests from abroad in my capacity as Director of the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy, I would talk about the nature of what could be called the Danish ’democratic culture’. This covers our parliament, political parties, labour unions, research institutions, think tanks, popular movements, people’s folk high schools, and the thousands of locally based associations.

Many of these organisations receive funding from the state – just like Danish political parties do to great extent in order to be able to function at all. I fully support such state funding. I believe that funding from the state is a ’public good’. I have always been proud to be able to argue that an organisation could receive state funding and still critize the government. Actually, this is the core of our democratic culture: we should all contribute with our ideas to make society move forward and develop, and at the same time we must challenge and hold those in power accountable.

It is therefore important to be levelheaded and maintain that state resources are shared resources, paid by all of us for the benefit of the common good. The resources do not belong to the government in a personal sense, allowing the government to spend the resources only for those purposes that they consider to be positive, withholding money if they consider an institution to deliver ’political propaganda’. We must protect the carefully developed democratic culture. That is why the choice of words is important, and it is even more important to remember if you are a member of parliament.

To label the information and knowledge coming from KVINFO as ‘propaganda’ is both unacceptable and incorrect.

let us think bigger!

Colleagues around the world who have heard about the decision of the Minister of Culture to cut funding for the research and library part of KVINFO have been surprised and sadness. Not only because of the way it has been handled (without inclusive and respectful dialogue), but also because they find it difficult to reconcile this approach with the policy of development cooperation pursued by the same government.

Many of these partners know Ulla Tørnæs from her first period as Minister for Development, when she advocated for the gender equality targets of the Millennium Development Goals for 2015. Today they appreciate that she is once again using her platform to advocate for gender equality in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. She is once again positioning Denmark as a leader for gender equality and the role of women.

However, they do not understand how the same government can ’sell’ gender equality to the rest of the world and simultaneously go on the warpath against KVINFO in Denmark. I do not understand it either!

Let us think bigger! Let us be proud of the great changest that the knowledge of KVINFO and the Danes in general can contribute to for women and men in such distant destinations as Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar, Jordan and Tunisia, and Tanzania and Malawi.