“Why don’t they want our help?” Exploring the relationship between community and development worker

21/10/2014

Jody Akedjody

The Valuing Volunteering project that IDS is undertaking with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is exploring the role of volunteers as development workers. I often hear volunteers tell me that one of the conditions of their success is the “willingness of the community”. In a World Café discussion with Filipino and British volunteers we discussed the example of International Citizen Service (ICS) volunteers doing research using Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) in Ghana. The aspect of their placement that volunteers found most difficult was not learning the PRA process, which took weeks and weeks, but the realisation that the community didn’t want a stake in the participatory process. One of the participants recalled a local volunteer who screamed in frustration, “why don’t they want our help?” In a similar epiphany in the Philippines, volunteers realised, somewhat painfully, that some schools didn’t want to accept their offers to run Information Education and Communication campaigns with students.

Misplaced assumptions

As development workers offering their resources for free, volunteers and programmes supporting volunteers presume that a community is going to be as receptive as they are eager to help. As researchers or practitioners we can fall into the same trap: we risk assuming the burning research question or difficult-to-fund project consuming our working days will strike an instant chord with the people we hope will benefit from it. This reciprocation is often an unspoken assumption in our theories of change about how we contribute to alleviating poverty. So we just jump right on in there, brimming with energy and primed for a successful outcome only to find progress elusive and frustrating.

A different approach

The volunteers discovered that it is not realistic to expect a community to be interested, even in their most valiant efforts. So what does this reality tell us about the way we should begin our relationship with a community or group of people we really want to work with?

Using a systemic action research approach, we tested some ideas about what a development worker can do:

1. Commit a little time up front to work out what makes a community “willing” or not

It turns out all sorts of things affect whether people are receptive or keen to harness our energy. The Valuing Volunteering research found the following factors important, either working in isolation or in combination:

  • Lack of understanding and trust in what a volunteer is about
  • Previous negative experiences with volunteers / development workers
  • Seeing that the change process is complex and difficult, so easier not to engage
  • What outsiders see as needs do not correspond with what local people see as important
  • Timing – other priorities and commitments prevent people from engaging
  • Participation comes at personal, social or economic costs hidden to the outsider

2. Reframe expectations about participation

For many valid reasons, people may not want the kind of assistance we think it is important to give right now. And this is ok. We should be content with small, more mutual beginnings, which build trust. The ICS volunteers in the Philippines decided to work first with the schools who wanted more information on solid waste management. They will create something good and see if this piques interest elsewhere.

If we find levels of participation rapidly sink from high to low as we get into the messy, complex process of making change happen, we shouldn’t despair but celebrate! Fewer participants usually equal more participation. And it means we are beginning to identify the local people who will sustain our efforts. The first follower is often an under-appreciated form of leadership. We should encourage and not dismiss their importance because the total number of participants does not meet pre-determined beliefs about what good attendance looks like.

3. Create the spaces and relationships to find the people who do have energy

Communities are not homogeneous entities. This creates multiple opportunities for volunteers and development workers to harness local interest. We just need to know how to listen and where to look. On another island in the Philippines, we used systems mapping to create a big picture of issues and local dynamics. We found an important local driver for change was not protection of marine ecosystems per se, but the family breakdown that resulted from low fish catch. Our entry points were different but we found common ground. And this was enough to get going.

The list is clearly not exhaustive. But the ideas raised have something in common.  In these examples development workers have tried to think systemically about why momentum for change is slow before coming up with precise interventions. This process resulted in a re-assessment of their role in the change process as being co-dependent on the interest and energy of the community to embark on a journey with them. We found the fight against poverty doesn’t need more willingness on the part of communities to fall in line with our way of thinking at all. It requires different approaches – and the confidence and conviction that come with them – to enable development workers to work in more reflexive and iterative ways.

Jody Aked works as researcher for the IDS-VSO partnership ‘Valuing Volunteering’ in the Phillipines. She is also a PhD student with the PPSC Team

Read a previous blog piece by Jody Aked


Digital Battlegrounds: the growing struggle to contest LGBT online spaces

15/10/2014

Stephen WoodStephen_Wood200

The meteoric rise in the use of smart phones and the internet over the last ten years, both within the West and in increasing numbers in regions such as South-East Asia and Africa, has brought fresh opportunities by which we can make sense of ourselves as individuals and participate in our communities. There is now recognition amongst politicians and policy actors that these technological advances are shaping public debate in unexpected and interconnected ways.

