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Q&A: Embracing equity in international development

[Editor’s Note: For International Women’s Day this year, we interviewed several women at R4D and close partner organizations, including CERRHUD and Comité des Jeunes Mon Avenir d’Abord (CJMAD). In this post, they share what equity means to them, advice for women aspiring to work in international development, and female leaders that inspire them.]

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is “Embrace Equity.” What does this mean to you?

Gina Lagomarsino, R4D president & CEO, US

I think about equity in two different ways. All of R4D’s work to strengthen systems for health, education and nutrition is focused on ensuring equitable access to services for people in the countries where we work, especially for women and marginalized communities.

I am also very motivated to improve equity within our field of global development. Decisions about priorities and allocation of funding should be made by the people closest to the challenges. And our work should be in service of the people who are leading change in their own communities, rather than in response to external stakeholders.

Christina Synowiec, practice lead, Evaluation & Adaptive Learning, US

Equity can play out through our work in a number of different ways. On the Evaluation and Adaptive Learning team and in our organization — R4D — there’s ensuring that we have equity on our team. We have tried to build an inclusive team environment that looks beyond just gender diversity. There’s building out equity into our approach to our work — reflected in who we work with and how we work with others. And there’s using our work to test and measure the effects of different approaches to development goals around equity.

Dr. Kéfilath Bello, deputy director, CERRHUD, Benin

For me, equity is related to how we ensure that everyone has access to what they need to live their lives in a healthy and fulfilling way. In our work on universal health coverage, we support policymakers, civil society actors and other key stakeholders to make decisions based on the people’s needs. We also support them to improve the distribution of resources for more equitable access to health. This year’s International Women’s Day theme reminds us that promoting the well-being of women and girls not only reduces gender inequalities but also leads to better life for the whole family and the whole society.

Dr. Kéfilath Bello is Deputy Director at CERRHUD, based in Cotonou, Benin. In this capacity, she works closely with R4D on the USAID-funded Health Systems Strengthening Accelerator project in Togo and Benin to advance universal health coverage. She is also a technical referent for the SPARC project. Previously, she supported the R4D-led ACS project.

Dr. Linda Vanotoo, senior program director, community and primary health workforce, US

To me, embracing equity means making equity an integral part of everything that is planned or shared for a large group of people, especially women. In other words, it should be what is referred to as a “public good.”  Most of the time, people look at those who do not have much (mainly women) and try to give them portions of what is available. In my opinion, those who are seen to be “disadvantaged” (mainly women) should have a say in what equity means to them. This may be challenging, but they should be empowered to know when things are not equitably distributed and voice out their disapproval. Leaders and policymakers should consider equity in the development of policies, distribution of resources (not just funding) and evaluation of outcomes. In short, embracing equity is equivalent to putting human rights issues at the fore of policy development and implementation and getting feedback from the less endowed (women and others) to assess impact.

Lior Miller, program director, health, US

To me, embracing equity is all about recognizing that when we promote the social, economic, cultural, and political advancement of women and girls, we are fostering healthier, more prosperous communities for everyone. In the programs we work on as part of the R4D-led Health Systems Strengthening Accelerator (Accelerator) project, we find that women’s participation and leadership in policy and decision-making dialogues, such as advancing universal health coverage strategies in Togo and community health policy and routine immunization in Guinea, leads to more innovative thinking and effective solutions. In Guinea, our local partners insist on all teams, be it civil society members advocating for community health financing, or implementation research teams, have gender parity at a minimum. We can and must do the same if, as a sector, we want to achieve lasting change.

Mariama Kouyate, M&E specialist, Comité des Jeunes Mon Avenir d’Abord (CJMAD), Guinea

For me, embracing equity means fostering a climate that allows women to flourish in health, financial autonomy, and decision-making power. At CJMAD, the activities we worked on within the framework of the Accelerator project in Guinea — financed by USAID and led by R4D — equity is put to good use for the performance of project activities. In implementing activities related to advocacy for payment of community health workers and social mobilization to support routine immunization, gender parity was used in team selection. We can achieve lasting change by prioritizing equity in implementing all our projects.

