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

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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.