When money is not enough: donor-sponsored gender development in the MENA and South Asia

(Original post September 9, 2013)

Next month Muslims will celebrate Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, and each family is expected to divide the meat from each sacrificial animal in thirds: one share is for the family, the second for friends and neighbors, and the third for the poor. As during Eid al-Fitr, celebrated last August, Muslim charity organizations will collect funds for donation to the poor and needy. Holidays like these invite us, whether we are Muslim or not, to reflect upon the meanings of global solidarity and the responsibility of those who have more to aid those in need. It is a shared message among the three Abrahamic faiths. This message is not lost on development agencies and organizations that routinely put these words into practice, particularly in the global south and in conflict-ridden nations. Yet the message that is obscured by such outpourings of charity and apparent goodwill is this: what do you do when it becomes apparent that years of pouring money into development projects has not done nearly enough to tip the balance of power and opportunity more definitively in the direction of the habitually disenfranchised?

The message that some development schemes fail to process adequately is that more money does not equal greater success, though it may generate some bragging rights. As Alex Evans notes in his 2013 report fort Action Aid, looking ahead to the next 7 years for the future of development agendas, one of the critical factors that will shape international development is the decline in influence of political institutions and the rise in influence of non-state actors. His report suggests the growing importance of multilateral coalition-building for weathering some of the global shocks to come (e.g. ongoing economic stagnation in many parts of the world, human-caused and natural catastrophes, the continuous rise of the middle class in emerging markets and the global south, with its concurrent demands for consumables). Mr. Evans makes an important observation here but it is not a new one. In fact, it echoes a trend that has been slowly gaining ground in many circles, including civil society, private enterprise, and (some) large international development organizations.

For some years now, the civil society actors who have been working “on the ground” and in the trenches, those who, incidentally, tend not to be the drivers of global development policies and agendas, have complained about the top-down approaches pursued by state and non-state power-brokers. Top-down approaches have usually resulted in large donor organizations working primarily with those groups that have the capacity, knowledge, and language to work with them. In the MENA and South Asia, these organizations tend to be run by secular(ist) elites, who rarely have extensive ties within, or to, local communities, particularly in urban slum and rural areas.

As many academic experts on the MENA have observed for decades, this lack of connection to ordinary people who are not members of the social elite, is one reason why Islamic-oriented groups like the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood), Hizbullah, and (at least before their rise to political power) Hamas, were able to develop strong grassroots support. They became adept at developing the necessary apparatus to deliver basic social services in the lack (or unwillingness) of the state to do so, and unlike most secular elites of the MENA, they shared cultural and religious similarities with the communities who benefited from their services. Until very recently, there has been little to no communication or mutual understanding between the secular-minded who ran NGOs and the Islamic-oriented groups who provided basic social services to a wide cross-section of the lower classes, working poor, and poor. That is just beginning to change.

