Who really benefits from corporate-run women’s empowerment programmes?

In Mozambique, 800 female farmers were recently given access to new irrigation technology, quality seeds and fertilisers. In Colombia, tens of thousands of female retailers received business skills training aimed at improving their livelihoods. In Senegal, women working in the local fishing industry were able to boost their incomes after participating in a programme that sought to better their fishing skills.

None of these programmes were launched by international aid agencies or charities fighting to end poverty. Instead, they were all bankrolled by some of the world’s largest for-profit corporations – the oil and gas multinational ExxonMobil, the beer giant AB Inbev and telecommunications equipment company QualComm respectively.

From consumer goods giants like Coca-Cola and Mondeléz International to consulting and financial services companies like PwC and Goldman Sachs, many large corporations are now choosing to pump some of the profits that could be going to shareholders into initiatives aimed at helping people, particularly women, in the Global South get ahead.

Corporate-funded women’s economic empowerment programmes have never been more popular, says Dr Katherine Fritz from the US-based International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), where she advises companies on how to set up and expand such initiatives. “In the past 10, 11 years, we’ve probably seen a tripling or quadrupling,” she told Equal Times on the sidelines of a recent event in the Women and Global Development Forum series, organised by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, noting that the first initiatives started popping up between 2005 and 2007.

Although no single definition exists for economic empowerment, these initiatives generally seek to remove barriers to women’s full participation in the economy by providing them with job and training options, and by improving their access to finance.

The women who participate in these programmes operate at different stages in the value chains of these companies – they are producers, suppliers, contractors, distributors and sometimes employees.

As these initiatives have grown in popularity, they have also started to raise questions about what role the private sector should play in advancing gender equality and women’s rights. Experts warn that it’s unclear whether these initiatives are succeeding in creating a deep, long-term impact on women’s lives. Critics, meanwhile, say companies are advancing a very narrow definition of economic empowerment that isolates it from the broader societal conditions which result in women being paid less than men, having to do most of the unpaid care work and having to participate in the labour force at a lower rate than men. Most of all, the question remains: who is benefitting the most from these programmes – the women or the corporations themselves?

“My personal opinion is that businesses are always going to be criticised by some people, no matter what happens,” says Dr Linda Scott, an emeritus professor at the University of Oxford who has spearheaded much of the academic research into this field. She is also the founder and now a senior adviser to the Global Business Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment, a group of companies like Coca-Cola and Goldman Sachs with long-standing initiatives that collect and exchange good practices.

The main argument for engaging the private sector in the effort to bring women into the economy is its size. Women cannot be economically empowered without the involvement of the world’s largest multinational corporations, proponents of these programmes say. The annual revenue of companies like McDonalds and Telefónica surpasses the GDP of countries such as Papua New Guinea in the former instance and Luxemburg in the latter. Additionally, their supply chains touch most of the world’s economies, making it essential that they participate in these efforts.

But large corporations, in the process, are equating empowerment with entrepreneurship and being empowered with a woman’s ability to spend money, says the Uruguay-based Ana Inés Abelenda who works as the Economic Justice Coordinator for the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), a global feminist organisation. “Women’s economic empowerment does not happen in a vacuum but is tied to other key areas like sexual and reproductive rights, access to a living wage and labour rights,” she tells Equal Times.

Removing structural barriers

After reviewing the programmes of 31 corporations, a 2014 report from the ICRW co-authored by Dr Fritz warned that they largely focused on improving access to education, finance, training and employment opportunities. “However, for a woman to be economically empowered, she needs more than skills and opportunities,” the report stated, arguing for a broader, human-rights focused approach that addressed the structural barriers that prevent women in developing countries from fully participating in the workforce.

“Don’t empower people; hire people,” says Khadijat Zahrah Abdulkadir, the Brussels-based founder of Digital African Woman, an NGO that provides training to female-led tech start-ups across the African continent. If the aim of these companies aim was solely to improve the economic position of women, she says, then they would bring them into the fold as workers or employees.

“But that, of course, is not what they do. They go and skill them, and sensitise them to the products that they can then use [with] the little money they have to buy,” she tells Equal Times, flagging up the persistently high youth unemployment figures in African countries as evidence that large corporations in developing countries talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. She adds that the recent corporate initiatives she’s seen mushroom in various African countries have no incentive to truly empower local women. “The corporations just need to do something, so they have a reason to be there and they can keep coming back,” she says.

Adwoa Sakyi, the Africa region women’s coordinator at the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), says hiring women should be the first step in any empowerment programme.

“Give them a permanent, decent and quality job that embraces social dialogue, freedom of association and social protection,” Sakyi tells Equal Times, adding that companies should also take more steps to address gender-based violence.