Mariama Kouyate is an M&E Specialist with Comité des Jeunes, Mon Avenir d’Abord (CJMAD, or My Future First Youth Committee), based out of Conakry, Guinea. CJMAD is a key partner on R4D’s USAID-funded Health Systems Strengthening Accelerator project in Guinea. In Guinea, the Accelerator supports the government’s efforts to effectively implement the community health policy to ultimately help improve health outcomes.

Oluwafeyikemi Adeniyi, senior program associate, Nigeria

I believe embracing equity is understanding the importance of the potentials women and girls can contribute to ALL aspect of our communities just like men. An adage says, if you train a girl, you train a nation…this goes a long way in explaining the exponential effect women have in the community.

My work has given me the opportunity to work with women from diverse backgrounds — research, healthcare financing, health system strengthening, leadership forum, health advocacy, market shaping, etc. All these women contribute innovative ideas that help solve deep-seated challenges that our different projects tackle — thereby making our society better for it. Personally, as a first-time working mom, I am glad that my workplace embraced baby friendly initiatives that have helped ease my work which translates to increased motivation for better productivity.

Yewedalem (Yodi) Tesfaye, associate director, Ethiopia

To me, embracing equity in the workplace is getting equal treatment like anyone in the environment — without my gender taken into consideration as a factor for my success or failure. When I try to define embracing equity in the country I am living in, I strongly believe in creating an enabling environment for the women. They go through many obstacles and have many responsibilities at the household level. Our society pust a lot of burden/responsibilities on women’s shoulders.

What advice do you have for younger women who aspire to work in international development?


Global development is a field that relies on partnerships. So make lots of professional friends across the globe and work to maintain genuine friendships over the long term. These friendships will ultimately help you professionally…and make work more fun and meaningful.

This work is difficult, and sometimes we all wonder if we are really having an impact. Try not to get too jaded. Maintain your idealism while recognizing the need to be realistic about what you can’t control. Take note of and appreciate small accomplishments…little bits of impact add up over time. And think of your work over your career as a portfolio. Some things will fail, some will succeed. It will likely be a positive balance in the end.


There’s a lot of pressure to balance it all (if you’ve read Lean In, you know what I mean) that falls squarely on the shoulders of women. My biggest advice would be to learn to trust yourself and give yourself grace in the midst of all that pressure. Find the people who will be your supports and provide safety for you — and lean on them through the good and the bad times.

Dr. Bello

Believe in yourself, only the sky can be your limit. You have a lot to offer because women working in health has proven that they positively impact the populations’ health outcomes. Keep an open mind, learn and share with others. Collaborate with other women but also with men, because partnership is key in addressing women’s specific needs in global health. Finally, love yourself and take care of yourself; this will help you do your work better.

Dr. Vanotoo

Go for it with the desire to make an impact. Be well equipped to contribute to policies and discussions that address global challenges with workable solutions. Invest effort, time and money in developing yourself to be considered for positions NOT because you are a woman BUT because you have what it takes to be in the position you aspire to occupy. Be well informed about global issues beyond their areas of interest/focus. Be good communicators and create a path that can easily be assessed. Consider yourself as part of the global community that is ready to make an impact in the lives of all people irrespective of geographical location. Be ready to stand up for what is right.


Globally, we see that global health is delivered by women, but led by men (WHO, 2019), and this is often true of the wider global development space as well and intersects with other forms of inequality in development, including the need to decolonize global health. We are counting on you, and our male colleagues, to contest the gendered leadership gap by not only entering the global development workforce but transforming it! I encourage you to challenge the status quo and to bring in new perspectives and voices.


