A systemic approach to working with the private sector on Women’s Economic Empowerment – where should we set the boundaries?

by 17th May 2017
A woman cocoa farmer in Cote d'Ivoire A woman cocoa farmer in Cote d'Ivoire

My colleagues and I have spent a considerable share of our time during the past few months in discussions with our private sector partners, figuring out a common ground to work together on women’s economic empowerment (WEE). It can be an exciting but also somehow frustrating process as the potential scope of WEE interventions and the business case are always extremely broad, but the resources to invest are limited. For that reason, prioritisation is paramount. Ahead of the session on Systems Change for Women’s Economic Empowerment: How to work with companies? on 24 May at the SEEP Network Learning Forum on Women’s Economic Empowerment in Bangkok, here are some thoughts and lessons learned.

Different frameworks exist to help in defining all the various roles that companies can have in women’s economic empowerment and their business case. We can find a very good schematisation in the UN HLP for WEE report (figure 1.5, “a value chain approach to the business case”) and in The Business Case for Women’s Economic Empowerment, an integrated approach from the Internatioal Centre for Research on Women, Oak Foundation, Dalberg and Witter Ventures (2014). The latter identifies four main roles for women in corporate value chains and nine building blocks for WEE.

It always seems reasonable, when approaching a company, to try the full range of options based on all the different roles that women can have in their market systems. However there is a risk of coming up with proposals that lack focus or that might seem largely irrelevant to our corporate partners.

There are some simple rules that might help in working out the top WEE priorities of a company:

  1. Identify where in the company’s value chain women have the most potential to generate a positive impact or are more influential. Women are drivers of productivity in the agriculture industry, or in any industry sourcing from agriculture. Women can be critical in retailing – in the beverages industry for instance – or they can be main decision-makers in buying decisions (like in the cocoa or diamonds industry), or they can be critical service providers, like in the community-based tourism industry. They can also represent the majority of the workforce, like in the garments industry or in some plantations (eg tea plantations). See Dignified Work – What is it? And why is it crucial for women’s economic empowerment?
  2. Identify the main issues and core risks that affect the industry’s longer term sustainability. These can also be reflected in the strategy of the industry-level platform, like the World Cocoa Foundation or the 4C Code of Conduct for coffee or the Ethical Trading Initiative. In the case of cocoa, for instance, the main issue is declining productivity vs. rising demand for cocoa. This would suggest that WEE can be leveraged as an opportunity to increase the productivity of cocoa farms, among other elements of the business case. These often overlap with social performance issues in public perception or pressures from civil society and can identify the implications from a gender perspective. This could be around water in the beverage industry, gender-based violence in the alcohol industry, access to sexual, reproductive and maternal health rights and services in the pharmaceutical industry, labour rights in the garment industry, or job creation and resettlement in the mining industry.
  3. Identify opportunities for big wins that allow for a business impact at different levels of the company’s value chain and, at the same time, promote women’s economic empowerment using simple and scalable models. For instance, see the impact that a specific solution, the Rural Savings and Credit Unions in Honduras, had on women’s economic empowerment and on Cargill’s value chain.
  4. Recognise the interconnectedness and the systemic nature of WEE and the fact that some interventions will only work and be sustainable if specific constraints are addressed at the same time and at different levels. For instance, it could prove pointless to provide business training opportunities for women unless we also make sure that the home care burden of married women is shared with their husbands so that they have enough time to dedicate to the business, and that social norms allow for the necessary mobility for women to participate in business opportunities. In this case, working on social norms needs to be part of the income-generation intervention and should be discussed with the corporate partner.

These ‘prioritisation rules’ can help in setting the initial boundaries. Once the programme is consolidated and the company experiences the benefits of the actions to empower women in their value chain, the scope of the action can be broadened and include additional dimensions to the interventions. Mondelez is a very good example of a CARE partner organisation with a broad perspective and approach to WEE that goes beyond the core supply chain and is built on a longer term commitment to women’s economic empowerment, as the findings from the Women’s Leadership in Cocoa Life Communities report suggest.

I’ll talk more about this topic during the session Systems Change for Women’s Economic Empowerment: How to work with companies? on 24 May organised by Oxfam and CARE at the SEEP Network Learning Forum on Women’s Economic Empowerment in Bangkok.

Gianluca Nardi

Gianluca worked in the Private Sector Engagement team and then the Women's Economic Empowerment team at CARE International UK from 2005 to 2017. Gianluca's main areas of expertise are market facilitation, women’s empowerment, micro-enterprise development, rural development, private sector engagement and working with extractive industries.

He has over 15 years experience working in various management and consultancy roles in Brazil, Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia and Italy, in both the private sector and NGOs. He holds a Masters in International Development from the University of Ferrara, an ILO Diploma on Inclusive Market Facilitation, a diploma in Extractive Industries and Sustainable Development from the Catholic University of Lima, and a certificate from the Advanced Social Management Programme from the University of Cambridge and the University of Queensland CSRM.

One good thing I’ve read

Changing your company from the inside out: A guide for social intrapreneurs, by Gerald Davis and Christopher White. An inspiring guide to making big changes and a social impact by transforming large companies from the inside. It is fascinating to see the many similarities between social movements generating big societal changes and inspiring individuals doing the same in their own organizations.

Twitter: @gianlucabrasil