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Polis Perspective 03/07/2015: Gender and power in science and development: gender discrimination is not a joke

Posted by / 3rd July 2015 / Categories: Polis / -


Stephanie Halksworth: Gender and power in science and development: gender discrimination is not a joke

Polis Perspectives are weekly perspectives of our team on Polis-related topics. We also share our favourite articles and tweets. This week’s perspective is written by Stephanie Halksworth on Tonya Blowers’ article “Focus on Gender: Sex, power and scientific influence” SciDev.Net, 24/6/2015.

In the article ‘Focus on Gender: Sex, power and scientific influence’ Tonya Blowers reflects on some pressing questions about gender, power and influence in the global scientific community, and considers the implications of Tim Hunt’s words and why we need policies that favour women’s inclusion as decision-makers.

In the case of Tim Hunt’s sexist outburst, such comments cannot be taken lightly, especially from a notably influential voice in the scientific community. His words are reflective of an antiquated and seriously detrimental attitude towards women and women’s role in science, an attitude that needs to be expunged at all levels. The fact that Hunt insists it was said in jest makes matters worse – gender inequality and discrimination are still a tragic reality, a reality all too often considered inconsequential and inferior in the list of priorities.

Women leaders in both the scientific and political spheres are still underrepresented to say the least. The article’s data conveys dismal figures with regard to the gender split of parliamentarians globally. As Blowers emphasises, we need to ‘bring more women into influential societies and committees that traditionally have been dominated by men’. This would lead to a fundamental shift in priorities and gender policies that would significantly benefit the scientific community as well as society as a whole.

The inclusion of women research leaders in community projects is imperative, asserts Judi Wakhungu, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for environment, water and natural resources. For example, as water has been traditionally women’s responsibility, conferring with women has lead to bringing clean drinking water to many Kenyan villages. Blowers hits the nail on the head with the key message: ‘if scientific research is to benefit local communities and economies, women’s needs and experiences must be built into both the design and the implementation process’. The inclusion of women as decision-makers and leaders in all spheres, including the scientific, political and developmental fields is not just a matter of fair representation, but a necessary move that will advance society at all levels.

Polis Star Articles of the Week

Tonya Blowers: ‘Focus on gender: sex, power, and scientific influence’, SciDev.Net, 24/06/2015

Mark Malloch-Brown: ‘The UN is an under-funded bureaucratic labyrinth – and a force for good in the world’, The Telegraph, 26/06/2015

Chris Blattman: ‘Migration is the most effective development intervention on the planet, part XXVI’, Chris Blattman Blog, 17/06/2015

Polis TweetOur Favourite Tweets @polisproject

@meowtree: 9 Annoying Non-Profit Trends that Need to Die.

@rakidi: The 9 countries with the most entrepreneurs; #Uganda comes top. #Entrepreneurship

@polisproject: “Africa’s story isn’t one of chronic slow growth, but of boom bust & boom again” – A must read review #globaldev


For more in-depth articles and research, visit our Polis Publications page.


Polis Perspective 12/06/2015 – It´s time to put girls and women at the top of your agenda

Posted by / 12th June 2015 / Categories: Miscellaneous / Tags: / -


Stephanie Halksworth: ‘It´s time to put girls and women at the top of your agenda’

Polis Perspectives are weekly perspectives of our team on Polis-related topics. We also share our favourite articles and tweets. This week’s perspective is written by Stephanie Halksworth on Katja Iversen’s article ‘Dear G7, it’s time to put girls and women at the top of your agenda’ in The Guardian on 4/6/2015.

‘In times of crisis, women’s rights hang in the balance’ reports Katja Iversen in an article addressed ‘Dear G7, it’s time to put girls and women at the top of your agenda’. The Ebola outbreak served yet again as a disturbing revelation of the perils women face especially in times of crisis and instability. As gender-based violence and maternal deaths increased dramatically, the precarious nature of sexual and reproductive rights is all the more glaring. As Iversen highlights, even though G7 countries have had these issues on their agendas for a long time, there are still wider health gaps  between men and women in all the world’s regions than a decade ago.

Last year’s G7 Summit the health and rights of girls and women were prioritised as 21st and 40th out of 43 points. Too often women’s rights are considered to be separate from other development goals, and this perspective on gender issues is the crux of the matter. A strong and central position of women within development challenges is essential to achieve a whole range of stated goals. This important role of women in most underlying social dynamics means that without their influence and leadership a whole range of non-gender objectives tend to fail. This year’s G7 Summit has made a move in the right direction and has listed women’s economic empowerment as a top priority. Now governments must follow suit; prioritising the wellbeing and rights of women lead to healthy women and girls, which is fundamental for healthy, thriving communities.