Next, she said, corporations should embrace the International Labour Organisation’s Decent Work Agenda, which emphasises social dialogue and productive employment, and guarantees fundamental principles and rights at work and social protection. “Allowing women to organise freely and to collectively take decisions regarding their living and income generation and by so doing also observe issues of health and safety should be something that, I think, will really empower women economically.”

Sakyi also notes the importance of strength in numbers and notes that too many companies are currently dealing with workers in developing counties on an individual or project-by-project basis. “I’m not sure that women’s voices are really being heard in terms of whether they collectively come and negotiate,” she says. Instead, most corporations “look at individuals and give them something that they think will be reasonable without even taking into consideration the very income that these women are supposed to get from the work they are doing.”

Colonial mentality

The business case for these programmes is that empowering women is simply good business. The economies of many developed countries have stagnated, and many of the world’s fastest growing economies are now in the Global South. By bringing more women into the economy, large multinationals hope to ensure that their supply chains in these developing countries are stable, secure and high quality. By improving women’s access to education, training and finance, the thinking goes, they also stand to improve their products and supplies, expand or tap into new markets, keep customers in developed countries happy and improve their financial performance.

After Coca-Cola teamed up with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to train Kenyan farmers in fruit-farming practices, for instance, the earnings of female participants increased by 140 per cent. The initiative, at the same time, also led to the introduction of a new product on the local market, Minute Maid Mango, the first of the company’s juices to use locally-sourced ingredients in Kenya. In the US, Walmart developed a ‘Women-Owned’ logo for certified women-owned businesses after discovering that its customers – a large majority of whom are women – are more likely to purchase a product if it was made by a woman-owned business. Spokespersons for Coca-Cola and Walmart did not respond to Equal Times’ requests for comment.

It’s fine that corporations engage in these programmes out of self-interest, Abdulkadir says. It’s the narrative around them and the way they are designed and implemented that she considers problematic.

These projects are designed with no input from the women they aim to empower and implemented by young professionals from western countries who “are really passionate about ‘saving Africa,’” she says. “This puts us in an extremely subordinate position,” she says. “There’s a colonial mentality – ‘This is how we think you should do it, this is what you need, this is what we want to do for you,’” she says, warning that multinationals are making the same mistake so many charities and NGOs have made before them by failing to take into account the complexity of the countries and regions they operate in, with their various ethnicities and cultures.

Dr Scott says it’s highly advisable for companies setting up women’s empowerment programmes to seek the support of local communities and examine how their initiative fits into previous ones. “It’s good practice, but how common it is I don’t know,” she says. Local communities don’t have a seat at the table where these programmes are designed but, she says, “the people who are designing the programmes usually have experience in this area or have read relevant research on prior programmes, or usually both.”

She points out that there is also a big difference between the large companies that have been engaged in these efforts for years and the many newcomers who, she says, “just want to, you know, dump whatever their thing is.”

Long-term outcomes

Perhaps the most worrying thing is that no-one has succeeded in gauging the deep, long-term impact of these programmes. A recent report from the Stanford Social Innovation Review warned that “few companies appear to be designing their women’s economic empowerment programs for lasting impact—or measuring or reporting on that impact.”

Businesses instead are taking a, well, business-y approach. They are measuring the effectiveness of their initiatives by focusing on metrics – the millions of women reached, the sums of money they were able to save, the number of participants who found a job.

The longer-term outcomes take time and a lot of money to measure – not to mention the difficulty of measuring something like ‘empowerment’, say those who are helping corporations set up these initiatives. For instance, a woman might get access to an employment opportunity, but it could also take years to see how that improves her status in her household, whether she has control over how her money is spent, whether her voice at work, at home and in the community is actually amplified – in other words, the empowerment part.

“It’s a logical hypothesis that these programmes would in turn create that type of empowerment but we don’t always have the type of granular data that would allow us to make that argument much more powerfully,” says Dr Fritz, noting that the lack of information also is hindering efforts to persuade more businesses to join the fray. “We definitely need more of that powerful type of return on investment data.”

But Abelena worries that as women’s economic empowerment becomes a means to a business end, and more corporations and private foundations jump into the fray – with little accountability given over the impact and the content of the programmes – governments are increasingly retreating.

“That’s the worst-case scenario to me. That they say: ‘OK, let’s just do this partnership with such and such corporation that is going to improve women’s access to credit, this one that targets girls in schools and, you know, let’s call Uber to give women the opportunity to work with their car and flexible hours,” she says.

“It’s just the complete outsourcing of the responsibility of fulfilling women’s human rights and it’s very short-sighted and doesn’t really tackle the root problem of why large amounts of women around the world still don’t have even basic rights, and least of all, economic autonomy.”