Skip to content

Power within

Back in 2012, I recall discussions at a Bangkok conference with a group of companies keen to lead the charge on ‘women’s economic empowerment’ in Asia.

On the one hand, there was a business case (mainly linked to profitability and staff retention) for these companies to address gender inequalities more systematically and, on the other, many at the time admitted to jumping on a band wagon – the feeling being that women’s economic empowerment was the new thing that people were talking about, but which perhaps had “5 years at best” before the world moved on to the next hot topic.

Fortunately, in 2017 the same companies are still testing the business case and, as we’ve seen in some sparky media pieces on women’s economic empowerment last week, the topic has far from fizzled out.

I enjoy today’s reality of how one op-ed can turn heads, and stimulate an instant planetary debate. Even if such things can also create a battle cry from one school of thinking to the next, with critiques put out more as literary pitch forks plunged into the sides of the opposition, rather than in the more collegiate spirit of pooling our collective energies around an issue – in this case that of gender justice, the world over.

Maybe the space for collaboration is closing, however, and gloves-off conceptual sparring is more useful in garnering attention and bringing issues of women’s empowerment into the mainstream? There have already been multiple “global” conferences over the past 20 years laying down the development challenges of the day, and so an appetite for hosting more such events is, perhaps, understandably waning.

Furthermore, we have a relatively newly re-framed set of UN Development goals, which were met with broad approval. Our stage is set then, and so, within such institutional parameters, conflicting opinions of course need to be aired.

As much as Rafia Zakaria’s NY Times piece instantly struck a chord with many, so too did Linda Scott’s rebuttal. The first article lambasted the array of economic empowerment approaches deployed by organizations, claiming instead that political reforms are the only show in town in terms of actually bringing about change. The second article made the case for why economic empowerment interventions do have a significant role to play and how they can compliment advocacy and political influencing. I found both of value.

Of course, the development sector has much still to learn and we have our idiosyncrasies. As someone who has worked for an international NGO now for over 11 years, I have often buried my head in my hands at our sector’s insistence in dispersing a daily barrage of loaded and contorted rubric, when articulating the everyday realities of people around the world.

However, I am proud to be associated with an entity such as CARE International that is committed to gender justice. In spite of our sector’s insane vocabulary uses, our commitment can – and always should be – first and foremost about influencing change, rather than turning a profit, or trying to win an election.

‘Empowerment’ is, of course, one of the development industry’s most sacred slices of parlance. Crow-barred into panel discussions, funding proposals, office meeting agenda items: it is our holy grail.

Do we know collectively how to prove when empowerment has been achieved? Not quite.

Are we aligned on how to best facilitate or help create empowerment and how it differs contextually? Not always.

Does any of that matter? I really don’t think it should.

That ‘power’ itself is the currency with which we know change can be bought, the notion of empowering those without it seems to me to be a very practical, core mantra for the likes of CARE.

Like Linda Scott, I believe in the work of the many thousands of agencies who pursue empowerment using different approaches. We know, fundamentally know, that re-balancing gender dynamics has a positive impact on poverty reduction, and on social injustices. There is no need to reinvent this theory or replace it with another. CARE’s economic empowerment experiences have also underscored the very need to place emphasis not just on economic gains for women, but on social and political ones, too.

Absolutely, the international NGO industry needs to operate with transparency – we must be accountable for how we invest our resources into “empowering” initiatives and goals. Largely due to the countless examples of how the world’s governments and multi-national companies regularly get caught up in headline grabbing scandals, watch-dog attention on humanitarian and environmental organisations has been low level. Let’s encourage more: there is always room for improvement and, as an industry, we can’t exist in a complacent vacuum.

However, when approached holistically, comprehensively, and in step with others, the pursuit of women’s economic empowerment outcomes, for the many millions of women currently cut off the grid, made vulnerable and marginalised due to their gender, should be not only encouraged and supported, but should be recognised in terms of a set of human rights which everyone in the world has a role to better understand, shape and nurture.


