Who really benefits from corporate-run women's empowerment programs? -The Asian Age

Linda A. Thompson

In Mozambique, 800 female farmers were recently given access to new irrigation technology, quality seeds and fertilizers. 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 program that sought to better their fishing skills.

None of these programs 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 programs 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, organized by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, noting that the first initiatives started popping up between 2005 and 2007.

The women who participate in these programs 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 labor force at a lower rate than men. Most of all, the question remains: who is benefitting the most from these programs the women or the corporations themselves?

"My personal opinion is that businesses are always going to be criticized 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 programs 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 organization. "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 labor rights," she tells Equal Times.

Removing structural barriers

After reviewing the programs 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, and 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 sensitize 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 program.

Next, she said, corporations should embrace the International Labor Organization's Decent Work Agenda, which emphasizes social dialogue and productive employment, and guarantees fundamental principles and rights at work and social protection. "Allowing women to organize 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 programs 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.

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 programs 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 programs are designed but, she says, "The people who are designing the programs usually have experience in this area or have read relevant research on prior programs, 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."

The author is a freelance writer based in Brussels, Belgium. She is a correspondent for Bloomberg BNA and her articles have appeared in USA Today, The Washington Times and Al Jazeera.