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A recent study from Linköping University in Sweden urges aid agencies to acknowledge the contrasting assumptions behind development research funding.

According to the study, funders with a localist perspective focus on strengthening local research, while those with a universalist perspective are dominated by the interests of Northern agencies.

All this is very relevant to research around the empowerment of women and girls, which is often framed using Northern assumptions about what gender inequality means.

Gender-related buzzphrases such as ‘economic empowerment of women’ and ‘transformational change’ fly around development agencies. But commendable as these notions may be, how do you capture them in research? 
Programmes with lofty objectives to empower women often fail to measure these notions accurately. They resort to indicators such as the number of female participants in meetings, but this ignores the fact that a participant may not speak; or indicators such as the number of female recipients of credit, which fails to consider who controls the finances back at home.

One just-published report commissioned by the UK think-tank the Overseas Development Institute offers an interesting comment on this issue. [1] The report criticises research that evaluates levels of women’s empowerment based on stereotypical notions of the roles and responsibilities of Southern women, such as asking about household and child-related expenditure patterns.

One of the reports conclusions is that qualitative research can complement the quantitative methods that are often used to measure women’s economic empowerment.

The authors champion
underused ethnographic research methods that are capable of unpacking complex dynamics over time.

For example, the authors cite an in-depth analysis of the impact of cash transfers in Uruguay as a good example of this type of evaluation. This long-term study explored the power relations between men and women within a community and with the state that provides the cash, capturing issues around violence and personal security that might otherwise be missed.

The report is right to highlight this important research method. Quick data-gathering visits to villages on shoestring budgets and tight deadlines will never accurately assess the type of intervention that is likely to transform womens lives. Yet which donor has the patience or money for longer-term research? This is the crux of the problem facing aid agencies interested in championing womens rights.

Henrietta Miers has worked across Africa and Asia as a gender and social development consultant for 20 years, specialising in gender policy. She is senior associate of WISE Development, a consulting company that focuses on boosting economic opportunities for poor women.


[1] Georgia Taylor and Paola Pereznieto Review of evaluation approaches and methods used by interventions on women and girls economic empowerment (ODI, March 2014)

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