Thoughts on Motivation


I’ve just listened to a lecture given by a running expert (a “Barbarian ultra-marathon runner” from Denmark) named Simon Grimstrup, who described his motivations for running.

He stressed these as being quite separate to being motivated to be ‘fit’ – he has zero motivation for that. Instead, his calling in life, and his formula for staying motivated, has always been a combination of the trails, the vistas, the mountain peaks, the comraderie, the adventure, the joy, the competition, and the “hunt” for achieving your once in a lifetime perfect race.

On Thursday next week he’ll enter as one of 10 international elite runners into a 403km Gobi Desert race. He thinks running that sort of distance is in fact utter madness, but he is driven to want to do it.

For those who’ve already sponsored me, and sent kind messages (thank you!!) – the reason for this Friday lecture is because Issy and I are up in Sapa (Northern Vietnam) taking part in the Vietnam Mountain Marathon 2017.


Issy is running in the 21km event tomorrow and I’m entered into the 70km one. So, just 12 hours from now, at 4am, I’ll head off into the darkness of the local villages of black hmong and red dao tribes, and attempt to complete the longest run of my life.

I’ve so far raised over £2,000 for a UK charity as part of this (and there’s still time to sponsor me for anyone interested: and I’ve run 2,360km this year as part of my training.

None of which is right now preventing me from feeling petrified about tomorrow.

However, as another experienced runner told us last night: “you need to think of the race as just a nice day out”. Easy.

Simon’s motivations seem well anchored and inspired by his childhood roots: running from the age of 10 years old – in “his back yard” – and enjoying the seasonal changes that Denmark conjures up in its forests and nature trails, that he came to know so well.

That he also recognises the element of “competition” and where that fits into his overall motivation, alongside and complementary to the joy and the hunt for completing his best race (not something he feels has been done, yet)….that recognition of all these ingredients blended together, to create this perfectly balanced culinary metaphor for ‘motivation’ was, I thought, worth sharing.

I expect for other people, the balance between drivers of motivation is different.

Perhaps for some you merely need one reason to spark your inner motivator? For me, an interesting nexus is also the relationship between motivation and purpose. Both can be mutually reinforcing and yet can also operate on their own.

Running 70km is something that has given me purpose, and has tested my sense of motivation and how to trigger, harness and control it.

However, overall, the whole experience of the last 9 months to get to today (typing these words right now, whilst furiously sipping water from an ecolodge surrounded by some of the country’s most isolated hills and rice terraces) has been mostly about that incredible release you can experience when you run – an escape from some of life’s necessary confines.

When you are running you are not reading or writing, nor debating or critiquing, you are not listening, complaining, you seldom even have to think. You are just running. There is a flow to it, there is an exquisite solitude, yet you feel very much connected at the same time.

And then, always, tantalizing in its inevitably, there is the finish.




Freedom of Self


Rest and relaxation in Dar Es Salam, after last week’s HEAT training course

In the confined parameters that determine air travel, as I whirl back on this particular occasion from Africa to home, the experiences learnt on last week’s work trip (comprising an intense training course on Safety and Security) seep through into my consciousness as stone traced markings through paper.

The sharp seam of learning from this particular course was about coping. Coping with confrontation, dilemma, trauma, danger, but mainly, coping with having one’s freedom stolen from underneath your nose.

Since I boarded at the sleepy port of Zanzibar (where 24 hours of “RnR” were spent, and were, for once, an essential bookend to the training course itself) the all too familiar rituals deployed to keep oneself either awake or entertained were running on auto pilot: movie watching; email triage; a few chapters of a novel; social media; face-timing; eating; drinking; freshening up.

