Monday, March 22, 2010

Women's Empowerment Pt. II: On Microfinance

In a previous post on women's empowerment, we briefly discussed the role of framing economic development in the context of an ever-advancing civilization in which spiritual and moral empowerment go hand-in-hand. This concept may be difficult to conceptualize, so we think it might be beneficial to analyze a current trend with regards to microfinance institutions that have, in recent years, placed particular emphasis on women's empowerment. Though we do not claim to have experience dealing with this topic, recent reports and analyses of the declining effectiveness of these institutions have inspired this post.

In what is considered the birthplace of microfinance, the story of this institution has taken a turn for the worse in India. This turn has been documented through decreasing repayment rates (the rate of delinquency has almost doubled in recent years) as well as a seemingly rising trend that emphasizes the use of traditional moneylenders to pay back loans acquired through microfinance. The WSJ article quoted a borrower as saying:

"Group pressure makes us go to moneylenders... We get small loans for 15 days to fill the gaps when we can't pay. If you lag behind, the rest of the group members can't get new loans."

There is increasing interest by donors to fund microfinance efforts because of the expectation that providing access to finance will lead to empowerment; however, it is not clear whether these initiatives are  ultimately beneficial. Part of the reason may be a result of the divergent interests of lenders from promoting social goals:

"On the one hand, private capital helps finance the growth of the sector and expand its reach. 'At the same time, if the mission of microfinance institutions is only to maximize profit, then the social goal of helping people out of poverty is not reached,' …'The problem is that a lot of the new private investors in the sector see it mainly as a way of making a lot of money.'"

Our point in sharing these trends is not so much to criticize the efforts of the microfinance programs described in these articles. Indeed, principles such as the equality between women and men that  have been infused into such programs address truly profound social ills and have tremendously boosted the status of women in the regions in which they  have been implemented. After all, in many instances the concept of income generation was foreign to women, and since earning an income, these women have placed more financial emphasis on the education of future generations than was the case before.

Rather, our point is to share that without other moral and spiritual principles that cement processes of development in an ever-evolving framework, noble efforts can be undermined by other, less constructive forces. Having a strong moral and spiritual base can keep such initiatives focused and purposeful. Consider the case of ECTA (which means "unity" in Nepali) in which participants are encouraged to build-capacity to analyze the needs of society and apply spiritual principles towards the advancement of their communities. Certainly, the experience here is also a fledgling effort at its early stages. However, the communities’  objective seems to go beyond income generation and skill-building,  and their approach attempts to address  the  causes of social ills at a much deeper level.

This same process may be taking place among other microfinance programs that seek to elevate the station of women, though are not given much attention. Perhaps the financial component of these activities is magnified in Western media, partly to demonstrate results that are more easily measured and more rapidly achieved. Perhaps the other components of community-building, which are more difficult to measure and tend to bear fruits more gradually, are left hidden to our eyes. If this is the case, then we should perhaps learn how to shift the way we measure and discuss micro-finance programs so that they fit into the context of an ever-advancing civilization. If this is not the case, then perhaps it would be helpful to step back and analyze our experiences in this field in a more holistic manner that would address principles that need to be included in order to truly propel our communities forward.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

At the Heart of Social and Economic Development

Recently I attended the Baha’i Social and Economic Development Conference in Orlando, Florida. The theme was “Baha’i Inspired Development and the Growth Process: Partners in Transforming Society”. A co-worker and I had the honor of presenting the work of the Tahirih Justice Center and share the history and learnings of the organization to two very captive audiences. The conference itself offered an opportunity to learn from many others — young and old — involved with development/service work in their communities.

Among the questions explored in the conference was the meaning and source of “development”. Of course the term “development” is not new to anyone. Nations have been striving towards “development” for centuries. And who can deny that humanity has made astounding advances in scientific and social development in the last two centuries alone? Notwithstanding these benchmarks of progress, another fact rears its unpleasantness: a majority of the people inhabiting the planet have been left far, far behind. Ironically the gap between poor and rich is widening even as “development” has morphed into a global enterprise that seductively (and rather self-righteously) markets itself as targeting “the poorest of the poor”.

