Making our world fair happens one step at a time: how to fund progressive social change?

The author of this blog post is Kate Bird - ODI Research Associate 

I am lucky! I benefit from the battles for fairness won by the women and men who lived in previous generations. As a child I had the right to receive the same education as a boy. Now, I have the right to equal treatment in the workplace. I can vote, control my own money, own and inherit land and make decisions about my household and my own person. I have made use of these rights and I have benefited hugely from the freedom that they give me.

What is clear is that these rights did not just appear fully formed during the second wave of feminist action in the 1960s and 70’s but were built upon deep foundations that, in the UK, go back to before the Suffragette’s Movement to Mary Wollstonecraft (1791) and beyond.

Gender equity in low and middle-income countries needs a similar long-term perspective. Correcting for the absence of rights is an urgent agenda and chronically poor women and girls need to see change now, but my research into economic empowerment for chronically poor women and girls shows that such change needs to be pushed forwards by multi-level portfolios of interventions, including both enabling policies and specific and carefully targeted interventions. The targeted interventions need to include those that will build individual assets and capabilities while also building power and agency in individuals. These need to be complemented by processes to support changing norms and institutions (in households, communities and wider, through for example the regulation of labour and credit markets) and constitutional and legal reform (see the text box below, for examples of the types of interventions that might be effective in enabling economic empowerment for chronically poor women and girls). How these interventions are sequenced or designed to complement each other will depend on local context and ‘initial conditions’. This was one of the themes discussed in CPAN’s roundtable discussion marking International Poverty Eradication Day on 17 October, 2017.

Interventions to enable the economic empowerment of chronically poor women and girls

The correct mix of measures likely to be useful in a particular country will depend on context and ‘initial conditions’ but is likely to include creating an enabling environment that will support pro-poorest growth and delivering interventions that will allow chronically poor women and girls to engage with growth processes on equal terms.

Specifically, the toolbox may include:

  • Making women’s economic empowerment possible by challenging patriarchy and driving for gender equity, e.g. through legal reform to ensure gender equality and women’s rights in marriage and divorce, inheritance, gender equity in asset ownership and inheritance, equitable labour markets, access to justice and political decision-making (etc.)
  • Supporting chronically poor women and girls to ensure that they can engage in gender-equalising collective action and social movements and politics more generally
  • Enabling policy processes and direct interventions to enable pro-poorest growth, to create decent employment and agricultural and business opportunities for women, including those with low or no skills
  • Regulating and monitoring to remove ‘unfree’ and dangerous forms of labour
  • Building the capabilities of women and girls through education and skills development
  • Ensuring complementary health interventions to reduce chronically poor women and girls’ morbidity, mortality and provide informed choice around sexual and reproductive health
  • Building chronically poor women and girls’ agency, so that they can – amongst other things – have control over the returns to their labour (income, agricultural output), and the assets they own
  • Providing chronically poor women with stepping stones to greater asset ownership and control
  • Ensuring gender-aware infrastructure design and provision and actively helps eradicating exclusion and intersectoral inequalities (exclusion and inequality driven by more than one dimension, for example gender, age, disability, remoteness, low capabilities and poverty)
  • Increasing chronically poor women’s access to ICTs to help poor women gain improved access to markets, information and services and to enable them to participate more fully, in the social and political life
  • Improving access to appropriate financial services for chronically poor women and girls
  • Tailoring business development services (BDS), which provide women with improved capabilities. Similarly, agency should provide improved access to investments, working capital, peer support and mentoring as all these elements have shown to help with self-employment and both business longevity and income gains
  • Correcting the lack of market power that chronically poor women and girls have, so that they can negotiate and participate in markets on good terms. Interventions might include group schemes; skills development (negotiation, numeracy, budgeting); improved access to information, better infrastructure
  • Providing social protection, that includes an income floor, opportunities for asset building, protection from downward mobility and the promotion of sustained poverty escapes

Source: Bird, 2017.

How long it will take for equalising change to take place depends on context, but evidence shows that embedding institutional reform is slow. Equally, legislative programmes that depend on constitutional amendments often take many years. This is without even considering the contested nature of many gender equalising reforms to enable women’s economic empowerment.

A case study from Tunisia shows legislative reform to take decades to cement and that changes in local practice take even longer (see the text box below).

Women’s empowerment in Tunisia

  • Since independence, Tunisia has made significant progress towards gender equality, introducing far reaching reforms to family law in 1957, and gradually eliminating gender discrimination in law in relation to health, education and access to labour markets.
  • Between 1990 and 2011, supported by the growth of women’s movements in the 1980s, Tunisia sustained this progress, reducing fertility rates, more than doubling girls’ secondary school enrolment from 38% to 94% and increasing from 4% to 26% the number of women elected to the Tunisian parliament.
  • These advances have shown extraordinary resilience despite the political challenges faced by Tunisia in the post-Arab Spring era. In February 2014, the country voted to ratify a new constitution which not only preserves key social and political gains for women but advances them. In the October 2014 elections, women gained even more seats, and now represent 31% of parliament
  • In July 2017, after years of arduous lobbying, debate and compromise, the Tunisian parliament passed legislation outlawing domestic and sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) and giving legal protection to survivors.