With each slice of indulgent escapism, as we are prone to seeking out the most special film to watch, or song to absorb, the constant hunt for ego inflating ‘likes’ and ‘mentions’, that buzz of booze from miniature bottles, all such things, in the end and inevitably, skim the surface of satisfaction, treading the waters high above that particular ocean of Self, rather than dropping lower, as a pearl diver would, in search of deeper treasures: the Soul, and the spirit of being, fathoms below.

This, or, in round terms, just taking things (but mainly, one’s freedom) for granted.

Ironic then that it is only when these freedoms are removed that we get the chance to sink that bit lower and nearer to this Self of ours and, beyond that, to our own truths.

What I mainly reflect on, now that the adrenaline from last week has receded, is how adaptive we all are to crisis situations.

How the unthinkable very quickly can be rationalised and dealt with. Deprived of the freedom to move, see, talk, choose, organise we, in fact, thrive. A bodily revolution of senses takes charge, a new paradigm of prioritising, thinking and imagining rises up, the respective captains, colonels and generals of Being.

We are forced to find new ways to take back control, to inch forward in spite of our inability to behave and feel as free as we are used to and, in that brief chapter of time, we transform, we resolve, and we experience resilience.

Stripped down in that raw state, devoid of our regular freedoms (and in some cases, addictions) we allow ourselves the space and conditions to more profoundly understand.

For that momentary eclipse of the ordinary, arming me with a wholeness and with peace, I will be indebted for a long while yet.



Societal norms, the world over, since the dawn of time, have placed more undisputed power at the hands of men (and boys) than have been placed with women (and girls).

The narrative of the day reflecting this factual reality changes from context to context. In the UK, for example, we are currently questioning when it is we are going to feel able not to celebrate today’s International Women’s Day (#IWD2017) – when will UK society accept we don’t need a national day to keep reminding everybody about gender equality?

In contrast, here in Vietnam, the entrenchment of gender norms runs deeper. Educated, decent, working husbands and fathers in Vietnam may ‘feel’ a connection to the relatively new concept that women are equal to men (across any indicator) however there is still too strong a cultural leaning away from equality, which has been silently and often subconsciously drummed into that husband/father, for him to really feel 100% behind gender equality.

Another generation and yet one more still, and the softening of these values will happen.

External factors will help with this – for one, the rising number of young Vietnamese citizens connected as they now are in their millions to social media, are exposed to more “news” and information than the ruling party could have ever imagined possible 20 years back. This will help. But the “interventions” of INGOs such as CARE, and others, is vital in keeping change at a decent pace and guiding and showing the way.      Read more…

One born every two seconds


Dawn in Patna

Her first four children each died of asphyxiation during delivery. The 30 year old’s fifth – a baby girl – was born safely at home, and against all odds. However, when the same expectant mother entered Bihar’s district hospital last Friday, to deliver her sixth baby, she was praying for a boy. She entered the hospital carrying the hopes and dreams of the many family members waiting outside for the news and, as I bore witness to, her prayers were answered.

Through CARE International’s influence within the health sector of Bihar (one of India’s most populated states with 110 million citizens) this mother had been encouraged to deliver her sixth baby in hospital, rather than at home. A decision which instantly improved her and her baby’s chance of survival.

I was visiting the hospital with the local CARE team at the time, to learn more about how CARE is helping transform the state’s healthcare system, and improve the quality of the services available.

This blog is to share a few quick highlights of that work, and pay tribute to the front line health workers who are saving lives each day in Bihar, helping families fulfill their dreams…

Bihar is home to millions of people living on or below the poverty line – estimates vary depending on the criteria used (some recent analysis is here) – however, in rural parts, it can be up to 60%.

Since 2010, various Government and international aid investments in Bihar have accelerated change in vital areas of healthcare. This includes furnishing Community Health Centres (which are facilities containing six beds) as well as smaller, local clinics with more up to date equipment, and providing healthcare workers with more structured training. This enables workers to offer up many of the skills they need to be able to have a real influence on lowering the rates of maternal and child mortality.

