Political Empowerment and Mobilization Needs to be the Critical Metric for Funders


New Orleans  I ’d like to just say it is a coincidence, but sometimes it just seems like fate. One day we write about how funders are explicitly and implicitly leading movements, campaigns, organizers, and organizations down blind alleys into box canyons for their own convenience without concern for the outcomes and happily doing so based on false metrics, and the next day there is a hallelujah chorus echoing the same argument, even more powerfully, on the op-ed page of the New York Times.

Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for Dawn, the Pakistani newspaper, and penned the piece entitled, “You Can’t ‘Empower’ Us with Chickens” pointedly discussing the misdirected efforts focusing on women, but she could as easily have been addressing the poor, migrants, and so many others with the same force. She names names taking down Melinda Gates argument that sending a chicken can empower women, Heifer International’s “enterpriser basket” of rabbits, fish, and silkworms, and India Partners plea for $100 for a sewing machine. Her point is the obvious one: economics can NOT be equated with empowerment.

Zakaria correctly argues that all of this was a high-jacking. Feminists of the 1980s from the Global South had introduced the priority of empowerment to stop gender subordination and “other oppressive structures” and developing “political mobilization.” The NGO and donor development community has sweated empowerment down to “technical programming” to “improve education and health.” The end result: “This depoliticized ‘empowerment’ serves everyone except the women it is supposed to help.” Amen. In fact the OCED issued its report today as well indicating that the same situation is true of course among rich countries as well, noting that there has been “no progress” in reducing the gap of income and political power between men and women in the last five years.

In a devastatingly accurate critique of the fake metrics of recipient organizations that includes touting enrollment in schools without revealing graduation rates along with the lack of sustainable income in the families getting the chickens and other animal husbandry “gift,” Zakaria states the verdict plainly:

…there is a skirting of the truth that without political change, the structures that discriminate against women can’t be dismantled and any advances they do make will be unsustainable. Numbers never lie, but they do omit.”

She goes further, and rightly so, arguing about the ludicrous exercise of offering classes to ex-fighters of the Sri Lanka Liberation Tigers in cake decorating, sewing, and hairstyling. Personally, i’ll bet there were some women walking out of those classes, saying “get me a gun!” Zakaria argues, “It’s time for a change to the ‘empowerment’ conversation. Development organizations’ programs must be evaluated on the basis of whether they enable women to increase their potential for political mobilization….” Furthermore she correctly states that “The idea that development goals and agendas should be apolitical must be discarded.”

Now add to all of her references to women, low-and-moderate income families, minorities, immigrants, migrants, and millions upon millions of the powerless, and substitute the United States and other countries for the global inflection and donors, foundations, and the rich for development groups, and her argument holds true across the board.


Are Women Rising or Falling in Morocco?

Laila Nassim

New Orleans   Sitting in a popular restaurant in Rabat, as we enjoyed great Moroccan food, having finished the last meeting of this edition of the Organizers’ Forum, we went around the room and listened to the evaluation of the participants. It has been a moving and important experience for everyone, including the Moroccan organizers who were part of our delegation.

The remarks started on a high note as Laila Nassimi, one of the ReAct local campaign organizers, brought us news in the aftermath of our visit at the home of a political prisoner, Aldi, and our visit to the rally to support the families of political prisoners at the prison the following day. Aldi had been allowed to have a cell phone so he can communicate with his family. Nine prisoners had ended their hunger strike after authorities agreed to stop solitary confinement and allow all of them to be in cells together. Laila claimed that the organizers were crediting some of the results to our participation as foreigners, given the government’s sensitivity to foreign pressure and opinion. It was hard to believe that we had had much impact, but we were delighted to hear that progress had been made.

Several participants remarked how impressed they were by young women and their leadership and how it had given them hope for the future in Morocco. I wasn’t so sure. My overall impression was more measured. Without a doubt we had met some outstanding women, but when I went back and reviewed my notes and the agenda, other than the firebrand director of MALI, most of the women warriors highlighted in the presentations were our own ReAct organizers, Bouchra, Marwa, and of course Laila, herself. The journalists and economists the first day were men. The political leaders and activists the second morning were men. The leaders of the UMT and ODT unions were all men. The cultural organization and NGO, Racine, and the Theater of the Oppressed were also run by men. The housing committee organizer was a man. At the ACM, though the project coordinator for domestics was Rose Monde, her co-director and colleague who presented much of the work was a man, and the ACM was run by a man. We met an NGO head of a community center who was a woman. Indonesia remains the only Islamic country visited by the Organizers’ Forum where almost all of the organizations were run by women.

Bouchra Rhouziani

When we met the head of one of the country’s oldest women’s advocacy group, who was a woman, her report on the status of women in the country was very mixed, much of which was confirmed by the women organizers in our own delegation. The family law passed over a decade ago had been important for the MENA region, but progress had slowed, and in most reports, was moving backward after the 20th of February. In a surprising development, the social pressure against women and their place in the public space seemed to have become more conservative and right wing religious forces became more aggressive after the movement slowed.

The bias against single mothers was horribly shocking. Sara Sojar of the Democratic Feminist Movement told us that the level of discrimination of single mothers included leaving jagged scars, poorly sewn when they were forced to have Cesarean births. Discrimination and misogyny doesn’t get much more personal or despicable than that.

Women are our hope all over the world, and certainly in Morocco as well, and our own women warriors carry great weight into the future, but the tide of progress has been moving against them recently in Morocco, and men – and religion – are still in front leaving women’s issues and very lives too far back for hope to be a plan, when the fight needs to be joined immediately.

Sara Sojar