Achieving Empowerment

Harriet Agyemang, Programme Manager at SEND-Ghana, presents at the Greater Accra Regional Policy Dialogue on the District Assembly Common Fund
Mrs. Harriet Agyemang, Programme Manager at SEND-Ghana, presents at the Greater Accra Region Policy Dialogue on the District Assembly Common Fund

One of the ways that development projects and programmes aim to promote good governance is through the empowerment of citizens in developing countries. At its most basic, the idea is that an empowered, active citizenry can influence government officials and institutions so that their interests and ideas are represented in government planning. It’s a fairly simple idea.

In practice, however, trying to empower people is quite difficult. Empowerment is not very tangible – you can’t dump packages of empowerment off the back of a cargo plane, nor can you build an empowerment well in a rural village. It’s not even as simple as educating or training citizens in how to be active citizens (though it is often a requirement).

 “Empowerment is the process of increasing the assets and capabilities of individuals or groups to make purposive choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes” – World Bank

It probably helps to start with a definition. I think the World Bank’s definition, above, is a nice, broad definition of what it means to be empowered. At the same time, it doesn’t say an awful lot about how to get there.

The reality is that the ability of citizens to make choices and to transform them into actions and outcomes depends on much more than their own capacity or understanding. It depends on the broader socio-political context. Citizens are embedded in intricate networks of power relations shaped by factors such as gender, ethnicity, wealth, geography (though this article has a point), history and politics.

Citizens need information in order to make informed choices and to promote government accountability. Access to information depends on having a transparent government. Influencing the government requires that citizens can understand and use information, and that they have access to platforms (democratic space) where they can voice their thoughts and concerns.

Efforts must be made to build capacities across the entire range of community groups if empowerment efforts are to avoid further marginalising groups that are under-represented and disadvantaged (e.g. women, certain ethnic groups, people with disabilities).

Citizen empowerment therefore requires that development programming looks at the wider network in which citizens are embedded. With this in mind, I am quite impressed so far with the theory behind SEND‘s Grassroots Economic Literacy and Advocacy Programme. It brings together representatives of a wide range of community groups, and provides capacity building so that they can carry out research and monitor the implementation of pro-poor programmes under Ghana’s Growth and Poverty Reduction Strategy. In addition, SEND publishes the research findings, and facilitates citizen-government engagement and advocacy at the district, regional and national levels. Other interesting ‘cutting edge‘ approaches to empowerment focus on harnessing the potential of technology, such as Twaweza and the Making All Voices Count initiative.

Even if we have an idea, in theory, of what it takes to achieve empowerment, how can we be sure we’ve achieved it? As an impact evaluation officer, this is something I’m working on. We also have to question whether empowerment is an end in itself, or if it is a means to an end. In the case of the latter, how can we show that empowerment has had the desired effects? Has it improved governance? Has it contributed to poverty alleviation? The answers to these questions will hopefully become clearer as I get stuck into my research here in Ghana. For the time being, it would be great to hear about any readers’ thoughts and ideas.

Rural-to-Urban Migration: Is the grass greener on the other side?

A section of the Jamestown slum on the Accra coast
A section of the Jamestown slum on the Accra coast

Sprawling slums, such as Dharavi in Mumbai, Kibera in Nairobi, and Jamestown here in Accra (pictured), are often the most visible consequence of rapid rural-to-urban migration and urbanisation in developing countries.

Creaking under the pressure of rapidly growing populations, the bustling metropolises of the developing world struggle (to varying degrees, of course) to meet the growing demand for employment, housing, infrastructure, and other public services. In Ghana’s urban areas, for instance, there is a housing deficit of 1.7 million housing units, and it is estimated that an average of 85,000 units would need to be built each year over the next twenty years in order to address that deficit.

Yet the lure of opportunity continues to drive rural-to-urban migration at an unprecedented scale. Over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, compared to less than 30% in 1950, and in developing countries, as much as 40% of urban population growth is associated with migration and the reclassification of rural areas to urban areas.

Although the World Bank suggests that the share of the extreme poor (living on less than $1.25 per day) living in urban areas has remained fairly constant (at about 28% since 1990), and that poverty is falling in both rural and urban areas, predictions of future trends suggest that there is no room for complacency in urban planning: 96% of the additional 1.4 billion people that will live in developing countries by 2030 will live in urban areas.

This trend towards urbanisation raises a number of challenges. As a development practitioner, I find myself agreeing with Lawrence Haddad, Director of the Institute of Development Studies, who suggests that most development professionals are trained in rural development and rural livelihoods. Even as I settle in to my work with SEND-Ghana (I am assisting with an impact evaluation of SEND’s Grassroots Economic Literacy and Advocacy Programme) I tend to think of ‘the field’ as a rural entity, forgetting that one of the four regions included in the programme (Greater Accra) is largely urban.

