Understanding CARE’s Resilient Market Systems work

In the international development sector, it’s commonplace to read about “systems change”. This is a broad objective. There are many different types of systems in the world, and many ways to change them. There’s a system for how banks distribute money, and how utility companies manage the flow of clean water to households. A system for how to hold your government to account on social welfare measures. A system, more culturally nuanced, for how families inherit assets. A system for addressing global health pandemics. And so on. Millions of systems and ways to both disrupt them and to improve them.

Typically, the INGO industry champions those citizens directly facing marginalisation, vulnerability and injustice.  At CARE International, where I spent thirteen years, the target group supported are women and girls. One particular area of focus that I worked on was how to bring the potential of businesses and markets to bear, for the women and girls CARE sought to assist. Many of you have been subjected to years of my posting here, on related experiences from this starting objective. For which I am most grateful.

Having recently completed a consulting assignment with a very special CARE team, based in Palestine, we’ve published a ‘Compendium‘ for those practitioners in the sector who are looking at systems change in the context of fragility and crisis. Better still, for practitioners who are also advancing their engagement with the private sector and their women’s economic development efforts.

The Compendium is titled “Resilient Market Systems” because its goal is to influence not just the economic opportunities for women and girls (enhancing their resilience to economic fluctuations) who are faced with crisis situations, but to improve the resiliency of the wider market systems, themselves impacted by the same crisis.

2020 has also produced Covid-19, a merciless ‘crisis’ that has touched the lives of everyone, and which calls for organisations to pull together. Enabling more ‘resilient market systems’ is clearly not an overnight project, nor something that CARE can do without collaborating with others. However, as a global confederation with a strong cadre of practitioners working in some of the world’s most complex crisis contexts, just aligning CARE’s own teams can be a challenge in itself.

In many ways, this Compendium is a call to action to us all to think about our own role in the market systems within which we operate.

What is a market system? Well, at the heart a market system (captured in the schematic below) exists goods and services value chains, running from production to consumption, and linking up national, regional and global markets. From essential services (eg banking or health) to the production of a range of consumable goods, the roles of the many stakeholders that participate in this chain, who are affected by each of the various external environmental, political and societal influences, are all inter-related.

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CARE’s work sets out to trigger a range of improvements that make crisis affected market systems more resilient, inclusive, and profitable in such a way that addresses the previous inequalities which prevented women from benefiting from markets on the same footing as men.

The Compendium aims to help practitioners think through how to do this. From the type of analysis at the beginning of planning the work, through to considerations of how the work will transform gender dynamics favourably for women, to the ways in which the private sector can be engaged, through to how to test people’s resiliency to dynamic economic change.

I commend the concepts behind this publication, and the range of experiences and case studies (ten of which are featured in the Annexes) contained inside. Not just for the more technical components to the document, but because of the nature of how the contents and the spirit behind the work was conceived. Drawing from across the Middle East and North Africa region – countries including Palestine, Turkey and the Caucasus featuring prominently – but also wider, this Compendium walks the talk of how a large confederation such as CARE should be working collegiality across its teams, diversifying its thought leadership in the pursuit of the right solutions, for those most in need of them.

Put more women in charge

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Photo credit: @Samuel Jeffrey http://www.nomadicsamuel.com

Last Thursday marked the 45th anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam. The day the “American war” officially ended. Evacuations from Saigon continued for some time after 30th April 1975, but Reunification Day is the day that residents here hoist up their flags and commemorate the end of one era, and the beginning of another.

I remember talking to a friend a few year’s back, she was born in Saigon, and her family fled later in the ’70s, bound for Melbourne, Australia. She recalls the memory of being in a boat, aged 5, and can picture still the anguish plastered across her parents’ brows, and their clipped, firm instructions to her.

The plight of a family on the run isn’t something anyone would choose to put themselves through.

Just as no parent would want their loved ones to be victims of war over peace, violent conflict over dialogue.

And, yet, war and conflict riddle our generation, as they have every other one before us, and peace and dialogue so often resolve far less than seems possible.

‘Change’ in our society, as required by the human condition, thrives off of a combination of war and peace, reinforced and shaped, as these forces are, by various forms of dialogue and iterations of conflict.

There is a predictability around the cycles of these dynamics and conditions, and humans seem stuck in the cadence and inevitability of the ebb and flow of these things.

But we needn’t be stuck, dear reader.