Polis Star Articles of the Week

Omar Mohamed: ‘Women business leaders are knocking on the doors of Africa´s Boardrooms’, Quartz, 5/6/2015

Jeff Tyson: ‘The SDG glass: is it half full or half empty?’, Devex, 9/6/2015

Ilya Lozovsky: ‘A wake-up call for NGOs’, Foreign Policy, 5/6/2015

Polis TweetOur Favourite Tweets @polisproject

@Ma3Route: Heart of Gold: Every day, this matatu crew picks up and drops passengers with disabilities via @timothy_kibe

@AdesoAfrica: Bridging North South divide through launching network of Southern NGOs w/ @DeganAli @coastbd

@SaraPantuliano: “This is not about replacing western NGOs with southern NGOs. It’s about changing how we work”. Spot on, @DeganAli!


For more in-depth articles and research, visit our Polis Publications page.









Connecting Local Realities: The case of women’s groups in Kenya

Posted by / 1st June 2015 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

In recent years, there has been increasing focus on the role of women in development. A number of countries have committed themselves to tackling gender issues with the goal of improving the socio-economic status of women. This position of women is seen to be crucial for achieving wider developmental and social goals. Kenya, for example, has initiated a number of activities and policies that address the socio-economic empowerment of women, ensuring its integration in national development strategies aimed at achieving targets such as the Millennium Development Goals. Furthermore, efforts from International Organisations (IOs) and Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have also contributed to the advancement of gender equality, especially within the education sector. However, their efforts do not always reach local women’s groups in rural Kenya, who themselves struggle to access the necessary information available to them. Although there exist initiatives that attempt to resolve this crucial chasm, improving connectivity is the key to local women’s groups partnering up with other actors in order to strengthen rural development.

Since the 1990s, an increasing number of women’s groups have been formed at both the grassroots and the national level in Kenya. Women’s groups make up the majority of local initiatives in rural development and they can play a fundamental role in the alleviation of poverty and addressing the social problems in their local communities. The motivations behind the formation of these groups vary from groups and communities: some groups are formed primarily to improve the living standards of their members, and some often in response to challenging situations faced by the community at the time, such as prolonged drought, famine or at times of socio-economic stress.  Some groups, such as the Mwethya women’s groups of Machakos District, are known for their commitment to water and soil conservation activities. On top of the need to conserve land, the key factors for the groups’ motivations is also the training, education and advice they receive.

Many women’s groups have multiple agendas, and act as catalysts for manifold national development targets. These include poverty alleviation and the eradication of hunger, promote gender equality and empower women. A number of women’s groups in Nyamusi Division in Nyamira County, that undertake women economic empowerment programs engage in activities of income generation such as merry-go-rounds, known as a chama. A chama is a scheme where members pool their resources for investment, allowing them to access the resources to address individual, family or community challenges. Women’s groups in the Nyamusi Division also run programs that range from household poverty reduction programs; education programs, for example to address the need for equal opportunities for boys and girls in schools; or health initiatives to raise awareness in the community of the importance of good nutrition and hygiene, and the effects of HIV/AIDs; as well as social initiatives to raise awareness and tackle gender-based violence.

And yet despite evidence reporting the contributions of women’s groups to community-based activities and socio-economic and national development, there is still a crucial gap between the national and international entities working towards universal development goals, and the women’s groups who are contributing to these same goals. Efforts have certainly been made by governemental organisations, IOs and NGOs to increase funding and support for women in Kenya. NGOs have contributed to the facilitation and support of women’s groups, many of which provide guidance, loans, materials or training. Governmental efforts have also contributed to the economic empowerment of women, such as the Uwezo Fund and Women Enterprise Fund, are initiatives to finance and support women-led businesses and enterprises throughout the country.

However, these governmental initiatives are not reaching many women, let alone many rural women’s groups. Studies reflect that there are still barriers impeding the success of these women’s groups, and inadequate funding is a primary concern. For the women’s groups in the Nyamusi Division, this is certainly one of the leading obstacles they face. Lack of funding along with high levels of poverty mean that many programs, including merry-go rounds and income generation activities struggle to remain sustainable and effective, especially when individual members are unable to contribute financially and are obliged to leave the group. A problem that often occurs with NGOs supporting women’s groups is the traditional structure and approach that still drives many NGOs. They have a tendency to create dependency through non-local leadership. NGOs setting their own agendas instead of listening to the agendas set by local groups, make the latter adapt to the former. This then leads to a donor-recipient relationship, with the relationship turning into one of one-directional need, rather than partnership. Other constraints that can hinder their potential advancement include certain cultural norms, which can prohibit the full participation of women in rural development, such as women’s rights to land and property. Despite the elimination of gender bias in Kenya’s legal framework, many women are still unaware of laws that protect their rights to property ownership.