Nowhere has this transformation been so noticeable and relevant than amongst those sexual minorities building lives in societies whose harsh cultural and legal barriers prevent open expression of non-normative sexualities. For many, lives lived online have become richer, offering resilience and strength in ways impossible on the streets or even within their home.

Opportunities for online growth

The possibilities of social media have facilitated the establishment of discreet and anonymous methods of connecting and meeting up for social support, commercial transactions, sexual and romantic encounters. In places such as China, where family plays an incredibly important part in building and maintaining social capital, there has been a growth in ‘arranged’ marriages between lesbians and gay men organised online that provide opportunities for mutually-assured social acceptance and a freedom to explore identities discreetly, especially in urban settings where kinship networks are policed less. Heavily moderated and secure online spaces on platforms such as Facebook in countries like the Philippines allow for anonymous or open organizing for social and political activism, as well as providing opportunities for HIV prevention outreach work, such as the Adam’s Love campaign in Thailand for men who love men.

As researchers, these virtual spaces provide fresh opportunities for us to engage with and hear from ‘hidden’ populations, providing we remain mindful that any data we might glean could stem from the relatively privileged in society. As my colleague Pauline Oosterhoff writes in her recent paper ‘Research Methods and Visualisation Tools for Online LGBT communities’, there are remarkable possibilities for larger scale quantitative data collection from geographically dispersed and ordinarily inaccessible participants, although not without some concerns about the quality of data and ethical considerations. With the rising expense of conducting research, this also represents a cost-effective mechanism for building research cohorts and disseminating our findings to new audiences.

The double-edged sword

This connectivity, that brings global communities closer together and feeds perceptions of users as private, individual consumers going about their business away from prying eyes, masks very real dangers. The backlash is already with us. Human rights advocate Scott Long has written extensively about the state targeting of sexual minorities communities in Egypt over the last couple of years, with police targeting LGBT people as a result of online postings that even tangentially aid in their identification. Popular gay male smartphone app Grindr (which presents profiles ordered by GPS distance between users and is thereby incredibly popular for organizing hook-ups) has the potential to identify the physical location of users and could have its functionality distorted into a tool for facilitating violence, entrapment or blackmail for unwary users. The illusory freedom of online life sometimes leaves people feeling invincible and unable to gauge the potential dangers.

As researchers and activists, we must recognize that we stand at a crucial crossroads in the maturity of the internet. In the public eye, the fiercely empowering nature of online activity still holds sway, with acres of media coverage of how democratic accountability was ignited in the ‘social media revolution’ of the Arab Spring or domestically during the recent Scottish Independence debate. These dramatic images of societies coming together in online dialogue are much more visible than the more abstract concerns about big data, cyber security, state surveillance and silencing of dissent. But their impact is devastating. In the last month alone, Scott Long has compellingly exposed the Egyptian government tendering out for tech companies able to provide tools for monitoring online traffic in incredibly intrusive ways, including for evidence of “terminology and vocabulary that are contrary to law and public morality or beyond the scope of custom and community ties”. The successful tender came from a sister company of a Californian-based US internet security firm, raising probing questions about the conflicted relationship Western states are playing in ongoing global debates around LGBT equality, as arrests, detention and abuse across Egypt of LGBT people increases dramatically.

Online activism represents a new front for citizen participation, mobilization and (in)visibility. As a relatively new area of research, there is a real need for evidence to elucidate whether or not it facilitates the emergence of voices from those parts of sexual minority communities that are usually rendered invisible, or whether we are exposed to a vocal activist base drawn from the technologically literate, relatively privileged classes in society pursuing campaigns that at times run counter to the needs and priorities of poorer LGBT people. These campaigns in turn run the risk of being unquestioned and mirrored into global policy spaces by the rapidly expanding class of well-intentioned international LGBT activist ‘clickdavists’, whose efforts could exacerbate accusations of Western cultural imperialism.

