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Gender equality in the COE Manual: how management achieves change

14 May 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

Contingent-Owned Equipment (COE) Manual

In its current second resumed session, one of the cross-cutting issues considered by the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee is Contingent-Owned Equipment (COE) and specific updates to the COE Manual for UN peacekeeping. These include several changes to ensure that female uniformed peacekeepers have a more receptive environment and appropriate materiel support when deployed. We spotlight these changes because it demonstrates the importance of management - not just leadership - in achieving gender equality. One of the primary aims of the COE system, codified in the manual and standard MOU template, is to apply common standards to the equipment and services provided to police and troops deployed to UN peacekeeping. Because Troop and Policy Contributing Countries (T/PCCs) must adhere to the standards to be reimbursed by the UN for their contributions, the COE Manual has a very concrete impact on all T/PCCs and therefore all UN peacekeeping missions. Until now, the COE Manual assumed that personal kit and equipment is unisex, which reflects assumptions of most national militaries as well. Yet, in a recent study of challenges facing women peacekeepers by the International Peace Institute (IPI) 109 out of 142 female peacekeepers interviewed highlighted problems with ill-fitting equipment which affected their performance and ability to participate safely and effectively in tasks. This is because unisex equipment is generally based on male anthropomorphic data. As a 2016 article in Military Medicine points out:

"It is also critical that females are fully considered during the design of new systems to help prevent adverse health effects as a result of operating the equipment, and to ensure that the equipment itself does not prevent them from performing efficiently." – P.A. Savage-Knepfield, Designing Military Systems for Women in Combat, 2016

The proposed new language in the COE Manual, if approved, would require that soldier and FPU kits must be compiled, “taking into consideration physiological differences between men and women personnel, including size” (para. 66, A/77/736). This may seem like a small change but it has the power to impact at least 75% of women peacekeepers, based on the numbers who complained - and that is significant. This will not happen overnight and it will require significant management effort and investment by T/PCCs. The aim of the article in Military Medicine was to share insights from the US military’s efforts to account for form, fit and function in their redesign of military equipment for women “since we have found that accommodating sex differences is not as straight forward as it would appear.” If the new standards are approved, most, if not all, UN T/PCCs will need to review and potentially redesign equipment and/or find new suppliers and set up new procurement contracts and supply chains. This requires a lot of managers along the way to demonstrate concrete actions for gender equality in UN peacekeeping, and likely their own militaries. The same management efforts will be required to implement many of the other proposed changes that would create a a more receptive environment for women, like requiring that medical facilities have drugs for common gynecological conditions and menstrual products, or that all ablution facilities “have adequate plumbing fixtures and fittings to maintain standards of hygiene, including proper disposal of menstrual products... The ablution facilities provided are to account for adequate gender separation and privacy for personnel” (para. 66, A/77/736). The International Peace Institute (IPI) provides an excellent summary of all the proposed changes to support female peacekeepers in its aptly title article “Small Changes: Big Impacts: WPS Achievements in Contingent Owned Equipment Manual Negotiations”. As the title implies, these are perceived as small changes, but potentially can have a significant practical impact on allowing women to serve effectively and safely as equals in UN peacekeeping. This is likely to attract more women to UN peacekeeping, who currently only make up 8% of uniformed personnel. These supposedly 'small changes' will both require significant execution by T/PCCs and have a potentially significant impact both in the short and long term. As most managers in bureaucracies are well aware, adjusting supply chains, procuring new materials and monitoring and correcting the implementation of new standards takes a lot of effort and dedication. But this is how results are achieved - a point highlighted in a somewhat controversial article in MIT Sloan Management Review:

"Without strong execution, grand thinking — principled missions, compelling visions, and clever strategies — will amount to very little." – – Saving Management from our Obsession with Leadership, MIT Sloan Management Review, 2022

These small changes in the COE manual represent key first steps in genuine, strong execution of the UN’s Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy and Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (SCR1325). The same point has recently been made by many of the UN’s own evaluation units when assessing the implementation of significant policy changes, such as the UN’s principle of Leaving No One Behind or WFP’s Peacebuilding policy . A concern that is consistently raised is the lack of implementation planning and sufficient, dedicated resources which results in managers and field staff struggling to execute the expected change. The changes to the COE Manual represent a collective focus by member states and the UN Secretariat on ensuring effective execution of the vision set out in SCR 1325 twenty-three years ago. Where does this persistent lack of focus on execution in policy and strategy development come from? The evaluations of the Leave No One Behind principle or WFP’s Peacebuilding policy point to a variety of reasons:

  • lack of planning and/or engagement of ‘support personnel’ in implementation planning;

  • diffused responsibility for implementation of the policy, particularly at headquarters; and

  • insufficient dedicated human and financial resources to allow for systematic and consistent execution of the policy across the organization.

The authors of the MIT Sloan Management Review article suggest that these kinds of shortcomings reflect a global obsession with leadership at the expense of management across all types of organizations:

"Lofty notions of leadership have captivated our collective imagination — and we’ve underappreciated and underinvested in the everyday management skills that organizations desperately need." – Saving Management from our Obsession with Leadership, MIT Sloan Management Review, 2022

It is with thought in mind that we felt it was important to highlight and recognize the important focus on execution and management represented by changes to the COE Manual. It will be interesting to see whether this can lead to a greater increase in female uniformed peacekeepers than what we’ve seen in the last 10 years, in which the proportion grew from approximately 4% to 8%. In addition to recognizing all the past and future work of managers addressing gender equality in peacekeeping, we challenge those readers working on policy and strategy development and change initiatives to consider execution as a fundamental element of your work.


Key Meeting of UN Governance Mechanisms this week

  • The UNICEF Executive Board receives informal briefings on 18 May 2023 on private fundraising and partnerships; implementation of development system reforms; organizational culture and diversity; the annual report of the Executive Director; the annual report of the evaluation function and the new evaluation policy; and the 2022 report of the Ethics Office.

  • UNHCR's Executive Committee holds a second preparatory meeting on the Global Refugee Forum on 17 May and on 19 May receives a briefing on the 10 year strategic review.

  • The WFP Executive Board receives a breifing on Sudan and holds a Bureau meeting on 15 May 2023.

  • The UNDP/UNFPA/UNOPS Executive Board has informal consultations on the annual report of the UNDP Executive Director, gender equality at UNDP, UNDP evaluations, UNOPS' cost recovery model, the midterm review of UNOPS' strategic plan, efforts to prevent and address sexual exploitation abuse and harassment at UNDP, UNFPA and UNOPs, and the UNDP Country Programme for Chile this week.

  • The GA's Fifth Committee continues its consideration of mission programmes and budgets and receives briefings from the UN senior management on reimbursements to Troop and Police Contributing Countries (T/PCCs), the liquidity situation and the jurisdictional set-up of the UN common system.

  • UNESCO's Executive Board continues its session with a plenary debate on 15 and 16 May 2023 about the execution of the programme and proposed 2024-25 budget as well as management and programme issues.


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