In addition to these barriers, there is another important question to explore: if the government’s incentive is there, why is it not going to the women that need its support? For many women’s groups, the answer is simple: they lack access to the knowledge and the tools necessary to connect to these opportunities. Many women’s groups lack the information to access funding and support; in fact, rural women’s access to current information in general is one of the major challenges facing women in developing countries. Access to relevant and affordable information is particularly scarce for those who are marginalized either by their locality, gender or due to limited access to other resources. Another important factor is poor infrastructure, which imposes constraints on women’s groups.

The importance of access to information cannot be underestimated, it is the gateway to finding essential knowledge, resources and funding required for the success and sustainability of women’s groups. There have been some innovative approaches to tackle the lack of access to information, such as the Association of Media Women in Kenya who set up the ‘radio listening groups’ initiative to make information more accessible to marginalized communities. Through these, some women have learned how to access the UWEZO Fund, as well as information on government services. But initiatives that focus on connectivity are too scarce.

Connections to multiple sources of information increases women’s awareness of their rights to land and property, to available funding, to resources and materials, to knowledge and ideas. Connectivity would enable women’s groups to proactively find and choose the resources that will allow them to proceed with their initiatives, without relying on a third party, without depending on external approaches, but with direct connections to partners beyond regional borders. It is fundamental to bridge that chasm between national and international partners on the one hand, and local partners on the other. Both sides are strengthened through these relationships; with this connectivity comes access to information, and with information comes further growth.


The Dark Side of International Volunteering: shedding light on its negative impact

Well-intentioned international volunteers often have a counterproductive impact where they go. The experience of volunteering in the community of Tsiroanomandidy, Madagascar, is a useful reference to explore the wider issues surrounding the economic, educational and psychological ramifications of volunteering in the education sector.

International volunteers are considered part of ‘the wider international development agenda’, and it bridges a fundamental gap between ‘hard’ development outcomes and ‘soft’ development outcomes. It is a human-centred, bottom up approach to development aimed at benefitting communities in a vast range of sectors, including sustainable development and education. International volunteering is particularly active in the education sector, with an influx of volunteers providing services in schools, youth centres and educational programmes. As education is a fundamental dimension in the Sustainable Development Goals, the role played by international volunteers is pivotal: key skills, languages and teaching methods are transferred and applied to local communities. And yet this unilateral service does not go uncriticised. There are contentious debates with regard to the long-term effects on local communities. These include increased unemployment, disruption in the academic sphere, and psychological ramifications from disillusion and lack of faith in local initiatives.

Ambiguous Economic Outcomes

Many volunteer organisations insist on the direct economic benefits of foreign volunteers for local communities. The increase in revenue from these volunteers facilitates local employment, and there is no doubt that in many cases, these outsiders contribute to improving local facilities, such as youth centres, schools and libraries. An important argument used to justify international volunteering is that it benefits the local community economically, thus increasing the standard of living of local residents. However, the economic implications of international volunteering are more complex than what the immediate effects might convey. In order to send and receive international volunteers, time, money and resources are spent to ensure the smooth running of the volunteering process, resources that may well be spent on local initiatives, development and residents.

Although there may be a slight increase in local employment due to the injection of revenue, the long-term effects reveal a darker side: a constant stream of international volunteers in a community means that these outsiders continually usurp the roles and posts that would otherwise be allocated to locals. Volunteer placements take precedence over local workers, which means that much-needed jobs become less available. If volunteers are unskilled and untrained, as is often the case, it is even likely to cause more hindrance than assistance to the host community. There is a risk of international volunteers becoming the teachers, doctors, construction workers, project developers rather than assistants in each field. In those cases, they assume the characteristics of experts and leaders, rather than learners and students, giving a helping hand while absorbing their new environment and learning the ways of the local community. The skills provided may appear beneficial in the short term, but how are the locals to practice their skills and build up their experience if they are never given the chance?

Educational Setbacks

While the economic outcomes of volunteering are ambiguous at best, the educational impact is even more worrisome. Education systems, programmes and syllabuses vary from country to country. This makes an understanding of the relevant system one of the most crucial criteria for working in the education sector. A particularly common and unfortunate trend in international volunteering is the act of sending volunteers who have not been fully trained nor coached in the specific needs of the educational system of the host community. This can have multifarious consequences for local communities, especially if the volunteer assumes a more hands-on role.

One of the most evident drawbacks in the system is the problematic timing of many volunteers: schools have a set academic schedule with a fixed syllabus. Nevertheless, many volunteers are often not only unable to stay for the duration of the academic term or year, but also tend to arrive after the academic year has started, or in the middle of a semester. The importance of routine, continuity and consistency is paramount for effective student learning and progress; so how can this service – which entails a regular turnover of volunteers with disparate arrival dates and varying timeframes – be an efficient strategy in the education sector? If anything, the pattern of volunteering can be detrimental to the pupils’ learning.

