What have we learned about women’s empowerment from a 17 country global programme?

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What’s the added value of bringing together projects on the same issue in lots of countries?

November 12, 2013
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I’m always on the look out for particularly interesting and innovative Oxfam projects, and usually big them up on this blog (think Tanzania, Tajikistan,Khalida Somroo_Malka Khan We Can). After a few years of doing this, one of the striking (and depressing, at least for me) things is how seldom these pioneering projects have (so far, anyway) been picked up and adapted/replicated elsewhere.

So I was excited by the potential of a completely different approach: global programmes. Instead of ‘Potemkin Projects’ in one country, a global programme hoovers up a whole bunch of roughly similar national and regional work in different countries, and promotes mutual exchanges and learning. Does such an approach have better prospects than fanfares about ‘islands of excellence’?

Yesterday’s summary of the work of Raising Her Voice, a 19 project global programme to enhance women’s voice in decision-making, spanning 4 continents, suggests that it might.

RHV builds on Oxfam’s long-standing focus on women’s empowerment. It arose in response to the funding opportunity provided by a 2008 DFID call for proposals to explore issues arising from the UK Government’s White Paper on Governance and Transparency. An email duly whizzed round, inviting OGB country programmes to submit proposals based on their own, and their partners’, capacity and focus.

We got the money, took on a central coordinator, and started work. What is interesting is what happened next. Over time, in addition to beavering away in their separate locations (and getting some great results, as the evaluation spells out), the 19 separate projects have shown increasing signs of cohering, with exchanges of ideas and personnel. A key moment came a couple of years in, when a mid-term evaluation identified a ‘theory of change’ that seemed to be emerging from the overall RHV exercise.

The theory (see diag) identifies three broad spheres – personal, political and social – which influence women’s opportunities to participate in governance, and which need to be included in order to strengthen women’s voice:

The political spaces need to be more open, inclusive and representative of women. This includes public and customary laws, policies, structures and decision making processes, the mechanisms by which women can claim and uphold their rights and interests.

For a woman to create, access and take-up opportunities for participation and influence, she needs personal capacity, self-esteem and confidence. The RHV theory of change highlights the need to work on this sphere, to redress the situation whereby the political and social spheres have strong influence over a marginalised woman’s ability to participate, influence and secure her rights, but she has little opportunity to influence them back.

RHV ToC2The social sphere supports and embeds changes in attitudes, relationships and behaviours. It includes norms promoted or upheld by cultural and religious institutions and the media, as well as the strength and capacity of the women’s movement and civil society to support women with a platform to raise their voices.

Subsequent discussions added an economic sphere, in recognition of the central importance both of the care economy and economic (in)dependence in shaping the opportunities for women to exercise voice.

The theory of change proved useful in several ways:

  • It provided guiding principles for RHV, capturing the arenas in which change in women’s voice occurs
  • It ‘kept it simple’ – very important for hard pressed staff and partners
  • By being very top line, it allowed a variety of RHV programmes to recognize their work within it, while also pointing to new ideas and possibilities
  • At a global level, RHV staff were required by DFID to revise each country logframe and indicators in line with the ToC
  • Quite independently of any suggestions from Oxfam House, several national RHVs used the theory of change to help design ‘course corrections’ to improve their work, either in response to improved understanding, or to events and changes in the context.

For me  though, the 3 sphere model falls short of being a full theory of change. It omits a number of important aspects, which could have helped build more imaginative and effective strategies. These include how women’s lives and the norms that govern their role are changing (increasing literacy, entry into paid jobs, spread of political quotas etc); the importance of critical junctures many shifts in women’s voice occur linked to wars, elections, or other shocks – and the need for an analysis of the wider drivers and blockers for expansion in women’s rights (state officials or elected representatives, private sector, faith organizations etc).

In practice, these gaps were often addressed at the national level, as partners developed their own theories of change, into which this uber-narrative later fed, but I see no reason why the overall ToC shouldn’t have included them.

Overall, there are several potential benefits from the Global Programme Approach: These include

  • Fund raising: donors need to disburse funds in large (by NGO standards) volumes and at high speed. But over-large grants and short timescales can impose severe strains on small civil society organizations. A global programme approach can square the circle.
  • The chance to pilot research in one country, then adapt and try again in another. The best cross-fertilization is often not planned – RHV in Honduras picked up a 2011 study from RHV Nepal, translated it into Spanish, and used it to develop its thinking on working in the personal sphere.
  • Country programmes are motivated by being part of a global change process

And the lessons on how to run global programmes?

