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Power within

October 12, 2017

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.

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2 Comments
  1. Niresh permalink

    I read both pieces with interest and I am attempting to explain some, if not all of the factors that have perhaps contributed to the impression that Ms. Zakaria has of womens empowerment. I believe that a small, but significant part, of the narrative is shaped by existing fundraising approaches(especially retail) that are perhaps guilty of contributing to the oversimplification of the term empowerment. The need to make the average Joe or Jane (on the street/sitting behind a computer/scrolling his/her Insta feeds etc), understand what empowerment means, I guess, forces us to look at very visible(animal distribution examples cited in the article) and short term impact oriented fundraising products that they can identify with (and hopefully write a check!). The reality, as well know, is a little different than that. The CARE approach to WE(Agency-Structure-Relationships) itself is a long term process(Anyone who suggests that one can change gender stereotypes and roles reinforced over hundreds , if not thousands, of years, can be changed within a year probably lives in a La La Land of his/her own!!) Now try explaining that framework to the average Joe/Jane and you will probably lose them in the first 10 seconds! It took me the better part of a year and a couple of project visits to appreciate what that framework meant leave alone understand it!

    I fear that being the aggressive marketeer that we(the fundraising community) are, and with fundraising messages invading every aspect of our lives(social media=life! 🙂 )products/messaging like these contribute to the mist or haze, if I may, around the term empowerment. These then become very convenient pegs to hang NGO’s from and call for a radical change in the way NGOs’ approach empowerment. More so as people with an understanding of one end of the spectrum are not able to make the connection with actual empowerment approaches on the ground. Perhaps there is a need to come up with a better word to describe a stage/approach that ultimately leads to empowerment because that’s what activities like animal distribution, in fact are?

    • Thanks Niresh – you should be blogging too 😉
      I think your instincts on the marketing influence on this issue is the right one. It’s been a long term dilemma and debate between marketeers and development practitioners. You idea at the end of your comment about reframing empowerment, is also something I can see will naturally happen the more that op-eds, and a more informed general public, get their teeth into these issues, which can only be a good thing.
      Thanks for passing by my friend.
      Tim

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