For too long, in a wide variety of forums, some voices get to be heard and others are not. The marginalised, the minorities, and the non-humans (i.e., nature) who make up, and are no less important contributors to the system in which we all live, work and play, are frequently absent from conversations concerning them. An overdue social correction has been the genuine effort to be inclusive. Two frameworks have been developed to help us to do that. The GEDSI and the GEMs.
In this short blog, we examine what GEDSI is and propose an alternative approach, the GEMs framework, which, we argue, is systemic and therefore a richer, ground-up process for the inclusion of human and non-humans taking context into account. Let’s start with a brief discussion of GEDSI first.
GEDSI stands for Gender, Equality, Diversity or Disability and Social Inclusion. It is a framework and approach used to promote fairness, equity, and inclusivity across various aspects of society, particularly in the context of organizational policies, programs, and initiatives. While not directly attributed to a single organization, GEDSI is commonly used by international development agencies, such as the United Nations (UN), World Bank, etc., and other non-profit organizations involved in development initiatives to actively involve and value diverse perspectives.
Understanding the GEDSI Framework
A brief search shows the earliest references to the term GEDSI appear to be around 2018, so it is a recent development but has quickly taken root across the NGO and corporate business worlds. Large multilateral agencies and NGOs alike, working in the international development sector and with funding from the Global North, employ GEDSI specialists to prioritise GEDSI analysis and concerns. GEDSI policies for the inclusion of people from marginalised or priority populations are proud public facing documents.
At the face of it, embedding a ‘GEDSI lens’ into program design, implementation and MEL planning and reporting is a good thing. It is beyond doubt that a range of people, who for too long have been excluded from the table, must be present. GEDSI policy and practice should be opening doors to resources, equal access, opportunities and rights for all individuals or groups, regardless of their differences, characteristics, or backgrounds. Society and business are all the richer for the inclusion of people from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures, and experiences, acknowledging the value of different perspectives, priorities, and ideas. But is that what GEDSI in practice really achieves?
The application of GEDSI is not without some important limitations. When organisations apply the term, one must ask who is defining and naming the relevant ‘gender, disability/diversity’ categories? Who is excluded by this practice? Are the rights of LGBTIQ people surfaced if it is against the dominant cultural norms and perhaps even government policy of a country? If these voices are included, does this increase their vulnerability and safety in their own culture? Are stateless people named when it does not suit a country to acknowledge they exist on their borders? How visible are young people living with neuro-diverse disabilities in rural and remote villages by the term ’disability’ which may be generalised to recognise only people with a physical disability? And when the pre-established categories are defined, how is this used?
What we are observing is that metrics are being developed for corporate accountability, to account for inclusion in a predictable and systematic sense. Broad labels are used to include a wide range of marginalized human identities, but this oversimplifies things and may end up leaving out the very representation one is trying to support and include.
Understanding the GEMs Framework
Now, let us turn to the GEMs framework. It was first published by UN Women in 2018 as part of a broader evaluation guidance called Inclusive Systemic Evaluation for Gender Equality, Environments and Marginalized voices ) (A. Stephens, E. D. Lewis, & S. M. Reddy, 2018). It is used primarily in monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) work and goes beyond social inclusion to include the marginalisation of non-human voices, which includes environmental systems, species, cultural artifacts and contexts.
Marginalisation refers to the social process through which individuals, groups, ideas, flora, fauna, are relegated to the outskirts or periphery of society, often leading to their exclusion from full participation in social, economic, political, biodiversity or cultural activities, and it does not have a convenient singular cause. We cannot accurately say that because one is female, she will experience a particular type of exclusion or sexism. People live complex lives at the cross section of many types of prejudice and privileges, changing constantly as contexts shift.
So, let’s turn the analysis process upside down. Instead of defining the categories from the top-down, let’s hear them named from the ground-up working in collaboration with those there to support the intervention.
This is what the GEMs Framework encourages us to do. Let the people who live the experience, name the experience. It allows for intersecting elements and changing contexts, which is where opportunities for change emerge. It is a systemic and intersectional approach.