  • Keep it as open as possible at the beginning and allow it to gell and evolve. That means not being too prescriptive about what national offers are included in the initial proposal.
  • At least when addressing complex and deep-rooted issues such as women’s (dis)empowerment, they should also be as long as possible. RHV was a five year programme. Much of the most innovative work was carried out in years 4 & 5, as staff and partners learned and adapted their strategies, becoming more assertive for example in shifting from a less ‘political’ focus on service provision to more explicitly challenging inequality and household power relations.
  • The programme can be encouraged to evolve a coherent theory of change that will guide its future work by building in a 6-12 month inception period for consultation and design at national level.

Especially in light of last week’s focus on complexity and emergent change, it seems that this global programme cat-herding approach might have some real promise. It could even serve as the basis for a ‘do tank’ exercise I discussed a couple of weeks ago, in which we combine the global programme approach with a research component that generates hypotheses to test on the ground.

What do you think? Any other good examples out there?

6 comments

  1. Overall there is a need for simple and relevant learning between the projects in such group. The important point to remember that leadership at all levels could be very different even in similar projects – a major success factor. The other danger of grouping is the hunt for ‘common’ indicators and then ignoring the beautiful diversity in these projects.

  2. In effect, many small INGOs do ‘global programming’ all the time – they treat the different projects they do with different partners in different countries as a whole programme – share learning and look for synergy.
    And the programmes can be quite different but allow local solutions & organisational level monitoring & evaluation.
    In EveryChild we use ‘changes in child status’ to measure what we are achieving but partners measure different things in each country depending on which children they are working with. This also gives us and the partners rich information for analysis. We also have a theory of change that is fairly broad but can be used to develop in more detail at local level.

    Perhaps larger INGOs could learn something from smaller INGOs about global programming?

  3. Hi Ducan,

    So pleased this program is getting the traction it deserves. It is a great example of why women’s empowerment programs should receive more funding. I am skeptical of global programs as they often gather evidence that is irrelevant at the country level but this program is the exception.

    I’ve had the privilege of working with the Nepal program. I’ll share some things to consider. I agree with you that there is a need to develop national theories of change and I feel this requires an external facilitator. I also think there are lessons learned around working (or not working) with men and boys and sequencing.

    I would also like to see the program develop more information around critical junctures which may not be as high level as elections or war but rather for example, the combination of social mobilisers with media training or local political connections, local NGOs that are run by capacitated traditionally marginalised groups who really understand disempowerment/social/personal barriers, women who have experienced loss and feel there is nothing else to loose, enlightened local government officials etc.

    I agree a 6month inception phase is needed. If you are targeting the most disadvantaged women then you need 6months just form trust and groups.

  4. Interesting post,

    I believe most of the benefits you mention are benefits that come with scale in any kind of project: the more projects the more learning, the more impact, etc. The main benefit is that these are all “under the same roof”, which facilitates logistics and implementation.

    That made me think of multinational companies CSR as an example. Merck for Mothers work in maternal health or the Nike Foundation’s work with young girls. I don’t know what their learning, ToC development, etc. looks like but it does have the potential to benefit of the points made in your article.

  5. One organization that has been very intentional about learning across cases is the Collaborative for Development Action. Their first phase of work resulted in the publication of Do No Harm. Taking lessons from that they developed a framework for analyzing interventions in complex emergencies that built on and fostered connections or inadvertently fed into divisions. Through the Local Capacities for Peace Project they tested and refined the framework over several years, with accompaniment at the project level and annual (or perhaps twice yearly, I can’t remember), meetings of participating organizations and project to insure the model was being implemented correctly and to assess how it was working. Their model was written up by Marshall Wallace in Development and the Learning Organisation, which was a special double issue of Development in Practice in 2002. CDA is still going strong.

  6. I agree that Oxfam is not good at adapting and replicating but that is more to do with Oxfam structures rather than the programmes. Most replication relies on individuals getting interested rather than the organisation making a decision. We Can did spread outside South Asia- and in fact the most successful adaptation and replication was where individuals in Oxfam and outside were keen to take up the model rather than where the organisation pushed it.

    The other issue I would like to raise is re. the discrepancy between policy and practice. Often the theories of change, logic models etc are at the level of policy and is developing in response to different stimulus and demands, while practice on the ground is responding to a different set of stimulus and demands. There was an interesting 1993 paper by David Mosse of SOAS on this issue.
    Any successful scale up would need to address the tension between the policy and practice. I can speak of the experience of We Can the most successful aspects of the campaign were when this tension was recognised and addressed.
    In my opinion, diverse contexts, diverse actors, diverse ideas and ideologies create a centrifugal force for any large programme. Binding ideas like We Can, Change Makers, approach of personal change- are what help bring people, practice and thinking together and maybe at times transcend differences and enable learning, adaptation and replication.
    Lastly, none of this is a one time discussion but a constant process to be nurtured.

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