In reality, urban poverty presents a range of challenges, some of which are distinct from those faced in a context of rural poverty. Slums are typically characterised by inadequate water supply, poor sanitation, over-crowdedness, insecurity of tenure, vulnerability to health risks, and an atmosphere of fear and social exclusion. Other common challenges include greater vulnerability in the event of natural disasters, and limited opportunity for employment, despite the latter being one of the main drivers of rural-to-urban migration.

However, urbanisation also presents some important opportunities. Recent data suggests that urbanisation is helping to pull people out of poverty and enabling progress in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Despite the challenges faced in slums, urban populations have far greater access to safe water and sanitation facilities. It is much more cost effective to deliver some services where populations densities are high. Furthermore, urban areas are centres of economic activity and job creation, and urban poverty is significantly lower than rural poverty as a result.

“Urbanization does matter. However, in order to harness the economic and social benefits of urbanization, policy-makers must plan for efficient land-use, match population densities with the required needs for transport, housing and other infrastructure, and arrange the financing needed for such urban development programs,” – Jos Verbeek, Lead Author of the GMR

The caveat is that if developing countries are to take advantage of urbanisation to address poverty, there is a need for a greater focus on urban planning, as well as innovative financing mechanisms. The Urban Poor Fund is an example of such a mechanism. Launched by Slum Dwellers International, the fund allows poor urban communities to define their own development strategies and to manage capital, and has had impressive results so far (see here for a TedX talk on the Urban Poor Fund).

Alternatively, slums will continue to grow, opportunities will become challenges, and the promise of the greener grass on the other side will be cast out to the realm of urban myths.

Impact Evaluation: Finding What Works

As the skills and knowledge of people in developing countries continue to increase, is there a role in developing countries for Western development workers? I was asked this question during a recent job interview. It’s an important question. Although I drew, in my answer, upon the (idealistic) cliché of development workers working with the objective of putting themselves out of work, there’s probably more to it than that.

Over the past few days though, I’ve been reminded of an even deeper existential crisis within the development field. Several casual conversations I’ve had with people I’ve met here in Ghana (we development folk know how to keep it light!), as well as recent high-profile critiques – such as that levelled at celebrity economist Jeffrey Sachs (author of End of Poverty, Bono’s best buddy, and aid champion) in Nina Munk’s The Idealist – reflect an endemic uncertainty among development professionals: does aid make a difference? Or in other words, do the hundreds of billions of dollars being spent each year contribute to positive change?

That I’m not the only one looking for the answer to this question might be more disconcerting than it is reassuring. It’s a question that marks a deep chasm between some of the most influential thinkers in international development. For skeptics such as William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, aid is, at best, a waste of money, and, at worst, more harmful than helpful. For others, such as the vilified Sachs*, it’s simply a matter of needing to spend more.

For me, the key is learning about what works. It might look like a cop-out, like I’m avoiding having to take a stance. In reality, however, I believe there are projects that can produce sustainable results, and that by promoting accountability (in terms of demonstrating impact) and transparency, we can avoid some of the potential problems (such as dependence, corruption, and ineffectiveness) discussed by aid skeptics. In other words, by putting the onus on development NGOs and governments to credibly demonstrate the impact of their aid expenditure, we can improve their accountability to donors and to the beneficiaries themselves. Furthermore, it enables us to learn about what works and to make better decisions on future expenditure.

Learning about what works requires rigorous impact evaluation. In Poor Economics, for instance, Banerjee and Duflo present some remarkable findings from the application of randomized control trials (RCTs) (like those used to test the effects of medicine in clinical trials) to social projects. While there are other means of carrying out impact evaluations, and RCTs aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, this post has to end somewhere and I don’t have the space to get into that right now (though I’d love to hear the thoughts of others – I’m a fan!).

My point is this: while the philosophical questions are important, they have a tendency to generate a lot of greyness. Impact evaluation, on the other hand, when done properly, can allow us to look through the greyness, and find what works.

* As someone who spent three months researching the impacts of electrification at Sachs’ Millennium Villages Project in Rwanda, I’d like to say my findings pointed to positive changes in the livelihoods of those that accessed electricity. While the  Millennium Villages Project might not have had the macro-level impacts that Sachs had hoped for, there are surely lessons there to be learnt and some successes that can be replicated. At the very least, Jeffrey Sachs succeeded in drawing widespread mainstream attention to poverty and in defining sustainable development as a global concern.

Off on a tangent on all things development