IDRC-PEP-IAFFE joint panel discussion to assess progress and challenges related to women's economic empowerment

May 10, 2013 - Cape Town, South Africa (10th PEP general meeting)

During the past few years, women’s economic empowerment has drawn considerable public attention. In a 2009 special issue of the New York Times Magazine entitled “The Women’s Crusade,” Nicholas Kristof wrote:

“There’s a growing recognition among everyone from the World Bank to the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism.”

Such recognition is important, especially among donors, but it also raises questions: What knowledge and evidence gaps exist? How can data be used to develop effective policies?


On May 10, 2013, in the context of the 10th PEP general meeting (held in Cape Town, South Africa), Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) and PEP jointly hosted a panel discussion on “Women’s Economic Empowerment and Growth: Opportunities, Challenges, and Policy Implications.”

The panel was among the series of consultative events leading up to IDRC’s launch of a new research program, entitled "Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women" (GrOW), co-sponsored by the UK’s Department for International Development (UK Aid) and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. It brought together researchers, policy makers, and practitioners to look at why women’s economic empowerment has become a global agenda item, what researchers have learned, what knowledge gaps remain, and how to translate research into policy.
Audience members included researchers attending the PEP general meeting, and authors and scholars who had participated in a workshop for a special issue of Feminist Economics (the award-winning journal of IAFFE), on “Engendering Economic Policy in Africa.” The five panelists invited to reflect on these questions are international experts engaged with the broad questions about women’s empowerment from differing perspectives.

Caren Grown
Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment at USAID
(currently on leave from American University)

Abena D. Oduro
Senior Lecturer at the Department of Economics Vice-Dear of the Faculty of Social Sciences
University of Ghana

Alan Hirsch
Professor and Director of the Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice
University of Cape Town

Markus Goldstein
Gender Practice Leader in the Africa Region
Lead Economist in the Development Research Group, World Bank

Martin Valdivia
Director of the PEP Office in Latin America
Senior Researcher at GRADE

The enclosed video presents some of the panelists' insights on the issue and
related questions, from post-conference video interviews recorded to review
the key points from their respective presentations

Caren Grown said “We’ve had a lot of interest in diversified workforces and what they mean for firm performance”. She noted that women’s empowerment had become important from a business standpoint, with the 2012 World Bank Annual Report making the case that “if you don’t empower women, you’ll have a whole host of negative consequences.”


Although researchers accept that investing in small or medium women-led businesses can increase GDP growth, questions on empowerment and growth remain: for example, how is gender inequality a binding constraint to growth? Grown pointed to the need to “take on macroeconomic policy,” to measure women’s economic empowerment (in particular, their well-being) with better tools, and to fill data gaps, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

Abena Oduro also discussed the link between empowerment and well-being. “Based on data,” she said, “economic empowerment should have always been on the agenda – not just because of its implications for growth, but because of its intrinsic worth for women’s well-being.”

Of prime importance: that empowerment include women’s choice to participate or not in the paid labor force. “We talked about women’s empowerment and we have raised the flag about the care economy, and now we’re saying that women should be able to choose to be in the care economy but by being there, they shouldn’t be disempowered,” Oduro said. “Not participating shouldn’t imply dependency and vulnerability.”

See the full video interview with Abena D. Oduro here:

Markus Goldstein said that larger sample sizes were essential. “Big data will help us understand better the constraints that women face,” he said, referencing a study his group carried out on expanding agricultural extension services in Nigeria. Researchers found that women farmers in northern Nigeria produced 20 percent less than men, in part because the women lacked fertilizer.

A quick policy response would be to “give women some more fertilizer,” said Goldstein, but “that’s probably not the right thing to do.” The better approach would be to understand the constraints – time, mobility, capital, or knowledge – that prevent women from getting and using fertilizer. “Understanding those [underlying constraints] will help you frame the right policy.” See the full video interview with Markus Goldstein here:

Knowledge gaps exist not just in Africa but also globally. Martin Valdivia said that while “much had been done to promote female entrepreneurship,” there was sparse data on these efforts. He also said that the income-transfer programs prevalent in the region needed additional study. “In Latin America, there are questions about equity and access and we do not know enough about the programs we do have.”

Alan Hirsch provided a country-specific view of women’s labor force participation. Hirsch, who until 2012 served as a top economic advisor in the South African government, noted that although the country has strong equity laws and reporting systems, the post-Apartheid trend of significant increases in women’s employment – including employment in senior positions – has “ground to a halt.” Now, women are more often out of work than men, and women’s poverty hasn’t decreased as quickly as men’s. Hirsch said he had no ready answers to the problem, but he offered, “I think it’s a question of culture and leadership. Somehow we need to regenerate that quality of culture and leadership that we had.”

See the full video interview with Alan Hirsch here:

In the lively discussion following the presentation, questions and comments ranged from what kind of research was being done on the impact of women’s empowerment on the informal sector to whether there was a consensus opinion on properly designed conditional cash transfers. Audience and participants differed on certain points, but they agreed on the value of bringing together people from different disciplinary backgrounds and expertise to collectively explore what is already known and what new evidence is needed to effectively tackle barriers to women’s economic empowerment.

This article was signed by Houston-based writer and editor Polly Morrice.


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