More Measurement, Less Talk: It’s Time to Move Beyond Talking about Women’s Economic Empowerment and Find Common Ways to Measure It

By Wendy Chamberlin, Global Program Director, The BOMA Project

Poverty graduation has been a transformative vehicle in drawing attention to the barriers and opportunities facing extreme and ultra-poor populations globally. The World Bank defines extreme poor as those living below $1.90/day, while the term ultra-poor applies to people living on the margins of society, so isolated and excluded that they are often left out of existing development programs and market-led initiatives. (See “The Global State of Ultra Poverty” for more details). The results speak for themselves. A number of rigorous randomized controlled trials in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have demonstrated that the Graduation approach can sustainably move households out of extreme poverty and into a place of greater resiliency. Especially meaningful is these programs’ ability to target ultra-poor women through the delivery of targeted training and mentorship on topics ranging from financial health, family planning, education, nutrition, and business development.

BOMA’s poverty Graduation program, called Rural Entrepreneur Access Project (REAP), helps ultra-poor women start and build businesses and savings groups, increase their household financial and food security, build their resilience to emergencies and shocks such as droughts, invest in their children’s health and education, and have increased voice, choice, and agency in their households and communities. Specifically BOMA’s program has adapted the traditional Graduation model of a one person business model to a three-person business model. This approach has been proven to ensure that women can address household emergencies (e.g., sick child, etc.) without letting the business suffer. Additionally, our digital measurement and evaluation system, Performance Insights, allows us to undertake regular monitoring of program impact on household resilience by measuring her ability to grow her income and withstand external shocks to business growth.

This approach is having an impact, as observed recently by Larry Reed in his blog Women Leading Change for Samburu County. We also know these effects are not unique to BOMA, but are replicated in various global studies that show Graduation programming having positive effects on women’s asset accumulation, increases in household decision making, income earned, and overall contribution to household welfare. While these studies tell an important story about the impact and the reach of the Graduation approach, we know that just targeting and enrolling women is simply not enough. It is time for us to see how to move the needle further on increasing women’s economic empowerment. What is currently lacking is a cohesive way to ensure and assess how poverty Graduation programs help advance women’s economic empowerment at scale.

To date, Graduation providers have all been diligently focused on having impact on the populations they work with and ensuring that that impact is scalable. This is a good thing. The downside is, oftentimes this leads to siloed approaches which leave little room for collaboration between organizations. This is not out of ill intent. Often it is because we are each focused on the issues at hand and not talking to each other about collective impact and a broader path to scale. A great example of where this disconnect shows up is in how we talk about women’s economic empowerment (WEE): we use the same language, but oftentimes our definitions are varied and not aligned. There are many reasons for these differences, but we have realized as a global community that in order to move forward with increased impact, we need to harmonize our approaches on addressing the gaps around gender equality.

Last year we helped bring together a group of seven graduation practitioners at a Skoll World Forum Ecosystem event. The discussion was centered on how we individually and collectively approach measuring WEE. We were in agreement on the importance of having a focus on it, with a strong desire to move from gender intentional to gender transformational programming. We also found we measured or even defined WEE in completely different ways. Through that conversation, we recognized this was a missed opportunity.

As a result of this conversation, within the Graduation community, several entities are now beginning to work towards standardizing the way we measure and talk about WEE. Doing so will help create harmonized indicators that we can apply across programs. For example, beyond just enrolling and targeting women and even measuring household decision-making, we should try to take a deeper collective look to understand the impact of increasing her agency: does this free up her time, does it put her at increased risk for gender-based violence? If we believe it is important to see girls enrolled in school, are the schools adequate in their capacity to provide education for her? By asking and answering these sorts of questions collectively, it will allow us to pressure test the various models of women’s economic empowerment to better understand their efficacy and impact.

The holy grail for Graduation programming has been to prove that it can work at scale. This will only be achieved through coordinated collaboration that is outcomes-focused and pursues consistency in the language and measurement of impact. Doing so will allow us to demonstrate at scale how our joint efforts can make a difference in achieving women’s economic empowerment.

Anna sells her handicrafts at the local market in Samburu county, northern Kenya

BOMA was founded on two guiding principles: 1) Ending poverty must start with improving the economic potential of women and 2) Any long-term solution must be embraced and led by locals in order to succeed.

Breaking the cycle of extreme poverty by providing a pathway out of persistent uncertainty and destitution through our Graduation programs.

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