This progress has creating an important foundation for further advances in women’s capabilities and human capital, and women have also experienced substantial gains in the labour market, with more in paid employment. Women’s organisations have worked long and hard to create space in which they can play a role in shaping social and political transformation.

This progress is built on deep foundations and it is important to recognise that they extend more than 30 years into the past. It relies on the elite bargain made in the immediate post-independence era, which resulted in particular policies in education, health and labour and increased women’s access to resources. Also, the changes in laws and policies promoting gender equality and women’s capacity did not happen in isolation. They were linked. The progress that has been seen would probably have not occurred had legal reform not taken place, alongside the development of progressive government policy and the existence and activities of an active women’s movement. So, change has been driven by many actors and at many different levels.

Progress in Tunisia continues today and women experience increasing levels of both individual and collective agency in both the public and private spheres, which is helping to drive forward further improvements. Iterative progress in different spheres was mutually reinforcing. It may also have created resilience to the potential reversals surrounding the political changes triggered by the ‘Arab Spring’.

Tunisia’s experience of gradual progress in women’s empowerment generates useful lessons on:

(1)    how women can gain access to and control of new resources

(2)    contestation, politics and power play triggered by challenging gender and social power relations

(3)    the importance of understanding wider political settlements when seeking to understand the political trajectories of change (such as processes of women’s empowerment)

(4)    the long time-horizon needed when seeking or enabling structural, institutional, social or cultural changes (including changes to patriarchy and gender equity). In low income developing countries and countries which do not have strong women’s movements, the timeline for progress may be even longer.

These lessons cannot be simply taken and used as a template for triggering change in other countries. However, it can definitely help identifying useful drivers of change which can perhaps be sought and identified (or not) in other settings.

Source: Chambers and Cummings, 2014

We can conclude that supporting progressive change in the economic empowerment of chronically poor women and girls is a challenging process and many questions remain open: What are the entry points? What is the correct sequencing and mix of enabling interventions? How best can international partners work with domestic social movements, policy makers and other actors? CPAN is working with partners around the world on these questions but many are the challenges that still lay ahead.

One of the trickiest issues is that interventions to enable women’s economic empowerment (WEE) are often projectised, particularly when funded by international partners. The maximum duration of such projects is limited and may be set by agency rules or norms. In order to get funding agreed for a particular project, agency staff may need to ‘over-promise’ on the anticipated outcomes to be delivered during the project’s life, leading to unrealistic expectations, disappointment and then a subsequent disinclination to fund future projects in the challenging area of gender equity and WEE. Because of its nature, it is inevitable that some project activities will have ambitious aims in the area of shifting norms, institutional reform or adjusting structural blockages to WEE.

Another challenge is where the scope of a project is set too narrowly to be most effective in enabling the economic empowerment of the poorest women, as such projects are unable to incorporate both interventions to support macro level change (e.g. to the Constitution) while also acting at the local level to build the assets, agency and capabilities of the poorest women. Without either long duration programming, which can seek to achieve suitable enabling outcomes over longer time horizons, or multi-component projects spanning attempts to drive structural change alongside tightly targeted interventions, it is hard to ensure that empowerment processes become strongly embedded or that they are inclusive of the poorest women and girls.

How to resolve this conundrum in future programming?

It is useful to be reminded of how long it takes to reform institutions or shift cultural norms in a progressive direction. How long did it take to achieve greater gender equity in the UK, Europe or North America, for instance? More specifically, how long did it take to achieve gender equity in women’s rights to own and inherit land, open bank accounts and obtain mortgages in the UK and what were the steps to achieving gender equity in employment law in the US?

Lessons from history indicate that changes needed to take place in both de jure legislation and in shifting cultural practices, with changes to public discourse as an early part of the process. This is not to suggest that policy transfer is possible or even desirable, but to highlight that achieving progress in gender equitable norms and institutions has never happened overnight before. Progress in the global South is likely to require patience and sustained effort, too. This should not dissuade us from taking action, but it is important to remind that to achieve progress, a first step needs to be taken and that first step needs to be followed by a second.

When thinking about how best to support progress in gender equity in general and WEE for chronically poor women and girls in particular, it might be useful to identify what the international community can do to support the process. What the steps and stages (sequencing, critical path analysis) for specified progressive changes in gender inequitable norms or practice? What would be wonderful, would be if international donor agencies and international NGOs would:

1.       Agree to fund 10-year, renewable, projects in some activity areas;

2.       Identify soft and hard indicators of progress for such projects which allow for effective project management and also recognise that progress may be slow and non-linear;

3.       Fund shorter-run projects, alongside the longer duration projects, to support and enable the change process and allow for process learning to feed lessons into design modification for longer projects;

4.       Identify the correct bundle of short and long run projects based on a critical analysis of context and the needs of the specific target group

This blog post draws from the discussion held during the roundtable organised by CPAN on the 17th October 2017 to celebrate the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The event has developed over a morning and included two sessions discussing the relation between Disability and Poverty and Women Economic Empowerment. Have a look at the concept note of the event. You can access Kate's presentation here


Bird, K. (2017) Practical measures to enable the economic empowerment of chronically poor women. CPAN Working Paper. London: ODI.

Chambers, V., and Cummings, C. (2014) Building Momentum: Women’s empowerment in Tunisia. Case Study Report. Women’s Empowerment. Development Progress. London: ODI.