Autoplay settings
Off On

Expert Interviews

Thais Bessa Discusses How Gender Equality and Social Inclusion Amplify Development Impact

Headshot of Dr. Thais Bessa

Dr. Thais Bessa, Tetra Tech’s gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) director, has nearly 20 years of global experience working with communities to identify opportunities to advance gender equality, women’s empowerment, and social inclusion.

She leads GESI strategy at the organizational and project levels across practice areas, including environment and natural resources, land tenure, agriculture, climate adaptation, migration, and humanitarian assistance. She has worked on projects across Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East funded by clients including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID); Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC); UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office; PepsiCo; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; European Commission; and Interamerican Development Bank. Thais holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and International Studies from the University of Birmingham and a Masters in Forced Migration from the University of Oxford.

Women, youth, Indigenous Peoples, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ people, and other marginalized groups often face challenges in accessing services and sharing benefits from international development programs. Yet these groups also bring unique perspectives and knowledge that can inform better outcomes. Tetra Tech works with local leaders, governments, and communities to understand the barriers and opportunities for underrepresented groups and to empower these groups to become leaders in innovative and inclusive development solutions for our clients.

The importance of gender equality and social inclusion is increasingly recognized by governments and donors through policies, priorities, and investments. In 2022 the U.S. government made a $2.6 billion budget request (the largest ever) for foreign assistance programs that promote gender equality worldwide. The 2021 U.S. Strategy on Global Women’s Economic Security, 2023 USAID Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Policy, 2023 LGBTQI+ Inclusive Development, 2022 USAID Youth in Development Policy, and 2020 USAID Policy on Promoting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples reaffirm the prioritization of GESI as critical to international development.


How are Tetra Tech’s clients addressing gender equality and social inclusion?  

Many of our international development clients see equality and inclusion as not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do, leading to improved development outcomes across diverse practice areas. Clients such as USAID, MCC, and the World Bank unequivocally prioritize GESI in their programming. 

Gender equality and ensuring that women and girls enjoy equal rights and benefits from development investments remains a critical challenge. However, our clients also focus on broader inclusion to ensure that development programs don’t further marginalize anyone because of their age, gender expression or identity, sexual orientation, disability status, ethnic group, or any other identity or social position. We are seeing a robust and holistic approach to development that places underrepresented groups front and center.  

Tetra Tech supports clients to develop solutions that accelerate change and impact at scale, are led by local actors, and do not leave anyone behind. For example, we designed and implement the USAID Engendering Industries project that is increasing gender equality in male-dominated sectors such as energy and water management. We also integrate gender equality and social inclusion as a core component of projects advancing other development goals. In the global USAID Clean Cities, Blue Ocean program, our strategy supports the inclusion of women entrepreneurs in waste management systems and circular economies that combat ocean plastic pollution. Sustainable solutions to complex development challenges require the ideas, skills, and active engagement of the whole community.  


What do you see as the next or most pressing challenges for equality and inclusion in development? 

Compounding crises related to pandemics, conflict, climate change, humanitarian crises, natural disasters, human rights violations, and democratic backsliding threaten to further entrench inequalities, and even backtrack global progress achieved over decades of development investments. We need solutions that address the interconnectedness of these crises. We need to prioritize investments that reach, protect, and empower those who are most likely to be affected and have fewer coping mechanisms.  

Growing evidence shows that climate change affects women, Indigenous Peoples, and other marginalized groups disproportionately, and the climate action that we urgently need requires inclusion for sustainable results. Tetra Tech is supporting our clients to develop climate investments that respond to the needs of marginalized groups and leverage their unique perspectives.  We are supporting women and youth as key actors in improved landscape management to reduce emissions, deforestation, and biodiversity loss through the USAID West Africa Biodiversity and Low Emissions Development project. 

In Cambodia, we are implementing market-based activities to conserve the country’s unique biodiversity, reduce land-based carbon emissions, and improve equitable economic development. The market-based activities are built upon a robust understanding of the roles of women, youth, Indigenous Peoples, and ethnic minorities in forest governance and value chains, and empowering them with the skills to meaningfully participate in the design and implementation of solutions.   


What are the best approaches to increase gender equality and social inclusion in international development? 

Local stakeholders are best positioned to lead change. International development experts must not only bring their skills and experience but also the humility to act as catalysts and conveners while local actors are empowered to lead change. For example, in Peru we used intercultural, rights-based, and inclusive approaches that incorporated diverse cultural visions and the needs of different individuals within Indigenous communities so they could better control and monitor their forest resources. We promoted the leadership of Indigenous women in sustainable forest-based livelihoods and natural resource governance. And in partnership with Indigenous communities, we developed the Indigenous Empowerment Index in the Amazonian Forest Sector, a tool for Indigenous organizations, development agencies, and any entity working in the forest sector.    

Our aim is to design and deliver projects that equally reach and benefit everyone in the communities where we work, but also tackle structural and systemic barriers that impede sustainable impact. For example, we support governments to develop inclusive laws and policies or private sector partners to rethink how they engage with communities. But we also know that even when legal, policy, and regulatory frameworks provide for equality, complex social barriers perpetuate exclusion. Under the USAID Integrated Land and Resource Governance (ILRG) project, we applied global evidence and best practices to shift harmful social and gender norms that hinder women’s ability to own land and benefit from land-based commercial value chains. This led to women and farming communities experiencing increased economic security and companies realizing business outcomes such as better yields and adoption of climate-smart practices. 


How is Tetra Tech bringing expertise and innovation in gender equality and social inclusion to clients and communities globally?   

Tetra Tech has nearly 50 years’ experience in putting GESI at the core of our services, matched by unparalleled multi-sectoral technical expertise across a wide range of development practice areas. Our approach is intersectional and transformative, whether we are empowering women in agriculture and water or promoting land rights or combating gender-based violence. We’ve had the opportunity to implement, adapt, learn, and scale in various contexts around the world. We’re able to bring that to our clients and the communities we serve. We have worked with a broad array of marginalized groups and seek to understand how intersecting identities and social positioning affect the experiences of individuals and groups.

At Tetra Tech, we know that gender equality and social inclusion are key to international development done right, and we are proud to deliver solutions that serve diverse groups in communities around the world.

Scroll to Top