According to India’s 2013 census data, approximately 42 new births are registered every minute however, in Bihar, maternal and child mortality rates are higher than the average – 208 out of 100,000 and 42 out of 1,000 respectively. To bring this into context, that equates to approximately 2 mothers out of 1,000 dying in child birth every 23 minutes, and 4 child deaths out of 100 born every 2 and half minutes .

As the CARE Chief of Party, Dr Hemant Shah, explained to me from his office in Patna, the state capital, it is by focusing on three complimentary areas of the sector – the systems, the facilities, and the out-reach support – that CARE is working with the Government and with partner organisations to help bring about change in Bihar.

If more citizens, previously cut off from healthcare services, can be reached, and if the quality of healthcare facilities is improved, alongside changes being made ‘vertically’ in how the system itself functions, Dr Hemant is convinced that more positive advancements can be made in Bihar in the years to come.


One of the many Auxiliary Nurse Midwives working in Bihar

CARE has already seen positive results over the past 5 years.

When the work started in 2011, a high percentage of premature babies were not surviving at birth. A “low birth weight” in Bihar is classified as weighing under 2kgs. Most of the state of Bihar is home to subsistence, agriculture based communities and, all too often, mothers from these often marginalised rural communities experience premature deliveries at home due to stress. Before CARE’s programme was launched, they simply had very limited support or erratic services on which to rely.

Through a combination of CARE’s engagement at a grass-roots level, as well as through an incentive scheme offered by the Government to encourage mothers to deliver at Community Health Clinics (each receives USD$23 per baby delivered) where CARE has trained front line workers, these statistics have quite rapidly started to change.

In some cases, mortality rates for low birth weight babies during their first 28 days (across the 8 districts in Bihar where the programme is being implemented) has now reduced to between 10-15% where previously in specific areas it had been recorded as high as 55%.

One of the most important frontline workers in CARE’s cadre is the village ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist), a critical out-reach function that has helped reduce the gap between rural communities and the various healthcare services available to them.

“We instruct those who have no access to hospitals about delivery and child care at home” tells one ASHA we met, “I also tell them about tuberculosis and leprosy and other illnesses. I ask them to come to government hospital either with me or by themselves, because in government hospital they receive free treatment. If the disease is serious, they can get some money for the treatment, too.”

Two other ASHAs who spoke to us, Mamta Devi and Nazma Khatoon, from Rampur and Naraharpur villages, reinforced the importance of the newborn care services they offer in their roles: “We visit every house and advise people to come to hospital for vaccinations,” Mamta explains, “the first dose of BCG, OPV and Hepatitis injections are given within 24 hours of delivery, and then for other vaccines like measles, we spread awareness in the community and ask mothers to visit the healthcare centres,” Nazma continues.

In addition to vaccinations, front line workers also play a key role instructing the families of pregnant women on birth preparedness, sanitation and keeping properly washed and dried clothes for the newborn babies. Nazma stresses how important it is that they also “advise families to have extra money in hand for any emergencies…because of our efforts, fewer newborn deaths are happening. Even physical defects such as polio have reduced.”


Ruby and baby Ruksiba

For some of the new mothers we visited last week, such as Ruby and her baby Ruksiba (both pictured, above) the out-reach services provided by the programme are a great source of support, information and advice.

Ruksiba weighed only 2kgs at birth, and the family thought she wouldn’t survive.

It was critical for Ruby, especially as a first time mother, to be able to seek basic guidance from CARE’s workers on breastfeeding, nutrition as well as information on vaccinations.

After one month, Ruksiba’s gained 1.2kgs and Ruby’s confidence in her own decisions around feeding and care had significantly increased, “the ASHA has advised me on how to hold my baby, and how to feed it regularly, and the importance of breast-milk” explained Ruby.

This advice is also made available through a twice weekly “Village Health Nutrition and Sanitation Day” event to which CARE gives operational support. These events bring new mothers together to learn about complimentary feeding, to receive vaccinations, and to learn about how to give their babies the healthy start in life they need.