Today, we can see an increase in women’s educational attainment and labor force participation rates worldwide. Still, most women continue to be victims of inequality and rarely break through the so-called “glass ceiling” in many areas, including global health. Young women continue to struggle and show leadership to overcome this gender inequality and remain persistent.


The world itself is a global village, so to be involved in global development, networking is VERY important. This skill is one that has been mastered by those that we see as successful in this age. Another key element is being open, this is because you’d meet with persons with differing opinions and perspectives, but the way one can navigate receiving them either with iterations or not does go a long way in developing yourself professionally.


Globally, I believe on women of all ages who have access to better opportunities should advocate for women in low- and middle-income countries. They should help to influence policymaking. Governments should adopt or design policies that help women address their household challenges and obstacles, and help women get more time to focus on their professional and personal development. To work in international development, you should understand major obstacles in each country with different contexts (could be sometimes cultural, religious, etc) and design interventions that help to improve women’s engagement in politics, economics and social responsibilities.

Which female leaders have inspired you?


  • Madeleine Albright — I never had a chance to meet her, but was inspired by her memoir, where she opened up about the rewards and challenges of her role as the first female Secretary of State.
  • Dr. Ngozi Ikonjo-Iweala, now head of the World Trade Organization, former Nigerian finance minister, former World Bank managing director, one of our founding R4D board members.
  • All of the impressive women on who are serving/have served on R4D’s board of directors, including: Carla Anderson Hills, chairman and CEO of Hills & Company, International Consultants; Fola Laoye, co-founder and CEO of Iwosan; Loyce Pace, assistant secretary in the Office of Global Affairs for the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services; Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi, executive vice president of the African Center for Economic Transformation; Dr. Mariam Claeson, former director of the Global Financing Facility for Every Woman Every Child at the World Bank; Dr. Nneka Mobisson, CEO of mDoc; Rosalind Kainyah, founder and managing director of Kina Advisory; Dr. Sania Nishtar, founder and president of Heartfile; and Dr. Wangari Ng’ang’a, senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • Female peer CEOs I’ve had the privilege of getting to know, such as: Caroline Anstey (PACT); Emily Bancroft (VillageReach); Lisha McCormick (LastMileHealth); Margaret Crotty (JSI); Ruth Levine (IDInsight); Tjada McKenna (MercyCorps); Wendy Kopp (Teach for All)…and others!


Honestly? The working caretakers at R4D that made it through the pandemic. Balancing taking care of children with working full time in the middle of COVID-19 was something that no one could have anticipated, and it stretched caretakers to their full mental and emotional limits. I look back on 2020 with such affection and appreciation for the folks who gave me a shoulder to lean on, who served as examples of how to be open and honest while pushing forward. I am in awe of all that we got through and truly see these female leaders as my inspiration.

Dr. Bello

There are plenty of them! I particularly admire women who work with dedication, courage and love to serve their family and their society.

  • All Beninese and more broadly African women who work daily in our markets, streets, and small shops to provide all population with goods of first necessity. They courageously wake up every morning and work all day to provide food and care for their family and community members.
  • Angelique Kidjo is an international singer from Benin. She won five Grammy awards and is among the most famous personalities of the world. But I particularly appreciate four things from her: her hard work to bring perfection in her songs, the way she promotes African culture, the many ways she helps young artists in their work, and the ways she promotes the rights of children.
  • Allison Kelley, senior health economist, is a mentor for me and I have learned so many things from her in relation to health financing and health governance. But beyond that, she is among the first women who showed me that you can thrive as a woman in the research and health policy world.
  • Sourou Goufodji and Lydie Kanhonou are former managers of my research center CERRHUD who gave me a chance to start in the public health work, and they fought to ensure that younger women like me and my colleagues can find our way in the national and international research environment.
  • Asha George is a professor in health systems, complexity and social change. Her work undoubtedly contributes to better equity for female health workers and for promoting gender equalities in general. She is also a wonderful mentor and she faithfully support young women and men to advance their carrier in global health.
  • Lior Miller, a program director at R4D, amazes me every day by her people-centered leadership and by showing that a good program management does not prevent responsiveness to countries’ needs.
  • All my female colleagues at CERRHUD. Despite all the efforts made to improve our work environment, life is not easy for a female researcher or global health worker in Benin. My colleagues manage to stay engaged, innovative and productive despite the challenges.