And yet, it seems clear that these kinds of coalitions will be crucial to the success of development’s future. There are many obstacles to overcome, notwithstanding some reports from international aid and development organizations that development schemes have actually accomplished a great deal. It may be the case that bread-and-butter schemes of primary-to-secondary education, enabling more women to access healthcare, or providing microcredit loans to women-owned businesses are more easily measured in terms of their successes. The increasing involvement of women in the preservation of forests and in agricultural development, too, is attributable in large part to the concentrated efforts of international aid and development groups to implement gender-aware and gender-transformative programs that recognize the unique needs of women and men and promote gender equitable relationships. The quantitative triumphs of such programs overall (percentage-wise, most such programs have, in the last couple of decades, resulted in greater numbers of women and girls in school, receiving healthcare, starting their own businesses, and participating in the formal, skilled aspects of environmental and agricultural sustenance) are belied only by their failures in states that have themselves become theaters of war, or alternatively, failed/failing states, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Iraq, and Yemen.
Despite some apparent successes, the statistics paint a dismal portrait: according to a 2013 World Bank Report, Opening Doors (World Bank, 2013), although there has been a (laudable) increase globally in the primary and secondary education of girls and women, there continue to be low levels of tertiary education among them, and more importantly, a lack of correlation between the content of education and market needs. Prior to the popular uprisings in the MENA, Egypt saw a shrinking of employment opportunities in the public sector from the late 1990s until the mid-2000s. (Most employed women in Egypt worked in the public sector).Private sector opportunities increased in this time period, but women have not benefitted from the same kind of access to entrepreneurship as men (that is to say, beyond the micro-enterprise level). This lack of opportunity for women to participate in the formal labor force has as much to do with existing social and cultural inequities as with trenchant class biases and a lack of one-on-one mentoring. In response, some MENA governments (Algeria, Oman, Morocco, and most of the Arabian Gulf countries) have increased spending in the public sector (e.g wages, education) but still do not provide comprehensive reform or promote private sector-led growth strategies for an increasingly educated cohort of women and young men. In Egypt and Libya in particular, women’s opportunities to move forward seem to have taken a step back in light of the ongoing uncertainty and turmoil in those countries, including increased levels of violence against women and girls in public spaces.
The many problems that have plagued development programs specifically targeting women and girls in the MENA and South Asia are a reflection of the shortcomings of development in general. Among them are the misappropriation of development funds (and inadequate monitoring of those funds); a lack of capacity building, especially within the community organizations that are best positioned to help the neediest citizens; a lack of sustainability in development programs, which usually has translated into an over-abundance of one-off projects; a lack of cooperation between different stakeholders (although cooperation between civil society organizations has been fairly consistent); a culture of alliance-forging between elites of the global north and south, with both enriching themselves at the expense of the poor; and perhaps most trenchant of all, internal rivalries and megalomania among international development agencies that have for too long given the impression of being more interested in boasting of their accomplishments to the world than in serving the actual needs of the people on the ground. To this last point, Michael Igoe’s August 7 blog post on USAID’s education policy (https://www.devex.com/en/news/is-usaid-s-education-strategy-achieving-real-change/81581) highlights this very debate in light of the continued challenges facing education not only in the global south, but worldwide.
In other cases, the problems facing development are related to attitudes towards aid among local populations. In some cases, a significant proportion of intended recipients oppose international aid. A Gallup poll published in 2012 (http://www.gallup.com/poll/153512/egyptian-opposition-foreign-aid -increases.aspx) confirmed this fact for the majority of Egyptians, who resent the fact that most aid from the US and other major Western donors goes to the military. In Egypt, as elsewhere, the people strongly associate development aid with neo-imperialism or neo-colonialist interests (particularly in the exploitation of a country’s natural resources). Some of this suspicion on the part of the communities that receive or are the intended recipients of aid could be decreased by development agencies making targeted, sustained efforts to engage communities as partners and as social change agents, not just as recipients of benefits. This does not simply involve going in with the open-ended question, “What do you need?” which produces a laundry list of items that may or may not adequately reflect the needs of the neediest. Instead, development agencies should take their cue from the success stories that reflect the possibilities beyond bread-and-butter schemes of primary education or primary-to-secondary education for girls, or greater access to basic healthcare for women. Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo’s important 2009 study criticizing the aid-based model of development in Africa , and her recommendation that a radical cut-off of aid programs (with the exception of humanitarian aid) would actually improve economic and social life for the majority of Africans, calls attention to what some of the more innovative development organizations and NGOs like the Aga Khan Foundation, SEWA, Lijjat, Marie Stopes Foundation, and MEDA have already implemented: the importance of nurturing partnerships to help local populations sustain themselves in the long-term. Women, working in concert with men, are key to the sustainability of such partnerships.

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) implements the kinds of public private partnerships (PPPs) that seek not just to provide workers to fulfill the needs of the market, but to develop self-reliant commercial businesses, including family-owned and women-owned businesses, thus combining aid with long-term goals of investment in the communities it serves. In India, the Self-Employed Women’s Association, SEWA, functions as a trade union to protect poor women who cannot provide regular employment and provide them with job and social security. It has, since its founding in 1972, generated many sister organizations. The collective entrepreneurship model used by Lijjat provides its women members with the means to structured, formal employment, while working from home, through a profit-sharing model that generates access to greater income for these women. The Marie Stopes Foundation does more than just provide women with access to reproductive health services; its model of social franchising network partners with local healthcare providers (midwives, clinics, and pharmacies that pay a small fee to join the network) to provide substantial, ongoing training and supplies that they are able to sell on the open market within a previously agreed-upon price range. Finally, Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) works to develop the capacity of existing local businesses and support organizations, connecting them with local partners and helping them to reach higher-value markets.

All of these organizations share a commitment to sustainable enterprise development, using a multi-pronged, gender-aware approach, while realizing that there is no silver bullet that will eradicate poverty or eliminate entrenched class and gender biases. More important, they have all acted on the realization that when local populations do not have a true stake as partners in the development of their communities, aid will ultimately do very little to improve the plight of the world’s neediest and most disenfranchised. Worse, it turns them into perpetual dependents devoid of drive and confidence in their ability to do for themselves.