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*This is Part Two of a three-part series dedicated to deconstructing data, measuring women’s empowerment, and understanding risk/reward when merging for-profit and nonprofit practices.


Program Evaluation 

When monitoring and evaluating (M&E) women’s empowerment programs, it’s important to consider the processes that shape the lives of underrepresented women and girls – processes that often only in-group community members fully understand. Empowerment of this kind is realized through mentorship, coaching, learning, and capacity-building; it is actualized by relationships – and relationships cannot be so easily quantified or scaled. How we tend to ‘measure’ the quality of any relationship is how well it weathers the trials of time, and through mutual feelings of respect, validation, acknowledgement, and trust. We mark the value of our relationships with memories and stories of shared success. If building infrastructure is a primary goal of global development, a natural part of achieving this will be meeting community leaders where they are in the process of empowering their own communities. Overlooking this means we risk mimicking patronizing overtones of our colonial forefathers.

Data alone is only part of the story. The ability to gather metrics should not dictate the existence of  programs that offer incredible value for their communities regardless whether or not they have noteworthy figures. Anyone who specializes in social services work well knows: convincing someone who has experienced abuse or marginalization that they are worthy and able is a nuanced, often creative, process that must be mutually defined. It takes more than exposing a person to education or development; it’s helping them integrate within it, which can be a long road for those who have become accustomed to oppression. External circumstance (i.e. that which is easily observed) is only part of the problem. What lies beneath is years, at times decades, of harm. What really matters in empowerment work is encouraging a process that can be hard to measure or observe. It involves a person realizing what they are capable of as a blossoming of possibility. This can be difficult to translate to funders or funding institutions accustomed to reviewing application after application based on objective outcomes. Evaluating empowerment means understanding that it will take time and effort – and resources.

The status quo of donor giving could use a revamp to encourage a more active arm in discovering grantees and providing support. This would mean providing M&E as part of the funding versus part of the requirement to get funding. Perhaps it involves retraining staff, or adding more staff to scout organizations that reside in hard to reach areas – projects and programs that are often overlooked by more established donor funds and foundations because of their capacity to report and/or scale. Portable M&E officers may be the answer: people who investigate different organizations, co-design projects, and offer support in communicating value back to funders without distracting local staff from their community work. What local nonprofits want first and foremost is to continue providing services to their community which is the heart of what matters.

The other half of the pie is revisioning how to evaluate these programs. The concept of storytelling – a more natural method of capturing the effectiveness of empowerment programs – varies in terms of the ethics of sharing. Who owns the story? How can we protect a person’s dignity with story sharing? In part these concerns can be allayed by prioritizing quality relationships and through ethical storytelling that provides space for women to realize their own story. Such stories would exist as a purpose themselves rather than only or primarily to engage donor interest. Valuing stories in this way will enable us to more effectively avoid “the danger of a single story,” as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has warned, which oversimplifies or over-homogenizes the identities of people and places.

Storytelling and Space

Storytelling as an evaluative form has the capacity to dig deeper into the realities facing women and girls – both the problems and the solutions. As a means of offering impact, it is helpful to hear about progress and success. However, storytelling as an act is personal and political in how it encompasses identity and social possibility. When using storytelling as a medium of impact, it is therefore important to be mindful of the narratives we stand behind. Dr. Tara Patricia Cookson and Dr. Lorena Fuentes – co-founders of Ladysmith, a feminist research consultancy – elaborate on this concept:

“We need to transform the patriarchal relations between men and women that enable [harmful] statistics to be true. Beyond interpersonal relations, development policies need to address the underlying conditions that produce poverty and inequality [and that] leave girls and women disproportionately responsible for the survival of their families and communities, while transferring the burden of responsibility away from the governments, corporations, and global governance institutions that are largely responsible for the conditions that produce poverty. Only when those root causes are addressed will we have gender justice.”

They continue:

“Closing [the gender data gap] requires engaging with women’s accounts of their own lives and drawing on decades of feminist knowledge about the root causes of poverty and inequality. If we continue creating global-development policies based on the story that women are more likely than men to invest in their families, we will not transform the inequitable gender relations that make these statistics true. We will capitalize on these inequalities – and potentially exacerbate them – for the sake of a development return.”

This, in essence, is the danger of a single story – of taking an oversimplified view for the sake of easier communication, which can be especially tempting when trying to articulate or understand immediate impact. Upholding this single version story is also treating a symptom of the problem instead of the problem itself, similar to the ways in which we tell women how to protect themselves in order to avoid being raped instead of focusing our attention on how to address and reduce male violence.

What’s interesting to note in the quotes above are the assumptions we risk circulating in terms of certain gendered social expectations – such as the division of emotional labor –  when “marketing” women’s empowerment. Even if it is true that women tend to invest more in their families and communities, as a culture we should work to avoid allowing these truths to solidify into a self-fulfilling social norm that then limits what women on the whole are able to achieve.  

Jaha Dukureh provides a fabulous example of what social change through the lens of storytelling can look like. Jaha is an FGM surviver and founder of the nonprofit Safe Hands for Girls (an organization that works to end FGM and child marriage in The Gambia). Part of her success is the way in which she has used her own story to effect change she wishes to see in The Gambia. She claims one of the most important aspects of empowerment is for a woman to first find her voice – and then even more important for her to use it. When asked about her success, she began with the reminder that we need to “provide spaces for women to heal from their pasts.” These spaces, she went on to describe, focus on understanding pain as a means of deepening the healing process. What’s telling in this description of “space” is the lack of immediate action. There is no immediate agenda when providing space for women to heal; being given space is the essential first step.

Jaha’s story inevitably became a platform for her to promote her activism and achieve her desired goal to ban FGM in The Gambia; but first and foremost she was fighting to validate women’s pain (and anger) as the foundation for women in The Gambia to choose how to live their lives and how to leverage their voices. This process of cultivating women’s voices is the process of women’s empowerment. And, like with many processes, it is fluid, varies from culture to culture, and depends largely on how willing people in charge of development programs are to take the time to get to know communities and community leaders. For women who have experienced oppression and/or trauma, developing the capacity to choose, along with the confidence and willingness to speak can be a long road.

Storytelling like Jaha’s can serve as a data solution for monitoring and evaluating; but these stories need to be curated and expressed in dignified ways. This will take listening to women’s voices and women-led initiatives. Rebecca Traister expresses in her novel Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger a desire to see “a world in which women’s worth is no longer measurable on scales fashioned by men, be they cultural, legal, legislative, or expressive.” When confronted with realities American women and girls faced, she found herself more and more “unable to tolerate male-determined metrics of female acceptability.” These observations can be extended into how we systematically make sense of gender equity programs from a male-dominated vista. By prioritizing and more fully representing women’s voices in the metrics we are supposedly using to empower them, we create more balance to this system. The question is: will people in charge of distributing development resources listen?

In Part Three of this series, we close with reflections on merging for-profit and nonprofit sectors and implications for the future of social impact investing.