Dr. Vanotoo

The first person who inspired me was my mother. She taught all her children to be diligent in what we do (with support from our dad). I learned how to live in harmony with people from different walks of life. I honor her as a leader in her own right.

The other woman who has inspired me is the pediatrician I worked with many years ago. She had patience for the children and gave me an opportunity to develop my leadership skills early on in my professional work when I worked under her supervision.

Globally, I have been inspired by former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, for taking up that position in a country that had gone through a lot of civil challenges with the determination to help build up the country and give it a global name that was different from the previous description of “war-torn country.” It takes a strong, empowered and liberated woman to do that.


I am awe-inspired by many leaders who work on the nexus of policy, advocacy, activism, programming, and research in many diverse fields. To highlight a few:

  • Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai, the first African female Nobel Peace Prize winner from Kenya, who was one of the first to draw the linkages between climate change, human rights, and gender and launched the Green Belt movement in her country.
  • Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nobel Peace Prize winner, former President of Liberia, and member of the Elders, who continues to promote peace, women’s rights, and community health financing.
  • Dr, Mary Ellsberg, founding director of the Global Women’s Institute, whose research and activism in Nicaragua demonstrated that new laws, awareness campaigns, and sustained efforts from civil society and government dramatically decreased violence against women by half, and who led a ground-breaking WHO multi-country study on violence against women, calling attention to this long overlooked human rights and development issue.
  • Dr. Kéfilath Bello, co-Executive Director at R4D’s partner organization, the Centre de Recherche en Reproduction Humaine et en Démographie (CERRHUD), who leads innovative policy and programming work in Benin and Togo to accelerate progress towards universal health coverage.
  • The unsung heroes: volunteer community health workers, who are overwhelmingly female and often unpaid, who provide essential health services in their communities.
  • Last, on a very personal level, I’m inspired by and strive to honor the legacy of my grandmother, Edvige Schonfeld. A Holocaust survivor, she demonstrated courage in the face of devastating adversity, and inspired a deep commitment to social justice in her children and grandchildren.

These are just some of the women who inspire me and countless others.


Hadja Saran Daraba Kaba, Guinean politician and founder of the Mano River Union Women’s Network for Peace. Makalé Traoré, the Guinean politician, committed for several years to women’s empowerment, the fight against violence against women and girls, rape of young girls, youth employability, and the promotion of peace. Her Excellency Sylvie Kinigi, a Burundian politician who promulgated peace after a coup in her country. Her Excellency Rose Francine Rogombe, a Gabonese politician who established peace in her country. Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, former President of Liberia, and member of the Elders continue to promote peace, women’s rights, and community health financing. 


The Late Dr. Dora Nkem Akunyili, former director general of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control of Nigeria from 2001-2008. I first heard of her when I was in primary school (I used to cast news on the assembly ground) and I found myself looking forward to the next big thing she would do in the news. She was indeed a force to reckon with.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, head of the World Trade Organization, former minister of finance in Nigeria and former managing director at the World Bank. She is one of women that has broken the status quo and pushed the limits for Nigerian women and others in the world at large. We CAN do it too!

Oprah Winfrey (the most famous TV interviewer and one of the richest black women in the world) To know me is to embrace my love for communication arts and she has set a high pedestal of what is achievable in that regard.


Dr. Eleni Gebremedhin, founder of many organizations in Ethiopia, example for global and country level women empowerment and success. Meaza Ashenafi — she was appointed by the Federal Parliamentary Assembly as President of the Federal Supreme Court of Ethiopia until her resignation.

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