I put it to you that we’ve gathered plenty of recent and favourable lessons about how to tackle societal issues (including addressing conflict and war) and one thing is certain: we don’t have enough women in charge.

It’s not necessarily that a Head of State (there are currently 29 female Heads of State out of 195 countries) always single-handedly makes the key decisions. Nor every corporate CEO the same. It takes many voices and influences to ultimately persuade a country to go “to war” in the first place.

However, with power comes great responsibility, as the saying goes, and men simply don’t care enough about the impacts of their decisions, when compared to women.

Forgive the sweeping generalisations but, for too long – forever – men have sat smug and uncontested, their creativity and compassion rendered, more often than not, lethargic and complacent when compared, in the cold and searching light of day, to that of women.

The Mars vs. Venus analogies neatly document the critical differences between men and women. We have this data. Men don’t care as much as women do. They don’t care as much.

The alarm bells have been ringing loud and clear on this point for a long while now. But nothing changes.

Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison, Donald Trump, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckeberg, Rupert Murdoch, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Pope Francis. A plethora of male power brokers. Angela Merkel the one female counter-part over the last ten years whose influence is comparable.

More recently, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern has captured the attention of many. Because she cares. Because she is self-aware and because her ego, unlike the inflated zeppelins of her male peers, doesn’t take over how she makes decisions.

In the archives of these posts you will find attempts to describe CARE’s solutions to poverty and social injustice. The #1 proof of concept that CARE has? Put more women in charge. Put gender equality at the centre of all poverty programmes, of all campaigns to tackle social injustice. Done. It’s that simple.

Put more women in charge of balancing a low-income household budget and we know they will think more about healthcare and education, than they will about spending that budget on consumption. They will care more about the welfare of their children. There will be less violence and conflict.

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Picture credit: http://www.wunc.org

Putting more women in charge of everything can only reap dividends for everyone in the longer term. The stock market, the military, the media, the respective governance structures of every country in the world, the political systems, which toxically cause pain and suffering for so many people. Hell, we’ve even the evidence now that investing more in girls’ education is one of the most important counters to the effects of climate change.

Women make up 51% of the world’s population and yet we are leaving seismic decision-making about the planet’s extractive industry, the planet’s nuclear capacities, the planet’s healthcare and financial systems, dis-proportionality to men. Who we know care less about issues of humanity and welfare than women do.

Patriarchal social norms, everywhere, dictate this status quo. Capitalism only worsens the effects of inequality, and of gender bias.

The world, we are told, is constantly changing. Covid-19 our latest gruesome illustration of this. And yet nothing has meaningfully changed in terms the gender inequality. It rages on.

The #MeToo movement, and the wave of awareness which followed about domestic violence, workplace harassment, and gender-based violence more generally, was long overdue.

But it didn’t stop the election of Donald Trump. It hasn’t resulted in root and branch changes to how some of the world’s most powerful nations staff their top tier of power holders. It hasn’t influenced the accepted norm, the world over, that men can use violence against women as a weapon.

In Vietnam, as this week’s commemorative anniversary of the end of a brutal and protracted war draws to a close, the government continues to flagrantly lead from the front in terms of the male-female ratios of its leaders. And they are not alone in doing that. It’s the same everywhere.

Everyday, unchallenged, predictable and disastrous decisions are made by men.

Put more women in charge of everything.

Drawing Down

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Running in the forests of Siam Reap this weekend

Over the weekend I was in Siam Reap and, for whatever reason, found myself enchanted by the trees and the colours and the red earth. Not in any particular novel way, but in a way that connected to something I may have simply been ignoring for my entire adult life: that simple truth about the fragility of life and changing our own lives whilst we are fortunate enough to be here.

It’s not as if I haven’t been listening to the scientists and the campaigners. Even on these pages I’ve been known to write poetry about nature, have routinely made calls to action on various related themes, and posted pictures of me and my daughter 9 years ago taking part in a climate change march (the same daughter who now, aged 10, just returned from a school camp fully signed up as a pescatarian.)

So, you know, I talk a good game and encourage others to do lots (plus I now have one daughter doing her thing to contribute towards lowering the demand for meat) versus I fly 1,000s of miles every year, like a bit of air conditioning in the Saigon heat and probably, on most other climate friendly criteria, would likely score pretty poorly.