Even analysing things from the ground up needs some boundaries. The GEMs uses three broad dimensions (or boundaries) in which various elements can then be identified: - Gender, Environments, and Marginalized Voices. The boundaries of what or who is to be included or excluded between these dimensions overlap leading to the intersection of elements, such as naming a particular population of a community, or a particular ecosystem that is of significance to a project. The value of the identified GEMs dimensions and their elements to practitioners is that they help guide conversations with others about what matters, what is in scope and who is being included or excluded. Let’s look briefly at each dimension.
Gender equity, equality, and justice: As we see it, when talking about inclusion, gender must be considered. The weight of numbers of women and girls who continue to be actively under represented in public life, cannot be ignored. For this, we are unapologetic. But how does gender show up in any context? This dimension gives people on the ground space to talk to us about gender blindness of women and girls as well as non-binary gender identities including, but not limited to, women, girls, trans, and intersex identities relevant for their culture.
Environments: This dimension contains elements that reside in the periphery of all human experience but are often ignored. Elements may include natural landscapes, ecological systems, species, and human-made habitats. These elements may give voice to the context (e,g., post-conflict, humanitarian crises) in which we are embedded and help us see how changes in the environmental context intersect with other elements. Many of the elements of this dimension are literally voiceless and cannot speak. We need to call on the ‘experts’ who can speak ‘for’ these systems and these people who know a place or species intimately and to advocate on its behalf.
Marginalized voices: This dimension is broad, like the ‘inclusion’ in GEDSI, marginalised voices does not name any particular element for inclusion. Who or what else is relevant in a particular context and how have they been defined? Our task is to collaboratively find those often-ignored voices (human and non-human) and hear their ideas and priorities, while simultaneously peering through the overlap with the environments and gender dimensions.
The GEMs and GEDSI both want to empower people. Both aim to enhance the capacity of marginalized communities to ensure they are considered, even engaged in programs and policies that affect their lives. But both are acronyms. Just letters. What’s the real difference? The difference lies in our practices around our application of these terms.
Only the GEMs framework considers the voice of environmental systems and the intersection of environmental exclusion on other social dimensions. Strengthening communities of human and non-humans and ensuring their voice is ‘at the table’ is essential to effectively navigate the complexities of most change initiatives.
The GEMs Framework thrives when stakeholders actively use it to advocate for the rights of individuals, communities, culture and environmental systems and species. GEDSI practitioners and organisations wanting to further that goal can better do so using the GEMs approach.
Using the GEMs framework provides an alternative way of thinking about inclusion. What is relevant should be defined by the people on the ground, and not a pre-loaded, global North informed or donor-dictated idea about ‘who’ or ‘what’ counts. Let the people most involved and affected provide name their lived experience.
A GEMs analysis is a systemic practice. This brings for further benefit of helping to build a holistic understanding of a situation, providing greater contextual understanding of what is happening on the ground.
Using the GEMs builds partnerships and collaborations, going beyond consultation. There is time and effort required in the outreach, engagement, and conversations to piece together the relevant elements of the GEMs, which is an essential prerequisite to full and meaningful inclusion and benefits all in the long-term.
The GEMs is a culturally safe practice as participation ‘at the table’ is not decided by others, but people have choice, self-select, and arrive on their terms. We caution that discussions about each GEMs dimension and their intersections may challenge social norms, triggering sensitivities and traumatic experiences. We advocate for facilitating conversations mindfully, collectively, respectfully, and with the aim of causing no additional harm. Doing this well gives organisations more confidence that their inclusion initiatives (i.e., policy, program, strategy) are sound and the participation is genuine.
Anyone can apply the GEMs approach in their work. In fact, it may be very well suited to people with GEDSI in their title who may have time and dedicated resources to ensure inclusion is done safely and well. We are continuously learning and seeking input and collaboration from individuals with diverse identities and experiences. Our eco-systems of consultants at Ethos of Engagement Consulting collaborate to learn how to develop strategies to practice inclusion safely. The question arises: Can you envision applying GEMs to your work? What support would you need, and how might your approach differ from present day practice?