This danger was evident with respect to the educational volunteering service in the rural community of Tsiroanomandidy: a new person entering the classroom triggers a change in dynamic; valuable time is used to ‘break the ice’ and connect with the class and understand the needs of the students. The teachers often spend time explaining the syllabus, what has been taught and what the students have yet to learn, and this time-consuming process leads to an interruption in the calendar, a disruption in the teaching, and subsequently an interference in the learning. Furthermore, when volunteers in Tsiroanomandidy stay to teach for varying timeframes, these disruptions can occur biweekly to every six months; as the schools and teachers are often uninformed with regard to volunteer timeframes and arrival dates, this contributes to an environment of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Another glaring issue with the inconsistent nature of the volunteering service in Tsiroanomandidy is the disruption of the syllabus content and teaching methods. For example, volunteers from some organisations have a one-day training course before visiting the schools and meeting the teachers. This course consists of practical activities and songs with only one focus: primary students. Considering volunteers teach in primary as well as secondary schools, youth centres and clubs for working adults, this training day hardly scrapes the surface. With little information on the syllabus, volunteers are expected to jump in, take the lead and teach courses they are not familiar with. This inevitably leads to volunteers creating their own lesson plans, often misjudging the students’ level, and generating content which is incongruous with the school curriculum. Furthermore, each teacher has a specific teaching style, and this crucial skill needs to be acquired as a trained and qualified teacher in order to maintain consistency and coherence.

The dangerous combination of inexperienced volunteers, underdeveloped teaching styles and incompatible teaching methods create a fragmented learning experience for the students. The hindrance this can cause to the students’ learning and understanding of the respective subject must not be underestimated. The process of learning is parallel to building blocks: strategic steps must be taken to ensure students build up their knowledge at each level. Disruptions in the syllabus, the timeframe, the teaching styles and the content will only serve to confuse and impede their development.

Disregarded Psychological Consequences

In addition to the contentious effects on the educational dimension of communities, there is also a psychological factor that needs to be considered. This aspect is a fundamental, yet often unstated dimension of international volunteering. As volunteers become a regular presence in the classroom, students begin to connect and accustom to their voluntary teacher. A relationship is formed between volunteer and student that can even transgress the traditional teacher-student relationship. In Tsiroanomandidy, volunteers are not only welcomed, but become a novelty in the community. Children know and call out volunteers’ names in the streets; students, enthusiastic about their new teacher and intrigued by the volunteer’s alien status, attempt to form bonds instantaneously. The volunteer, eager to gain a better cultural understanding of the community, connects with students and adults outside as well as inside the classroom, by taking part in community events, extra-curricular activities and learning the local language. The emotional ties that are typically formed between the volunteers and local residents can be beneficial on multiple levels, especially for the volunteer. However, the departure of volunteers can cause deeper ramifications for the local community, especially for the students. The natural progression in education is that students learn, advance and achieve. Each year they leave their teacher behind and move on to the next stage in their education. In this case, however, volunteers leave their students behind. This can create a sense of abandonment, invalidation and stagnation.

For many local communities, international volunteering is a normalised process, and they even act as role models to the local community. However, international volunteers are also perceived as outsiders, and the notion of outsiders acting as role models is problematic. It makes students in schools and youth centres accustom to this dynamic and perceive the outsiders as superior and better role models than the local teachers. This attitude towards volunteers and the mistrust in local alternatives is damaging for both students and teachers, and especially detrimental to their self-esteem. A key drive in development is upholding confidence and value in the community, and in order to reverse this damaging dynamic, it is important that volunteers are not just outsiders, or perceived outsiders, but that volunteers are also local. Initiatives to encourage local residents to volunteer can increase self esteem, dismantle the unilateral pattern of volunteering and restore faith in the local community.

The assessment of international volunteering impacts on local communities is not one-dimensional: the many factors that come into play, including the community, its specific needs, the timeframe and skill set of volunteers, result in complex economic, emotional and psychological impacts. Its detrimental implications are often underestimated, even if it is rooted in good intentions. This is especially visible in the education sector. There exist situations in which volunteerism is positive and even a necessary tool in the hands of local communities. One example of this is is the socio-cultural centre Bel Air in Tsiroanomandidy, operated by the Bongolava Antsitrapo Association who succeed in sustaining a local led nature of these activities. In their case, they continue to employ a bottom up approach, always focussed on listening and implementing local ideas. But this is the exception rather than the rule, and great care has to be taken to ensure that volunteers are properly trained, and are aware of their roles and potentially negative impact on communities. The role of a volunteer is not to be a pillar of the education system, but to assist, support and encourage local capacities. Furthermore, volunteerism from local communities themselves needs to be expanded. Local initiatives and local expertise are typically free from the pitfalls of international volunteering, and directly strengthen the long-term capacity of recipient communities.