Donor interventions on women’s political empowerment

The evidence base on donor interventions for women’s political empowerment (WPE) in low- and middle-income countries is rigorous overall, but limited in size and scope. Feminist scholarship and practice have long emphasised that WPE is a multifaceted, complex process. However, evidence suggests that most donors have tended to build their approaches on oversimplified models of empowerment, failing to support approaches that address power and political economy and that adapt to specific contexts and inequalities.

Besides work on quotas, donors have undertaken fairly little action on WPE – especially when compared to intense activity on women’s economic empowerment. They have generally used only some types of interventions for WPE – such as support for women in formal politics, direct funding to women’s NGOs, and policy dialogue. Donors have not taken much action to empower women in informal politics, to support girls’ and young women’s involvement in women’s rights activism, to systematically involve men and boys to advance WPE,  or to strategically combine levels and types of empowerment interventions.

The record on effectiveness is mixed, and findings are inconsistent. There is a divide between donor-related literature that tends to report positive, or no, effects, and more critical literature that tends to conclude that the record is even more mixed, with limited positive effects, frequent lack of effect, and some negative effects.

Among the factors that determine the effectiveness of interventions are leadership and accountability on women’s empowerment in donor organisations, the ability of donors and their partners to work adaptively, the quality of relationships, and political savviness.

Modalities conducive to effectiveness include:

  • transformational strategies that involve donors investing time and resources in relationships with women’s organisations, and addressing power inequalities that they and their local partners generate (such as the marginalisation of less powerful or less-resourced women and women’s groups)
  • gender analysis that explores the political economy of gender inequality, is integrated throughout the project cycle, and informs contingency strategies and risk management
  • sustained but flexible support to locally-led collective WPE that recognises the importance of women’s empowerment in informal politics and supports rather than leads coalitions.

Other factors specific to particular aspects of the project cycle include:

  • designing and implementing interventions that work with the complexity of women’s empowerment
  • ensuring that monitoring, evaluation and learning are tailored to the context of women’s empowerment and interventions’ timeframe and scope
  • enhancing learning, for example through documentation, internal learning and sharing experiences with other donors.

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Suggested citation

Combaz, E. (2016). Donor interventions on women’s political empowerment. (Rapid Literature Review). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.