The potential for online spaces to foster strong communities and civic participation amongst those facing discrimination as a consequence of their sexual identities remains great, yet are being contested aggressively by opponents. Even amongst sexual minorities themselves, the dynamics of social media use are reshaping communities and civil society in under-examined ways that are potentially troubling and warrant further research. With activists and academics pressured on a daily basis to put their energies into the viscerally immediate ‘ground war’ of embattled LGBT communities, we ignore the online ‘air war’ at our peril.

Stephen Wood is a Research Officer on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

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Read other recent blogs by Stephen Wood:


Welcome back John Gaventa!

08/10/2014

Jane StevensJane_Stevens200

Having let out my own whoop of delight on reading my email this morning I knew I was not alone – our corridors are a-buzz with the excellent news that Professor John Gaventa has been appointed as Director of Research here at IDS.  John is currently Director of the Coady International Institute and Vice President of International Development at StFX University in Canada.  He was formerly Chair of Oxfam GB, for which he received an OBE, and is renowned as a leading researcher, educator and practitioner on issues of citizenship and citizen engagement, power and participation, and governance and accountability around the world.

For many years John was at IDS heading up our Participation Team and associated research consortia, which is how I came to know him.  He was an inspirational colleague and leader, combining clear-thinking, innovative and wise research with a genuinely participatory and pioneering approach, all of which are deeply rooted in a life of activism and a compelling conviction that it is possible to change the world for the better.

One of the first times I met John, some 17 years ago, was attending a film screening one lunchtime about a community he was involved with in the US.  It documented how a group of citizens, mostly poor but living in a resource-rich valley, came together to fight for their rights which were being eroded by a large, powerful and intimidating mining company.  In the conversation afterwards John told some hair-raising tales of the activities he and the community undertook together to achieve this.  I found the film very inspiring but was also struck by the importance of research and leadership that stems from the personal: from being part of real-life, grounded and sometimes challenging experiences, and from being able to reflect and learn from them.

John’s enthusiasm, thinking and vision has continued to influence and encourage me (and many, many others around the world) over the intervening years.  I am so glad he is returning to take up this role at IDS.  And I know that someone who, on a rare weekend off, can determinedly walk 100km in under 30 hours to raise money for Oxfam will have the energy to steer IDS research into a bright and exciting future.  We all look forward to your return John – see you in January!

Jane Stevens is the Comms Officer for the PPSC Team at IDS. 

Read a previous blog piece by Jane Stevens:


The Hydrology of Policy

10/09/2014

picture of Carlos CortezCarlos Cortez

As we move into a period of post-2015 ‘stock-taking’ in advance of the UNGA at the end of September, Participate partners have been critically reflecting on the participatory approaches they have employed in attempts to shift power in policymaking – including the engagement with the post-2015 process. This blog introduces the ‘hydrology of policy’ to help illustrate the complex process of bringing research into policy influencing.

Knowledge generated by people living in poverty and marginalisation flows across different influencing levels, feeds into different spaces, leading to potential changes in discourse (and sometimes practice) and in policy that revert to affect the lived reality of people on the ground. But this is not a one way process: changing discourse can open new spaces, and changes in practice can influence discourse. Local level changes can proliferate ‘horizontally’ to other communities; and likewise ‘vertically’ these changes can influence what happens at the national or global level. This can be understood as the ‘hydrology of policy’ (see illustration below).

IDS_Anthology_ Hydrology of policy

The ‘hydrology of policy’ shows how the ideas, needs, proposals for change and experiences from the poorest and most marginalised people can be represented as the water that starts from springs in the local isolated places where they live, flowing into little streams. These streams of ideas, needs, proposals and experiences join to create rivers that feed the big river that represents the global debate on the post-2015 themes. Most of the decisions are taken in places where marginalised voices are hardly heard, because the springs are far away from where the big river joins the sea. From the illustration it is clear that the rivers go through a winding route, with obstacles such as dams along the way that limit and control the flow of the water. This represents the challenges faced while trying to bring the voices of the poor and marginalised to the place where the decisions are taken. Often they only reach after an ‘evaporation’ in which their perspectives on the change they want has almost disappeared and are little considered by the decision-makers.

