Promoting Equity and Inclusion in The Unequal Marketplace

March 25, 2021

Disasters adversely affect local economies, making it hard for microenterprises to remain open and damaging critical assets and infrastructure.  USAID’s humanitarian economic recovery assistance seeks to help people recover their livelihoods and be able to provide for their own needs. The market systems these people work in, though, are often deeply inequitable. As we globally try to answer the call for increased diversity, equity, and inclusion, including in the humanitarian system, how do we tackle these challenges in our work? 

The mission of USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA)  includes a mandate to reduce the physical, social and economic impact of disasters. As part of that, we assist disaster-affected people to recover their livelihoods, restore market services and infrastructure, and help local markets and businesses be better prepared to withstand future disasters. In FY 2020, USAID provided over $35 million in humanitarian economic recovery and market systems sector programming, plus over $183 million focused on agricultural livelihoods in humanitarian settings. 

Promotion of equity and inclusion are critical to USAID’s and the U.S. Government’s work. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his March 3 speech, committed to “stand up against injustice toward women and girls, LGBTQI people, religious minorities, and people of all races and ethnicities.” And in honor of International Women’s Day, acting USAID Administrator Gloria Steele noted that “the economic success of women and girls has a ripple effect” leading to important positive outcomes. 

Markets are complex systems, with varying degrees of diversity and inclusion.  We know from ample research that all markets have some degree of “social regulation,” the less-visible rules aligned “along vectors of identity, including gender, caste, ethnicity and age...sharply affects access to markets and the returns different groups of people can hope to receive from them.” Different contexts and market systems have different systems of social regulation, but in any market system, people’s intersecting identities affect the roles, power, and opportunities available to them. 

Humanitarian response, early recovery, risk reduction and resilience programming usually targets those most affected by disasters -- who are often also marginalized and excluded from profitable participation in markets.  But we face many challenges trying to help people build sustainable, profitable livelihoods: 

  • Humanitarian donor and implementer organizations often lack diversity and inclusion among their own staff, including in program locations.  This leaves us at a distinct disadvantage in even understanding exclusion and marginalization, particularly when it is based on less visible factors such as sociocultural group affiliation.  If program designers and donors don’t understand local ethnic, racial, gender and other power dynamics in markets and communities -- or if we don’t listen to local staff colleagues and community-based organizations that do -- we won’t be able to design programs that even attempt to tackle those inequities.
  • We also need to grapple with our own implicit and explicit biases about different marginalized groups. For markets programming, this might include assumptions (conscious or not) about the skills and abilities, motivations, reliability, and career goals of people based on their race, origin, gender, age, or other factors. These assumptions might be based on stereotypes, anecdotes, or past experience. We need to work to become aware of these biases, and to question and challenge them. 
  • Beneficiary targeting alone doesn’t change the market dynamics. Particularly for supporting new entrants to markets, there may be a dismal choice between shunting marginalized groups into lower-paying jobs, or facing serious headwinds breaking into higher-paying ones. (One encouraging counterexample is of the USAID/Morocco FORSATY project, implemented by IOM, that supported young people in finding new careers, including for two young women to become car mechanics.) 
  • Short timelines (most livelihoods interventions, or humanitarian-focused market systems programs, are only about one year long) and an emergency mindset can lead to a narrower focus on needed financial and physical capital for sustainable livelihoods, and knowledge-based human capital such as skills training. This leads to less consideration for the social, political, and other types of capital that capture people’s relationships, cultural and spiritual beliefs, and connections to power.
  • Short implementation timelines also mean very little chance of transforming entrenched patterns. However, with strong analysis and meaningful engagement with affected groups and local organizations, programming can address the needs, capacities, and constraints of diverse groups and begin to help build more equitable norms, relationships, and structures.  For example, a short-term livelihoods intervention might focus on supporting women in their existing role in an established market system (e.g., selling produce) in their communities, and also work to incrementally increase women’s control or decision-making influence over household income by engaging with men and community leaders. 
  • We risk being paternalistic if we as donors and implementers try to take on the role of deciding what types of work, and what livelihood-related risks, are safe and acceptable to someone. If we instead ask participants in enterprise and employment programming about their preferences, barriers and risks they might face in different types of work, and offer them meaningful choice and engagement in the design of the type of support they’d like to receive, we can overcome that instinct.

There is some encouraging work and research being done: 

  • The CLARA (Cohort Livelihoods and Risk Analysis) Toolkit, developed by Women’s Refugee Commission, helps implementers work with women and girls to understand their own perceptions and preferences around vulnerability and risk in participating in market systems.
  • Humanity and Inclusion has evolved practical, effective techniques to include persons with disabilities in livelihoods interventions and support them for success.  Their WorkWith tool offers an easily searchable list of practical adaptations. 
  • Research such as the Currency of Connections project, by Mercy Corps and the Tufts University Feinstein International Center, supported by USAID, explores livelihood opportunities and networks through the lens of social connections and identities, including kinship groups, geographic origin, and gender, and how these change with displacement. Their 2019 Marketlinks webinar offers advice on how to apply this lens to other contexts to better inform how exclusion and inequity show up in market systems.
  • “New economy” jobs may offer opportunities for relatively well-paid work with fewer built-in “rules” about what sorts of people are supposed to do them. Supporting people to find work or start enterprises in fields related to computers, solar, translation or similar fields can have some success. 

However, there is much more work to be done and we know we are only at the start of the discussion. We plan to hold a webinar later this year highlighting partners’ challenges and innovations; and we’d like to hear from you. How can USAID and partners best promote market-sensitive, market-supporting effective humanitarian assistance?  Please share your perspectives in the comments section!