“Born in the wake of the chaos of the Second World War, ‘development’ became by far the largest and most ambitious collective undertaking on which the human race has ever embarked. Its humanitarian motivation matched its enormous material and technological investment. Fifty years later, while acknowledging the impressive benefits development has brought, the enterprise must be adjudged, by its own standards, a disheartening failure. Far from narrowing the gap between the well-being of the small segment of the human family who enjoy the benefits of modernity and the condition of the vast populations mired in hopeless want, the collective effort that began with such high hopes has seen the gap widen into an abyss.” (One Common Faith, 2.4)

Why has “development” failed? The question is intimately linked to another — what is the nature of true human/societal development? Is it purely material? The experiment of the last century was an exercise in applying the notion of development defined in purely material terms. Its dogma caused us to believe that human progress rested on material accumulation alone. We therefore pursued development projects that narrowly sought the economic exploitation of the environment, promoted the violent cultural intrusion of societies, and tolerated the kind of painful structural adjustment programs which the IMF and the World Bank implemented in developing countries at the expense of health, education, local infrastructure and the overall welfare of local peoples. Unembarrassed by both the immediate and devastatingly long-term tangible human suffering caused by the injustices of these policies, our world seemingly continues to blindly follow a credo fed by an insatiable, brutish appetite for material wealth.

The problem is not material wealth per se — rather it is the motivating impulse that drives the processes involved in the aim to improve the conditions of life. Consumer culture has operated under the conviction that those with means must become slaves to their senses and continuously satisfy their material wants and desires. With spending perceived as the pulse of healthy social and economic development “[s]elfishness becomes a prized commercial resource…Under appropriate euphemisms, greed, lust, indolence, pride—even violence—acquire not merely broad acceptance but social and economic value.” (One Common Faith, 2.3)

Part of the problem lies in a deep rooted perception of human nature as incorrigibly selfish. People, we are told, are fundamentally self-interested actors. By design the social and economic structures we have built under the various development regimes are meant to harness those impulses to fuel human progress on the path to “modernization”. Or so we’d like to believe — reality tells a different story, one that is hard to ignore: the disintegration of the family, mounting violence and crime, disappearance of community life, the degradation of the environment etc.

What if we painted a different picture of development? What would it look like? What if development was more than just a measure of income and material wealth? What if development also can start with interpersonal relationships, between two neighbors? What if we viewed true development as unlocking the potential of the individual and building their own capacity to identify problems and take social action within their own community? Does development really begin with material resources and capital? Or does it begin with collaboration and commitment to a broader vision born of a community of people who aspire for something better for themselves and future generations?

Slowly, we are learning that at the heart of how we understand development is a fundamentally different way of looking at human nature — each of us are intelligent beings with the capacity to overcome our baser qualities, with the capacity to do good, to serve, to give sacrificially for the benefit of the whole…the choice has always been ours. We have the agency, what has been missing for far too long is the will.

If we viewed human beings as having capacity to improve their own conditions would necessarily change the way the world “does development”. And here’s how: Currently, most development projects and programs are, by design, top-down in approach. It somehow presumes that pouring resources into a country will naturally lead to development—the project has only to be engineered and orchestrated in right way by the learned “experts”. It presumes that any failure to reach the intended results is due to missteps in the process of execution. If we are to throw out the underlying framework of the development model that is currently imposed on the peoples of the world, something else will have to take its place.

In order to move away from a model that too often regards the “poor” as “charity” or as “untapped human resources” that simply need training by the “experts” to be productive members of society, we need to embrace the idea that every individual is the agent or protagonist of their own learning and development, as human beings with capacity and the ability to build upon it. This idea firmly affirms that whole communities of people can develop the capacity to identify their needs and work together to address the challenges of their community, thereby becoming truly empowered, as they have taken ownership of their learning and growth in a manner most suitable to their environment and current development. We would perhaps start to look at “poverty” as not lack of material wealth, but as a life wasted due to lack of opportunities to achieve their highest potential to contribute to the welfare of the wider community.

So that leaves each of us — protagonists of change, agents of social transformation — at the heart of the matter.

Social and Economic Development can begin, and in reality, does begin with each of us. We all have the capacity to contribute to the betterment of our neighborhoods, the quality of our relationships with young people, the ability to serve each other. Through these grassroots initiatives, be they formal or informal, taking part in service or “social action” and working diligently towards these ends will release the potentialities of the human spirit in ways we have yet to fully realize.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Women’s Economic Empowerment : Towards a New Definition

We often hear the term women’s economic empowerment in relation to – and sometimes interchangeably with – gender equality and women’s rights. It seems therefore useful to discuss the goal of women’s economic empowerment and how this links to women’s access to meaningful work. Furthermore, how does this concept fit into a larger scheme of achieving gender equality and advancing the development of all of society?

