The Department for International Development’s (DFID) 2018 Strategic Vision for Gender Equality1 is ambitious and well-researched but DFID needs to improve its management of the Vision’s implementation if it is to achieve its intended impact, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

DFID’s Vision is wide-ranging, building on and extending the scope of its earlier work on improving the lives of women and girls. It consulted widely both internally and externally with experts in gender equality and gathered evidence of what works in achieving change.

However, the NAO found that there is currently no overall long-term implementation plan for the Vision, nor has DFID published a thorough assessment of its progress to date, other than limited information in its annual reports and accounts and the Single Departmental Plan.

In 2018 DFID estimates that two thirds of bilateral aid (£4.2 billion) was spent on programmes that targeted gender equality as a policy objective – 71% more money than in 2011. Included in this total are some programmes which have a primary focus on gender equality and other programmes where gender equality is an objective but not the main focus.

However, DFID needs to improve the quality of this estimate as there is a high chance that it is currently inaccurate. The NAO’s analysis shows that it classified 33% of its bilateral spending for 2018 incorrectly in respect of programmes with a gender equality focus.

“Mainstreaming”2 gender, so that it is considered across all of DFID’s work, is integral to the Vision, but DFID has found this difficult so far. Barriers include a lack of buy-in from some staff, insufficient guidance and training before 2019, and some weaknesses in its quality assurance processes. DFID is currently improving how it assesses programmes’ consideration of gender.

According to DFID, tackling social norms, such as negative attitudes within communities to girls attending school, will have the most long-term impact on tackling gender equality. But it has recognised that it does not do enough of this in its programmes. Influencing is also key to DFID’s approach, but it faces challenges assessing and claiming the impact from its influencing efforts.

DFID’s most recent assessment of progress to date and the prospects for achieving the Vision is mixed. In September 2019, DFID identified strong performance so far in four of its seven calls to action.3 However, its assessment of likely performance over the next six months was less positive, with five of its seven calls to action not on track to meet its aims as a result of the changes in its internal priorities and the external environment.

The NAO recommends that DFID should develop a plan for implementing the 2018 Strategic Vision and publish a short report setting out its progress every two years. It should also assess if it is focusing sufficiently on interventions which tackle social norms.

“DFID’s commitment to tackling gender inequality is ambitious and wide-ranging. Two years into the Department’s twelve-year vision, individual interventions are already improving the lives of women and girls overseas.”

“However, if DFID is to achieve its ambitious aims, it needs to develop a clearer long-term plan for implementing its vision and continue to take steps to improve the accuracy and transparency of its performance information.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO

Read the full report

Improving the lives of women and girls overseas

Notes for editors

Key facts


year the Department for International Development (DFID) introduced its Strategic Vision for Gender Equality



estimate of DFID's bilateral spending in 2018 (calendar year) on programmes with a gender equality focus 2030 target date for delivery of the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals



number of interlinked areas of gender equality on which DFID’s 2018 Strategic Vision focuses: eliminating violence against women and girls, and supporting sexual and reproductive health and rights, girls' education, women's economic empowerment, and women's political empowerment



percentage of DFID's total bilateral spending in 2018 on programmes with a gender equality focus (up 12 percentage points from 2014)



National Audit Office assessment of the percentage of DFID's bilateral spending which was incorrectly classified against the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development's Development Assistance Committee's gender equality policy marker in 2018.



percentage of programmes with a gender equality focus that met or exceeded DFID's performance expectations.


  1. In March 2018, DFID launched its 2018-2030 Strategic Vision for Gender Equality. This set out what it describes as a 'call to action' asking more of itself and of the UK government, and its multilateral and civil society partners to help empower women and girls, recognising that gender equality is fundamental to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
  2. Mainstreaming is where gender equality is not the main objective, but gender considerations are fully integrated into all aspects of the programme / approach. In doing so the different needs, priorities, opportunities and constraints faced by women, men, girls and boys are recognised.
  3. The seven calls to action are: (i) challenge and change unequal power relations (ii) build the inter-linked foundations which will have a transformational effect for girls and women (iii) Protect and empower girls and women in conflict, protracted crises and humanitarian emergencies (iv) Leave no girl or woman behind, including those with disabilities (v) Incorporate gender equality in all our work across the board and track delivery through to results (vi) Work across girls and women’s lifecycles and on multiple areas simultaneously, such as adolescence (vii) Build evidence and disaggregate data by sex, age and disability.
  4. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
  5. The National Audit Office (NAO) helps Parliament hold government to account for the way it spends public money. It is independent of government and the civil service. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether government is delivering value for money on behalf of the public, concluding on whether resources have been used efficiently, effectively and with economy. The NAO identifies ways that government can make better use of public money to improve people's lives. It measures this impact annually. In 2018 the NAO's work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £539 million.

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