The private sector: the new black in women’s economic empowerment

To celebrate International Women’s Day this year we’d like to highlight some exciting and worthy achievements in international development for women. We’ve just completed some research for AusAID’s Enterprise Challenge Fund (ECF) (ECF Women’s Economic Empowerment) showing impressive results from the private sector’s work with women: investing in them as small business owners, employees and suppliers and targeting them as clients. As you’ll see from our report, the flourishing of this public-private partnership (MDG8) has meant that Lili Watts, a vegetable gardener in Solomon Islands, can feed her family (MDG1), has been able to send two children to school (MDG2), and birth her fifth in a health centre (MDGs 4 and 5). Show us women’s economic empowerment and we’ll show you the fastest, most sustainable route to development on earth.

But before we delve further into the research we’d like to discuss the sorry state of donor budgeting for women’s economic empowerment. As we note in our report, the links between improving women’s economic empowerment and overall economic growth are well recognised in international development practice, research and policy communities. For example, AusAID’s 2011 Gender Equality Strategy and AusAID’s 2012 Sustainable Economic Development: Private Sector Development Strategy make a big deal of the importance of improving women’s economic empowerment. And yet it is not identified as an objective in current development initiatives focused on economic growth, the ECF among them. This is more than a little perplexing given the existing policy framework.

Now back to the good news. Our research found that across a number of ECF case studies, even though women’s economic empowerment was not a specific program objective, there were encouraging gains in women’s economic empowerment. In short: women’s earnings increased; they had better access to employment, education and services; and they became more influential in their communities. Just imagine the outcomes if women’s economic empowerment had been an explicit objective of the program!

Here are some of the key research findings from the case studies we examined, which also give some clues into how these gains for women’s economic empowerment were won:

  • The private sector welcomes this research – it is convincing and highlights the business case for focusing on women;
  • The private sector has a niche role in increasing access to technology (e.g. mobile banking) that empowers women;
  • The best results come through private sector partners who are already interested in social development and women’s inclusion as they are willing to innovate and provide flexible work arrangements for women;
  • Good results also come from targeting economic sectors where women already participate;
  • Donor funded programs can be influential with the private sector by building awareness of gender equality and women’s economic empowerment, and including explicit objectives and indicators in design, funding and monitoring processes;
  • Motivated staff within donor and partner organisations can make a big difference, even in the absence of explicit objectives for women’s economic empowerment;
  • More research is needed to increase understanding of what works and what doesn’t, and to explore women’s economic empowerment in differing national, regional and cultural contexts.

Cap saleswomanAs we noted earlier, even in the absence of an ECF objective around women’s economic empowerment, the project has achieved some impressive results. Imagine what the public and private sectors could do if they put a big effort into women’s economic empowerment, and designed and funded programs that chased this important objective as though it were a seat on the UN Security Council? We won’t really know until it happens, but the pace to date has been, well, glacial.

There is a bigger question: what happens in the political and bureaucratic process that sees courageous and important policy being lost in its translation into programs and funding?

Clearly, this question is not limited to gender equality (ask anybody who works in disaster prevention). Is it really the case that there is not enough political will to get behind a push to make sure the economic empowerment of women is the high priority development objective it deserves to be? Are not the exponential savings in development dollars down the track, quite apart from the human rights imperative (OECD DAC 2012 Paper Women’s Economic Empowerment), sufficiently compelling?

The lessons from our research into women’s economic empowerment through the ECF are already proving to be of significant interest to the international development community and AusAID.  Leading edge policy is a good start for Australia’s aid program. Good practice that is resourced well must follow, if we are to see the improvements in gender equality and women’s economic empowerment that we know are among the shortest routes to sustainable development.

Kate Nethercott is an Independent Consultant specialising in Gender Equality and Social Inclusion. Marianne Jago-Bassingthwaighte is Principal at Kencho Development Consulting and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Disaster Studies, James Cook University. 