If we define development in strictly material terms, then progress is the result of income generation and economic growth working as key instruments to lift the less developed world out of poverty and into a state of prosperity. International policy born of such definitions brings women’s rights into the equation in the name of ‘empowerment’. Slogans such as Gender Equality as Smart Economics frames women’s ‘empowerment’ as a tool to advance this economic growth. And such campaigns do enjoy success at the level of rallying Government and private enterprise support for a ‘gender equality’ dimension to their development efforts. But does this definition of ‘empowerment’ have wider implications on women’s sense of identity, on their concept of ‘work’, and on an overarching definition of ‘progress’? Does it neglect and even reinforce the underlying injustice that we seek to eradicate? Our discussion on 'empowerment' and how it links to gender equality, then, must be embedded in an alternative vision of progress, one that values the role of justice and principles in combating oppression.

An example may help us to consider this. Many development strategies promote women’s ‘empowerment’ by gearing women who live in poverty towards entrepreneurship from a young age. Resources are being directed towards a school curriculum that offers financial education on how to invest, how to save and how to access markets, as a means to equip girls with the skills necessary to manage their own businesses. Such skills are valuable in advancing the role that women can play to contribute to the material prosperity of their families and communities. But what about the qualities such as trustworthiness, cooperation and a spirit of service that go along with good financial management? Alone, are these skills enough to empower women to become actors in a process that generates sustainable change that can be integrated into a more holistic conception of prosperity? What kind of models of ‘empowerment’ can reinforce the community and local economy while addressing deeper problems of injustice and social inequality, to avoid having women become merely tools to propel economic growth?

Any efforts for women’s empowerment and gender equality lack purpose if we don’t see them as vital ingredients in a larger, overarching agenda to advance humanity towards an age of maturity where justice reigns and both men and women are united in their efforts towards spiritual and material progress. How to get there? Certainly it implies going beyond a good combination of policies and incentives; beyond giving women the means to earn their own living; beyond the right publicity campaign. Gender equality is so much more than any of these things – it is a fundamental truth about reality. And while we agree that economic empowerment is an essential element in giving women equal access to meaningful work, the change that is first needed must take place within peoples’ minds and hearts. A change that inspires a genuine belief that like the two wings of a bird, men and women must be equal and work side by side to empower humanity to glide perpetually forward, together, as an ever-advancing civilization.

Women's empowerment in the context of an ever-advancing civilization

We would propose that economic empowerment should not be divorced from moral empowerment, in the same way that in the larger development picture, spiritual and material prosperity go hand in hand. In the critical adolescent years of these girls’ lives, as their identities are being formed, can we neglect a need for parallel efforts that seek to provide the strong moral foundations necessary for their progress? Or a need to ‘empower’ them to develop their talents to realize their potential to contribute to the spiritual and the material well-being of their community through meaningful work and service? That means endowing the work we are training them to undertake with a purpose that supersedes its material utility and thus providing a different definition of ‘progress’. It means a more holistic approach to education that frames productive labour as a meaningful contribution to both their own lives and the lives of the people around them.

What happens when we integrate girls into a system built on the principles of self-interest and competition from such a young age without also providing the moral compass to guide them? The response to that question could fill volumes; it is interesting to note however how severely these principles contrast those that characterize the work that women have been historically engaged in. That is, building homes conducive to the material and spiritual welfare of children. This work is traditionally nourished with the qualities of love, service, generosity, cooperation and detachment. Is there no place for these qualities in the current model of the working world? Perhaps our current economic vocabulary does not possess the language to measure their utility.

Recent studies indicate that qualities are not the only thing being lost: as more women move forward with their careers, less are choosing to become mothers. In achieving economic empowerment, the value of family is being compromised. The role of the mother as the first educator of children is being subordinated to economic gain. Men too have an important role to play here. For us to consider building a just and equitable civilization, the role and relationships between both men and women need to be defined not around economic gain but around building just and equitable social structures of which the family unit is at the core.

So we start with a different premise: That ‘empowerment’ means launching women and men into a two-fold process of transformation: transformation of themselves through transformation of the world around them. So that every human being – male or female – should have access to meaningful work through which they can develop individually and contribute to the spiritual and material prosperity of society. And we cannot construct such a framework without first laying the spiritual and moral foundations that provide the conditions necessary for true development progress; for true empowerment. As discussed, this should go beyond banking know-how and involve a deeper exploration into the values and principles upon which an entire community is built. Just what kind of values could lay the foundations for a universally encompassing approach conducive to the expression of the individual soul’s desire for progress, and the advancement of humanity? Where could we turn to define these values?