Leveraging the Enabling Environment to Achieve Scale in Women's Economic Empowerment: An Interview with USAID's Wade Channell

March 12, 2021


A woman holds her crops while smiling at the camera

This post was originally published on Agrilinks. The Feed the Future Advancing Women’s Empowerment (AWE) Program’s Julia Hakspiel, with Friederike Strub, spoke with Wade Channell, senior economic growth advisor for gender with USAID about how we can leverage the enabling environment to achieve scale in women’s empowerment.

How do you define scale in terms of women’s empowerment?

Scale, to me, is really a system dynamics issue. Most challenges we face in terms of women’s empowerment are due to long-term, systemic, institutionalized inequality. Women are not treated and conceived of equally, and institutions have been set up based on this inequality and further reinforce it. When we talk about scale, there is often a high focus on numbers, which gives incentive to implementers to focus on short-term interventions; for example, a training that reaches thousands. But that doesn’t change the systemic issues. Why do we even need to provide that training? Because the system isn’t providing it. We can quadruple the number of women who get trained, but if we can quadruple the number of local training institutions providing those trainings, the impact is far more systemic and permanent. We really want to work in ways that change the underlying dynamics in a society, so that maybe in a year from now you can fill a bus with people that have been directly affected by an intervention, but in 40 years we live in a different world.

What are critical factors for achieving scale in terms of women’s empowerment?

I tend to focus on women’s economic empowerment, so let me give some of that perspective. There are a few critical factors. First, we need to build coalitions that can own and amplify empowerment values and practices. Progress on the various issues we are talking about cannot be achieved with just a few players. When we focus on coalitions, such as business associations, we can find a permanent home for some of the changes we are promoting. Many business and industry associations are gender blind. By institutionalizing gender awareness through them, as well as cooperatives, media, business schools and other sector stakeholders, we can help them make gender a focal part of advocacy for reform.

Second, we need to address the gap women face in terms of access to resources, through both long-term reforms and short-term approaches. For example, [financial technology] (Fintech) is changing the financial systems — moving financial services to women who have never had them — while also promoting immediate, short-term needs. Land rights, property rights, inheritance, courts, education: these are all access issues that limit or promote women’s ability to make meaningful choices for their economic future. In finance (an area I focus on heavily), there are tremendous systemic problems that limit access to women (and men) for smaller companies. Many programs I have seen focus on short-term solutions that get money out to a few women now, without complementary programs to address the underlying deficiencies that make the short-term programs necessary.

We also have to change markets. Wall Street is already insisting on greater gender balance on corporate boards. This must go further. Gender lens investing is changing investment strategies. Male-dominant industries are discovering that gender balance improves outcomes, which will change the labor markets through the improved attraction, retention and promotion of women.

Many of these changes require reduction in legally permitted discrimination, both through reform and efforts around behavior change. If we just aim at the law, we aim at the starting point, not the end point. The point of all reforms is to change behavior, which requires implementation of laws, policies and practices. Without a focus on the end goal, we too often fail to move laws beyond the paper they are printed on. This requires looking at the norms and cultural context that give rise to inequality and actively engage society to embrace equity and fairness.

Finally — and most importantly — we must prevent and respond to gender-based violence, whether it is in the home, on the way to and from work or in the office. Violence is the mechanism used to enforce and maintain inequality. Many of the supposed gender differences that we think are innate to women can also be seen as symptoms of trauma, which points to the pandemic level of violence that women face throughout their lives: physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, financial. It’s real, it’s horrible and it has to stop.

What role does the enabling environment play in efforts to achieve scale? How can we engage with these norms and informal institutions to ensure that we actually achieve that behavior change you mentioned?

The enabling environment is truly the starting point — laws and regulations are built on norms; they are built on what we think should be. Sometimes, laws get reformed just to please donors, but then they don’t get implemented. The long-term work is bringing in stakeholders at different levels. Not just businesspeople who haven’t hired women — it’s important to build a business case for them, but then they might still refuse to hire them for cultural reasons. We need to engage cultural leaders. This is where we can learn a lot from the global health space; they have done a lot to change norms relating to maternal health and family planning. Georgetown University's Institute for Reproductive Health has developed highly effective programming for engaging men to change cultural norms. USAID has used their methods to support internal cultural change through the Engendering Utilities Program. Laws, regulations, implementation, employment practices and enforcement all come down to decisions by individuals who live in the context of norms. Culture is never static, it’s always changing, and we have seen tremendous change in recent years. But change is very slow, and we are looking at decades to achieve standards of equality that we wish for (e.g., equal pay).

Norms are obviously a sensitive area, because you can be accused of cultural imperialism, of imposing outside values on local communities. We have to work alongside local champions, which means we have to fight the great expat savior syndrome. Our counterparts don’t need saviors, they need allies. Cultural change has to be the desire and goal of the people we work with, which includes constructively engaging men and boys to see the benefits of change for all. Raising awareness only with women about their rights doesn’t help them — if you don’t work with the men, this just translates into a higher level of educated frustration.

Norms are also important from a donor perspective: until we see gender equality as a feature of our work, not an option, we will achieve far less. [University of Oxford Emeritus DP World Chair for Entrepreneurship and Innovation] Linda Scott has made a great argument: if you want economic growth, you have to have gender equality as part of it. We are currently working on research that suggests that higher levels of gender-based violence are indicators of state fragility, so much so that political risk insurance should be indexed accordingly, with higher prices for higher levels of violence. Gender equality leads to the full range of benefits we strive for — economic prosperity, greater resilience, stability. This is not mere correlation: gender equality is a substantial cause of these improvements. As women have gained more rights, societies have prospered.

In its first year, the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP) reached 12 million women. What are some examples of the successful activities, partnerships and innovations the W-GDP has supported in achieving this scale of impact?

Under access to finance, we have been investing in those who are investing in women. We have been able to get more banks to develop products and services for women. We have also been able to leverage private sector investment into lenders that serve women. Some investment takes the form of blended finance, some provide technical assistance to the investors so they create long-term capacity to invest in women. We see a lot of potential for scale here.

One of my favorites is a program we have just funded with the Government of Pakistan to jumpstart their initiative to give women national identification documents. We will be reaching 1.2 million women with national IDs, which enables them to be part of the formal economy, get benefits and become registered citizens for the first time.

We are also doing some interesting work with the private sector. One of our partners, PepsiCo, is working to increase women’s economic empowerment in agricultural supply chains. We are also working with Laboratoria in Latin America to provide computer programming skills to women, while also working with large local and international technology companies to hire the graduates.

Our research found that when women know the economic outcomes of their career choices, they opt for “male” jobs, because they are of higher value. These kinds of initiatives can help women move into those kinds of roles. Finally, we are working with utility companies through Engendering Utilities to rethink their internal structures and policies for hiring and promotion — changing how they advertise, interview and evaluate new hires, especially given how male-dominated the industry is. We are seeing a lot of demand for this from the private sector, particularly in Africa.

W-GDP has proven to be a very flexible and powerful initiative.

Any final words?

We have to train our people so that gender is part of how they think. Gender equality must become a standard feature of our programming, not an optional add-on.