And yet, the science on climate change has been public for years now. As much as a decade ago, I remember seeing a campaign in the UK to highlight the effects of climate change on the poorest communities the world over. The strapline’s call to action being: “turn down the thermostat – it’s getting hot over here.” The accompanying picture was of a pastoralist with his herd of livestock, sweltering in the heat of an African savannah.

Wind forward to the most recent round of climate change headlines (momentarily competing on the front pages with the familiar and depressing daily churn and circus) and the news about our warming planet remains bleak.     Continue reading “Drawing Down”

Power within

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Picture credit: http://www.sassyfitnesschick.com/2016/02/24/the-beauty-of-empowerment/

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.

Lend Me Your Ears

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Hoa Binh Province, rural Vietnam

Christmas is coming and there’s no stopping it. Even here in Saigon the Vietnamese have started to embrace what has become an indulgent festival of consumption, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.

And, at this time every year, people like me pen blogs like this one, instigated to push a perspective your way. People like me who (you’ll soon enough not be surprised to read) have just spent half my week up in rural Vietnam, meeting local communities.

So, what’s the perspective I’m peddling ? Well, no doubt by the end of this post I will have worked it out…    Continue reading “Lend Me Your Ears”

Women’s Empowerment in the Hospitality and Tourism sector

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Drawing in the tourists – a Sri Lankan sunset over the Indian Ocean

I have visited Sri Lanka in a work capacity every year for the past five – posting about it just recently on this site – however, this April, I’ll spend my 40th birthday there, as a tourist, on the country’s southern coast.

Post war Sri Lanka (since 2009) has much to offer the increasing number of tourists, flocking to experience white sand beaches, up-country tea plantations, and the joy of some spicy coconut sambol for breakfast.

The hospitality and tourism sector is one upon which Sri Lanka is heavily relying, not only in terms of driving up economic gains for the country, but also in making a positive ripple effect on related social factors – in particular, supporting the employment needs of what equates to several million young Sri Lankans on the look out to secure a job.

Within this context, as well as having the potential to positively tackle youth unemployment in the country, the hospitality and tourism sector is in a position to also address why it is that so many women in the sector are not being supported in their careers – and in some cases, why in the very first instance it is a challenge for women to even enter the workforce. Continue reading “Women’s Empowerment in the Hospitality and Tourism sector”

True power lies within

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The dizzying heights of Singapore’s most powerful

And so to Singapore last week, for CARE’s third successive experience of partnering the annual “Sharing Value Asia” Forum – this year attracting a 30% uplift in delegates since the 2013 event, and focusing on what is becoming a fast emerging consensus around how the “Power of Many” may yet be our best ticket to solving some of the region’s pressing social and environmental dilemmas.

I have written before about “cross-sector” collaboration and partnerships. About forging alliances with shared objectives where the private, public and NGO sectors can work together, realising mutually beneficial outcomes.

This flavour of narrative was once more in play in Singapore, and I welcome that. Continue reading “True power lies within”

It’s Inclusion, stupid

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As so to Singapore, fleetingly, to speak yesterday at Diageo’s inaugural “Women in Hospitality and Tourism in Asia” Conference.

As an $80bn turnover corporation, Diageo were not satisfied with only launching a daytime event, comprising of a range of speeches and panel sessions looking at the women’s empowerment agenda within their own industry, no, they also pulled together the first ever women’s empowerment “Journalist Awards” the very same evening.

Hats off to them for a well organised – and at times, genuinely inspiring – watershed day for a company such as theirs, the largest alcohol beverage company in the world, who have spent the past 18 months recasting their aspirations in society around “empowering women through learning.”

CARE have been supporting these efforts, through skills training and micro-finance initiatives in Nepal and Sri Lanka, and we are also discussing how to use our own experiences over the past 10 years in Cambodia, where we have successfully lobbied the government and the private sector to implement a more responsible Code of Conduct for brewers and drinks companies who distribute their products at a local level, largely employing women as beer sellers. Continue reading “It’s Inclusion, stupid”

Engendering change

Looking beyond Mars and Venus
How do we move from the mundane of the Mars-Venus analogy?

I’ve just read this: http://blogs.cfr.org/development-channel/2013/10/16/emerging-voices-henriette-kolb-on-gender-equality-and-economic-growth/ which lays out some compelling evidence making the case for how gender equality and economic growth are linked.

Linked positively, that is.

I work for CARE International, and we have made the case ourselves, and continue to do so in the specific area of work that I have been attached to for the last seven years, namely that of engaging business and markets in our precious “development agenda”. Continue reading “Engendering change”