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Kate Nethercott

Marianne Jago-Bassingthwaighte

Marianne Jago-Bassingthwaighte is Principal at Kencho Development Consulting and an Adjunct Lecturer and Research Fellow at James Cook University. She is a former AusAID employee.

1 Comment

  • Great article Kate and Marianne. It clearly points out the advantages of women’s economic empowerment and how it can be enhanced and in turn, enhance development. But we still have a long way to go. While women and girls health and education in developing countries have improved, women continue to trail men in formal labour force participation, access to credit, entrepreneurship0 rates, income levels and inheritance and ownership rights.

    The World Bank says it’s smart economics to invest in women. Underinvesting in women limits development, slows down poverty reduction and economic growth. The Bank produces papers and facts and figures to support this. But even they say that if they couldn’t show that it enhanced economic development, they wouldn’t be interested. So what about women’s rights and the improvement of women’s lives as an end it itself, as opposed to how useful women in speeding up development.

    The OECD DAC Paper on Women’s Economic Empowerment mentioned in the blog spells it out. It says women’s economic empowerment is a prerequisite for sustainable development, pro-poor growth and the achievement of all the MDGs. At the same time it is about rights and equitable societies. It also points out that women experience barriers in almost every aspect of work. At the same time women perform the bulk of unpaid care work. This latter never seems to receive much attention and is an area for much greater attention by donors through increased recognition and valuing of the ways in which care work supports thriving economies. Indeed, it also need to be addressed in developed countries.

    And why is there so much attention to microcredit rather than macrocredit for women. I’ve had women in Timor-Leste ask me why the men always get the big things like cattle and they always get the small things like chickens. The men can make $100a month out of the cattle while the women only make about $10 from the chickens. And little attention seems to be paid to the possible adverse effects of microcredit loans. The DAC paper points out that often the loans are inflexible, have an exorbitantly high interest rate attached to them and repayment starts immediately putting enormous psychological pressure on the workers, affecting productivity and output. It is repeatedly heard that people prefer not to enter into a microcredit loan as they fear that they will lose everything. In Bangladesh, for instance, women do better when they band together in a co-operative structure and both their economic and social standing in the household improve.

    Women’s social standing, i.e. their status, both in the family and the community is crucial to their welfare and those of their children. In West Africa, when cash cropping was introduced back in the 1960s, all the new technology and money was directed to the men and the women lost their control over family finances through loss of earnings from the excesses from their vegetable gardens that they would normally sell in the markets and use the income for their children’s education and general welfare. Recent World Bank studies in four African countries show that providing women farmers with the same quantity and quality of inputs that men typically receive, and improving their access to agricultural education, could increase national agricultural output and incomes by an estimated 10 to 20 per cent. Why has it taken us so long – over 50 years – to learn this lesson.

    In fact it hasn’t taken us 50 years to learn this lesson. Most of us working in the world of gender equality have always known it. What has taken so long is for decision makers to listen. Why do women have to fight for equality in everything? Why do so few people in influential positions support them? A few years ago, the DAC pointed out that amongst donors, it was mostly relatively junior level staff who pushed for attention to gender equality and that it be included in project designs, monitoring, etc. It appears that women’s rights and gender equality become less and less visible they higher you go up the donors’ ladders.

    Why is this? Where is the logic in it, especially if the evidence shows that assisting women leads to development? Why is there still so much actual resistance to women’s equality – from extreme cases like the Taliban shooting a 14 year old girl because she wanted to go to school, to persistent structural and cultural discrimination and endemic, so called domestic, violence against women and girls. Even in the developed Western world, women still do more of the housework and child care than men, not to mention almost all the unpaid care work. How much of the world’s women’s talents and contributions to development have been wasted over the centuries and are still being wasted today.

    So, a great blog about the ECF and what it’s achieving for women’s economic empowerment but on this International Women’s Day, let’s try and do even more.

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