The results of the global debate are represented as clouds which depict the general discourse and practice of ‘development’ from the perspective of the decision-makers. The clouds move towards land and arrive back at the source of the spring as a ‘rain’ of projects, programmes or simple promises from government and social actors. As in the real world, rain can be light, causing drought, or can be heavy, like a storm, in both cases not responsive to the poorest and marginalised.

Bringing research into policy influencing at multiple levels is a complex process, and engaging across different levels to achieve changes in development that prioritise the poorest and most marginalised people is not without challenges. Demand for change needs to happen at every level of the system – from local to global and global back to local.

This blog is an edited version of Carlos’ contribution to Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence’.

 Dr Carlos Cortez is a member of the Participatory Research Group and is based at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Mexico (UAM-X).

 


Perverse Payment by Results: frogs in a pot and straitjackets for obstacle courses

03/09/2014

Robert ChambersRobert_Chambers200

Perverse  adj. deliberately deviating from what is regarded as normal, good, or proper (Collins English Dictionary)

The Department for International Development (DFID) claims to be a world leader in developing results-based aid, and now Payment by Results (PbR).  PbR means that recipients will have to show results before they are paid. It will help to share risk, we are told, and radically re-balance accountability.  It makes sense for DFID ‘to take a tougher, more business-like approach by requiring results up front before payment is made.  Better sharing of risk in this way will drive value for money as partners become more incentivised to deliver’.

The drift of the past two decades away from participation and towards top-down controls and upwards accountability has been continuous and gradual, a heating of the water in the pot. The logframe, results-based management, upwards accountability, delivering value for money, business cases… these are motherhood and apple pie words with their mantras and procedures.  They have to be good.  More of them has to be better.  But what has been happening to the frogs in the pot as these procedures intensify and heat it up?

Inside the DFID pot, am I right? More managers have been recruited who have no experience of development. Total staff numbers have been reduced while budgets have increased! (Before he became Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell said in public on two separate occasions at the University of Sussex that to do this would be ‘ridiculous’). But it is worse than this.  The staff to funds ratio has declined while in the name of accountability and value for money internal procedures have become more and more laborious and staff intensive.  Not least of these is making the business case for a project, which is much the same time-consuming effort for £500,000 as for £50 million, 100 times as much.  So staff are more tied than ever to their headquarters and offices, have less and less time for ‘the field’ and actually grounding and learning the truth for themselves of what is going on, at a time when aid is going out in bigger dollops.  Value for money? The DFID frogs in the heating pot have forgotten (or the recent tadpoles never knew) what it used to be like. The frogs already there socialise them into acceptance. And how can they jump out?  They need the water – work, careers, and (unspoken) the power that comes with increasingly stringent upwards accountability.

Realities beyond the pot

And outside the DFID pot, the recipients or would-be recipients are facing obstacle courses of complexity, emergence and unpredictability.  This applies markedly with NGOs and with research – NGOs work in highly risk-prone environments, research would not be needed if the results were known – but  DFID funding has increasingly become a dysfunctional demoralising nightmare with escalating risks and transaction costs. Goals and targets have become more rigid, measurement has taken over from judgement, linear Newtonian thinking and action denies and obliterates non-linear realities, motivation has to be ‘incentivised’ by carrots and now with PbR the sticks have no carrots at all, relationships have become distant, trust, discretion and flexibility have gone out of the window and reporting becomes more of a misleading nightmare.  And as aid monies go in larger lumps to consortia so transaction costs are transferred from inside to outside DFID, and unsuccessful bidders suffer disappointment, distress and costs…  Am I wrong?  I invite rebuttal.  Let’s be evidence-based.

Take rural sanitation.  We have learnt a lot in the last decade:  the top-down building of toilets for people doesn’t work as CLTS (Community-Led Total Sanitation) has shown – people have to want to end open defecation, have to want toilets, and have to use them, keep them clean, and maintain and improve them; the astonishing spread of CLTS in African countries and elsewhere and its adoption by over 20 governments is evidence enough – despite problems common to all programmes that go to scale it is dramatically more cost-effective than earlier approaches, and this is well known in DFID.  But we all know that with good and enduring participation, you cannot predict speed.  Perversely there are evidently now targets, paid by results, for toilets.  Forced to achieve targets for payment after results, organisations may have to choose: abandon participation and do what they know won’t work, or go bankrupt, or lie (well, massage facts, gloss realities, mislead, report on what was planned not learn from what happened…).  I know a participatory organisation with an excellent track record which is being bankrupted through one of these contracts: the senior management have had no remuneration for six months.  If it goes under, this will be a result of PbR, evaluators please note, and please ensure, DFID, that negative externalities like this will be identified, costed and reported in all evaluations of PbR.

The rise of PbR – to what end and at whose cost?

Standing back, let’s ask:  what is going on?  How far will this go?  At what gratuitous cost to people living in poverty, and diminished cost-effectiveness of our tax payers’ money?  Is this what we had in mind when we campaigned for 0.7 per cent?   For the obstacle course of development, are straitjackets now to be de rigueur?  Brave new world.   And who is accountable to whom?  There isn’t the faintest whiff of accountability to poor people.  Has that been utterly forgotten?  And how many aid managers have development field experience (and by field I don’t mean in other capital cities)? Do they confuse accountability – the words are similar – with accountancy?  DFID is proud of meeting its spending targets!  Who in DFID recognises that not spending budgets can be an indicator of participation and empowerment?  That it is good to save money? Who rewards those who save money or spend it slowly because they are empowering people through participation?

The perversities of PbR and related approaches are set to diminish value for money:

  • Misfit with complexity. PbR and fixed goals, targets, milestones misfit complexity, unpredictability, flexibility, adaptability. Strait jackets for obstacle courses? Less that is good will be achieved. The Secretary of State has claimed that ‘DFID is … becoming a world leader in pioneering innovative Payments by Results programmes for tackling complex development problems’ (my italics) It is precisely with complex development problems where PbR’s misfit is most stark and tragic, and worst value for taxpayer’s money.
  • Misleading reporting.  Incentives can be perverse incentives to report results. Shoddy work: do what the numbers demand, never mind sustainability, ownership, empowerment – you can’t measure those so easily.  Bias to the measurable. DFID  ‘ …being paid by results… (drives up) performance standards, management and measurement {sic]’.  Yet Andrew Naitsios, former head of  USAID said ‘ …those development programs that are most precisely and easily measured are the least transformational, and those programs that are most transformational are the least measurable’ (No surprise that infrastructure is so much the rage – it can be measured)
  • View of human nature.  ‘Incentives’, ‘incentivise’ – in PbR there is an unspoken implication that people working in ‘aid’ are doing it for the money  (an insulting view of what drives people in development NGOs and research).  That is not what motivates the vast majority of the people I know.  They work in development because they actually care and want to make a difference
  • Disbursement targets.  It is a matter of pride that DFID is ‘meeting its spending targets’. Spend the budget by the end of the financial year.   Get the money out of the door in time.  Tick.  But too much aid too fast is a widespread complaint from recipients.

I could go on. In the world of NGOs and research at least, and probably much more widely, the effects of PbR seem set to be cruelly perverse.

In any case, where is the evidence that PbR is better than alternatives? Until PbR is soundly evidence-based, while DFID may  be a world leader in payment by results, for aid to be cost-effective, and for the sake of people living in poverty, let there be no followers.  If DFID want to be a world leader, perhaps this could be in honest, insightful evaluation of PbR which goes deep into its externalities and  the realities of all who are affected.

Alternative paths to the PbR highway

And let us note that outside the DFID pot, there is another, thrilling, world evolving.  Last month I was at the biennial Development Cooperation Forum in New York, convened by the Economic and Social Council of the UN.  There was talk there of ‘trust-based inclusive partnerships’ ‘horizontal relationships’, ‘South-South collaboration’ and the sense of a new dawn, a re-recognition of the vital significance of relationships which are not distorted by power.

So in PbR, where is the understanding of people, of communities, of participation, of complexity, where is the listening, where are the relationships in this world sanitised of humanity, and of people, of the personal?  Read the wonderful book Time to Listen: hearing people on the receiving end of international aid (Anderson et al 2012) whose researchers listened to almost 6,000 recipients of aid.  And what did they say? They said they appreciated aid but would prefer not to need it.  They said it comes too much and too fast.  They said they want and need relationships with donors, face-to-face, but contact is rare, if ever, and then rushed. They said they had to divert time and energy from action to demoralising and misleading reporting and upward accountability.  Again and again, they point to hidden transaction costs….  And the Time to Listen researchers found that wherever there was a good initiative or project there was always a person.

To conclude:  To give better value for money, please DFID

  • radically simplify and streamline your internal procedures and free up staff time,
  • recruit many more staff with grassroots field experience and who understand development realities, and free them to be in touch with the rapidly changing realities outside their pot, and
  • put PbR on hold until a few examples can be evaluated in depth over time.

If you did these three things, you would indeed, truly, be leading the world.  And there is one more thing.  To deliver astronomical value for money (and without a business case) the Secretary of State could authorise the purchase of 2000 copies of Time to Listen and send them to all DFID staff.  As a starter, I am mailing her a copy.

Robert Chambers is a Research Associate in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other blog posts from Robert Chambers:

 


Picturing gender, ethics and health systems: a competition for photographers

20/08/2014

The aim of this competition, organised by Research in Gender and Ethics (RinGs), a new cross-RPC partnership between Future Health Systems, ReBUILD and RESYST, is to capture the everyday stories of the ways that gender plays out within health systems around the world. The winning entry will be exhibited at the Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, and be used to illustrate our website, and in other published materials with full credit to the photographer.

Gender-sensitive health policy is a feature of international commitments and consensus documents and national-level normative statements and implementation guidance in many countries. However, there are gaps in our knowledge about how gender and ethics interface with health systems. Our project shines a light on some of the ways that gender and health systems come together in a variety of settings. We are looking for photographers who can help us communicate this area of work visually. We welcome images of people of all genders from all areas of the health system, all around the world – be creative!

The deadline for entries is the 1 September 2014.

The judging

Photographs will be judged by a panel of gender specialists and a representative from the creative industry. They will be marked according to:

  1. Their content, i.e. their relevance to subject.
  2. Their ability to tell the story of gender and health systems, i.e. the message they contain, their creativity. We are looking for original and authentic visual representations of health systems in action.
  3. The technical merit of the photo, i.e. exposure, focus, colour, lighting etc.

We are looking for images which challenge stereotypes, encourage the viewer to learn more and act differently, and which respect the integrity of any people who may be photographed. There is a rich discussion on the ethics of photography in international development which should help guide entrants. Further information can be found here and here.

Who can enter and how to submit?

Those who have an experience of, or interest in, gender and health systems are very welcome to send images.

Send up to a maximum of three photos by email to RinGs.RPC@gmail.com

Submission requirements:

  • Size: At least 1MB
  • Print resolution: 300 dpi
  • Format: JPEG or tiff only
  • Landscape and portrait images are acceptable
  • Although some digital enhancement is acceptable we cannot accept images that have been digitally altered to change what is portrayed.

Send each photo separately and include in your message the following information:

  • Name of photographer:
  • Photographer email:
  • Photographer phone:
  • Title of photograph:
  • Location (country and city/town/village where the photograph was taken):
  • The date (if unknown, please provide the year) each photograph was taken:
  • The level of consent provided from any people pictured in the photo (see informed consent guidelines for more information):

Submit your entry:

All images should be emailed to RinGs.RPC@gmail.com by 1 September. We look forward to receiving your entries.

For more details please download the entry requirements and terms. Information about informed consent and a sample consent form are also available.


Motorways to Nowhere?