A complimentary feeding station at a Village Health Nutrition and Sanitation Day event

For the frontline workers engaged through CARE’s work, we heard from many of them last week not just about the positive effects on new mothers, but also about some of the things they as workers had been empowered to do, following CARE’s intervention and training. And, ultimately, how this has instilled in them a sense of pride and appreciation for the jobs they are carrying out and their own career paths.

“We have started focusing on sterilizing medical equipment. Earlier it was not a priority for us”, commented Suganthi, one of the programme’s Auxiliary Nurse Midwives based at Jalalpur Community Health Centre in Chapra, “we are now providing proper care to new born babies. We track the low birth weight babies in the community where earlier we were not able to do this or to diagnose complicated cases. Following the training, we have started diagnosing all complications and referring them to higher centres where appropriate”.

A thousand word blog cannot incorporate the myriad of complexities, cultural norms, and underlying causes of poverty which permeate in a country such as India. However, in the face of the many obstacles facing frontline workers and local communities, this work in Bihar highlights some of the significant and positive changes and shifts in norms which are taking place each day.

CARE is playing its role in this complex eco-system, and hopes to remain active in that for years to come – for it surely will take that to bring about the change that women and their families deserve.


A new mother and her baby at Village Health Nutrition and Sanitation Day event

The short video compilation below also falls short of covering every nuance that is of importance in this narrative. However, it might offer more of a feel for the story – of life changing and life preserving interventions – that needs to keep being told.

Making change happen: Collaboration, and the power of Storytelling

I’ve been working in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste (East Timor) this week, and it’s been a privilege as always to spend time in new surrounds. More so when stationed one hundred metres from the sea, with spectacular daily sunsets, and some of the tastiest coffee money can buy. 

Timor is an island, just a short hop north of Darwin, Australia, and up until quite recently, following 500 years of Portuguese occupation, was an Indonesian colony (between 1975 and 1999). The western side of the island is still governed by Indonesia. Timor-Leste claimed its independence in 2002.

Like so many other countries in 2016, Timor-Leste is experiencing the effects of the current El Nino droughts, disrupting the country’s wet season and ruining harvesting potential. A topic covered on this site back in March during my time in Ethiopia.

My assignment this week, however, has been to support CARE’s work to engage more with private sector companies in Timor-Leste (banks, retail, media and others) and examine ways in which, together, initiatives and relationships can be forged to tackle some of the social and economic challenges the country faces – poor infrastructure, lack of employment opportunities, issues around food security and nutrition, financial literacy, to name a few. Even without a more severe El Nino year, Timor-Leste is dealing with all of these mini crises combined.     Read more…

Resilient Markets in Ethiopia


At home with Sindayo, a GRAD beneficiary in Tigray. Photo credit @ CARE Ethiopia.

Last month I visited Tigray, Northern Ethiopia, to interview farmers and livestock traders faced with the drought effects of one of the most devastating El Niños in 50 years, to learn about their coping strategies in the face of extreme weather patterns.

We wanted to find out how these coping strategies were linked to national and international market systems and how, through these systems, it might be possible to bring about a better deal for those in the supply chain typically made more vulnerable by drought: women.

CARE International, the global NGO and my employer for the last decade, has been operating in Ethiopia since 1984, and works alongside other international and national organisations to bring solutions to those whose livelihoods are invested in agriculture, and who by default are affected by regular market “shocks”.

After 70 years of operations around the world, CARE’s focus within any country programme is to bring about positive changes for women and girls. We do this because of the myriad of existing social and economic injustices faced by women and girls, all over the world, many of which have been described on this blog. At CARE, we talk a lot about “empowering” women and girls, and this encompasses many aspects, including improving access to economic resources for women and, crucially, increasing their control over those resources.       Read more…

%d bloggers like this: