In the international aid field, “empowerment”-driven initiatives too often simplify women’s experiences through a Western lens.
By Meghna Ravishankar
Photo by Annie Spratt
Philanthropy is on trend and no longer reserved for those with robust bank accounts. Your neighborhood co-op, Whole Foods, and Target are stocked with fair trade chocolate bars made by women in rural Africa or shoes that give girls in India access to education. In the branding of many of these products or initiatives, a shiny word helps consumers say yes: empowerment.
For how often it is used, there is no clear consensus on the definition of “empowerment.” Consumers may think of it one way, but development practitioners think of it differently. Development practitioners—those working in the international development field—often have very complex, jargon-heavy definitions that further complicate an already malleable word. Additionally, the question of who gets to decide what empowerment means and who is impacted by that definition muddles the word and the intention behind it further—especially in international aid organizations.
Scholars like Monique Hennick have defined empowerment as a process that can occur at multiple levels—individual, community, organizational—and as relating to five facets: health, economic, political, natural resource, and spiritual. This broad yet specific definition was created for predominantly Western development organizations that need quantifiable results in order to receive funding and continue their work.
Dr. Cristina Espinosa, associate professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management in Waltham, Massachusetts, argues that empowerment is often focused on practical, short-term needs rather than strategic, long-term needs.
“People tend to equate participation with empowerment,” she says. “This raises two issues. One is: Who is participating? And the other is: Is the participation really expanding choices, capability, and autonomy, which are elements to empowerment?”
Ellie Price, coordinator of the Locus Coalition—a group that brings international aid organizations together to share resources, data, and strategies—says that empowerment “is a combination of having autonomy, agency, the freedom to make choices, and the resources to enact those choices. It is to not be bound to the will or opinion of any other being or entity.”
Gender issues are increasingly included in development initiatives around the world. After the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 in Beijing, the phenomenon of “gender mainstreaming”—the growing inclusion of the gender perspective—was adopted widely. This unanimous agreement to put gender equality at the forefront of development brought in more donors, and according to Espinosa, legitimized gender issues beyond access to economic opportunity, such as domestic violence and reproductive rights.
A recent example of gender mainstreaming is seen in the new Canadian Feminist International Assistance Policy introduced earlier this year. According to the description of the new policy, women and girls are seen as “powerful agents of change.” The Canadian government has a list of ways in which they believe women and girls can positively influence the course of our future and details of their new policy approach. Espinosa critiques these sorts of feminist policies by pushing for the reframing of the definition of gender. She argues that male fundamentalism has lead to the narrow definition of gender focusing only on women.
“We are losing the opportunity to question hegemonic masculinities and open the door for subaltern masculinities [masculine identities that lie outside the normative definitions] the same way we want to challenge stereotypes about hegemonic femininities,” she says.
Along with varying gender and sexual identities, religious, ethnic, and cultural identities also come into play. One of the biggest issues with policy frameworks of this kind, as reported on by journalist Rafia Zakaria for the Guardian, is that progress is measured against Western standards. Also, the benefactors of the aid are almost never involved in the organization and strategy of aid implementation.
“Decision-making around programs is largely, if not exclusively, in the hands of donor governments and grant-makers rather than recipients,” Zakaria reports. “Expat staff sometimes make 900 percent more than locals with identical jobs.”
Often, development agencies carry out “feminist” interventions without much concern for the complex web of formal and informal social norms and institutions existing in a certain place. For example, rural micro-lending programs are geared toward women with the intent to boost agency and economic opportunity. However in Bangladesh, for instance, money loaned to women by the Grameen Bank is often controlled by the men in their lives. Some initiatives promote an agenda of assimilation to the culture of the dominant group. The French burqa ban, which prohibits women from wearing burqas or headscarves in order to promote secularism, is an example of a push for assimilation.
“Measuring development progress is hard,” says Price. “We have come up with many decent indicators across sectors and have come a long way in surveying and data collection sophistication, but the fact remains that it is easier to count widgets, latrines built and number of girls vaccinated or in school than it is to measure an ethnic minority’s perceived quality of life post-intervention.”
Some organizations are beginning to seriously question how to crack open standards of measurement.
Donella Rapier is the CEO of BRAC USA, an organization that provides microloans for women farmers, maternal healthcare, and higher education through BRAC University. Donella says that international development organizations like BRAC need to “get better at measuring empowerment itself rather than proxies for empowerment.” She gives the example of an agriculture program.
“Rather than looking at whether a female farmer produces as much as a man, we should be looking at the things that contribute to her success and how these compare to her male counterpart,” she says. “If both men and women farmers say that they have the same level of ownership over resources, then this would not be an area where we need to better support women. If our evaluations show that the women report a lower level of ownership over resources than their male counterparts, then it’s an area in which we should intervene.”
Collecting appropriate data to submit for funding purposes is a huge reason cultural intricacies aren’t gathered. Price notes the competitive nature of organization-based work. “Development organizations are held accountable to meeting these indicators and targets or risk not winning that $5 million contract again from the government, which is how they earn revenue that keeps the lights on and the staff paid,” she says. “It’s tough.”
Rapier brings up the need for long-term commitment to making a difference.
“If we truly want to make lasting social change, we need long-term, sustained programming. Many donors are focused on being catalytic over a short time, say three years, and then want to move on to another pressing issue,” Rapier says. “Few donors are interested in scaling known and proven interventions that perhaps may not be cutting edge but are critically needed for our programs.”
In Espinosa’s work, she advocates for problematizing development—questioning the established structures and practices in the development world. She thinks more inward-facing analysis is crucial to organizations’ long-term success in the communities they aid. “A lot of development organizations feel or think they are neutral, so it’s more about positioning,” she says. “And that’s uncomfortable to a lot of development professionals and institutions.”
Many government agencies use the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as guiding missions for their work; however, many believe these goals themselves need to be rethought, including Espinosa. Her concern is that SDGs created the impression that development is achievable using current strategies.
This is an important critique to consider. The field of development is historically rooted in a system of paternalistic, patriarchal, and colonial interventions. Though the ideologies may not be the same now, there are still systemic issues with the way development agencies work and who holds the decision-making power. According to a 2016 article by the World Economic Forum, the three countries that gave the most money to foreign aid in 2015 were the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Because Western donors mostly dominate the development field, they have a lot of influence over policy.
Espinosa thinks that messaging and practice around international aid needs to “use elements of a religion or a culture to frame the women’s rights issues or the gender justice issues in a way that is palatable or acceptable.” In the same vein that the word “feminism” has become easier for some to swallow than in past decades—and easier to consume and purchase—aid organizations are at risk of oversimplifying what empowerment means, and who it’s for.
Meghna Ravishankar is a graduate student from Bangalore, India studying Sustainable International Development at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Her passions include fighting for social justice, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and board games. Read more about her shenanigans on her website meghnaravishankar.com.