19/08/2014

Jenny_Edwards200Jenny Edwards

International development agencies have been pouring money into one-size fits all interventions for women and girls’ empowerment. Increasingly the business case ‘Invest in a girl and the world benefits’ is becoming popular among donors, NGOs and private sector supporters. But quick-fix solutions are rarely either the answer or sufficient to deal with what are essentially complex and intertwined problems. The analogy we use within the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Programme is that agencies are building ‘motorways to nowhere’. In focusing on the destination down a zooming highway rather than journeys along more meandering pathways, development agencies may be missing the fact that women’s experiences of empowerment are not straight or straightforward: there are obstacles, they do not travel alone, routes are circuitous and there may be many stops along the way. Donors need to look beyond targets, destinations and tick boxes and explore the complexity of women’s lives and relationships. Feminisms, Empowerment and Development, one of a series of new books from Pathways published by Zed, debates some of these complexities and highlights lessons learned about how women experience change that were uncovered by our research.

What is empowering to one woman may not be equally so for others

One of the important findings from a survey of three generations of women in Ghana which researcher Akosua Darkwah talks about in the book, is this: education for the older generation guaranteed a pathway to valuable formal sector jobs, but this is no longer the sure-fire route to secure, decent work for a younger generation faced with a more unpredictable labour market. In Brazil, Terezinha Gonçalves’ research found that when middle class women employ a domestic worker, it frees them from their chores to pursue empowering professional careers. However, as these women often do not value domestic work as a profession they fail to provide decent pay and conditions to their predominantly, black female staff. These examples highlight the importance of context: geographical, historical, class, race etc. For interventions to be successful they need to be fully appreciative of women’s lived experiences and not see ‘poor women’ as one homogenous group. This need to pay attention to context is demonstrated in Pathways’ survey on work, where for women in Bangladesh and Egypt work outside the home was seen as empowering but not so for women in Ghana where this was something they had always experienced.

Hidden Pathways

The differing experiences of women and girls can be clearly seen in what Pathways’ researchers refer to as ‘hidden pathways’. Focusing only on economic, political and legal routes of empowerment through interventions such as micro-credit, quotas and law reform risks missing some of the less obvious but still important aspects of women’s lives. For instance, although representations of women on television and the media have sometimes proved problematic and disempowering, Aanmona Priyadarshini’s and Samia Rahim’s study in Bangladesh shows how television has captured imagination across classes. Women experience pleasure and hope for their own lives from shared viewing, but also choose, judge or disregard narratives depending on how they connect with them. In Pakistan, a participant in Neelam Hussain’s research explained how watching a woman in a job interview on television helped her to know how to behave in a situation she had yet to experience.

Horizons of Possibility

Expanding the horizons of possibility is one of the key messages of the book. Although economic, legal and political interventions are important they are not enough on their own. The process of empowerment requires ‘creating consciousness’ or helping women to see themselves as equal citizens entitled to rights. Hania Sholkamy says that one of the key elements of a feminist social programme is to support women in recognising their citizenship rights. This importance is clearly demonstrated by Saptagram, a social mobilisation organisation in Bangladesh, the subject of Naila Kabeer’s and Lopita Huq’s chapter. A key element of Saptagram’s strategy was transforming women’s consciousness. As one of its members said ‘I have learnt about our rights. Now I understand I have the same rights as my husband… Whether I get my rights or not, I can still demand them’.

Pathways of Change

So is there an answer, or a solution? Many of Pathways’ messages are not new or earth-shattering but they bear repeating in an age of what Lisa VeneKlasen from Just Associates at a recent Pathways conference referred to as ‘clickivism’: the idea that just pressing one button will lift a woman from poverty. We need to listen to women’s experiences, learn from their lived realities on what works and what doesn’t. We need to support them in realising their rights and give support to women’s organisations to demand these rights. We need to tackle the issues of power that sustain women’s inequality; the deeper issues behind what hinders women’s unequal representation in parliaments and in the board rooms. We need to do more than just give a woman a cow and expect her to change the world. As Hania Sholkamy notes: ‘Alleviating poverty and enabling women to make some income can better lives, but the enabling environment that confirms the right to work, to property, to safety, to voice, to sexuality and to freedom is not created by sewing machines or micro-credit alone’.

Jenny Edwards is Programme Officer for the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Programme, based at IDS. 

Read other posts from Jenny Edwards:

A version of this blog was first published on The Guardian on 23rd July 2014 under the title “We cannot give a woman a cow and expect her to change the world”.