Making women out to be the saviours – a hard look at women’s empowerment initiatives

I just came across this paper by my Masters degree convener Andrea Cornwall and Althea-Maria Rivas that I think has profound insights for the way women’s empowerment initiatives are being deployed to fix the deeply rooted, context specific and complex gender inequalities that exist. In my line of work, women’s empowerment in agriculture strategies commonly entails ‘closing the gap’ in improving access to agriculture inputs, extension, finance and investing in labor-saving, female-friendly technologies to progress women’s efficiency in food production. Mainstream policy and planning tend to frame women as in a vulnerable position, undervalued, constrained and left out by a range of institutions related to food production and who are also disproportionately responsible for the provision of food at the household level. Renewed calls to place women centrally within development policy and planning (even for their empowerment) I think have been woefully inadequate.

These initiatives often look like encouraging women to produce female oriented food crops in gardens or care for small ruminants close to home by providing them with the tools and skills needed, even for free. This is to encourage her to be more productive so she can make more money and have more authority over her own life. It often looks like providing ‘new’ technology, like the old story of cheaper, energy efficient cook stoves, that are supposed to reduce her burden of work by making it easier on her. The women’s empowerment initiatives stipulated in policy and planning problematically tackles issues of power imbalance through an instrumentalist rationale. This “making women work for development, rather than making development work for their equality and empowerment” (p. 398).

Bad theory sucks

The problem with these initiatives is that it puts a lot of responsibility on the individual woman to solve the problems facing her family, like that of hunger. It actually places the solution and change on individuals, often in a way that reinforces traditional gender norms, further women’s work burdens and limits adaptive capacity, by providing those things that are female friendly. The danger is that this focus in policy may not reflect the lived realities of people’s experience, while possibly reinforcing the gendered status quo. Ultimately, the present empowering women strategies do not address the socio-economic inequalities that have led to her marginalization, such as the political economic dynamics and cultural geography. It also does not acknowledge the positions of power and agency she also has, afforded by privilege.

While there is recognition in policy and planning of the important contributions men and boys make and a detailing of human rights based approaches, women’s empowerment initiatives are pursued without deconstructing the underlying, unfounded assumptions about women and men. The narrative about women’s empowerment in development planning includes a number of myths, portraying women as hardworking, more caring and responsible than men and a better investment.

Kids get it

Although improving women’s opportunities is important, whether this will lead to transforming the unequal rules that are engendered is unclear.
– Even a small plot of land can reduce the risk of poverty, by acting as a bargaining point for attracting further resources from the State and from within the household, yet this link is by no means clear.
Technology to relieve domestic duties like cook stoves do not shift work loads, i.e. women still need to cook on top of the other income generating activities that you have given her, like that goat.
– New technology can also end up being labor-displacing. It could encourage women to take up work in collecting water or processing grain for wealthier farmers in return for wages reinforcing inequitable class dynamics.
Microcredit offered to poor women are typically under conditions that few affluent individuals would find acceptable and which few developed countries would allow. Moreover they remain small, recent evidence pointing to these loans as not having much of the intended transformational effects.
Training some women is also likely to have limited impact as having to attend training courses may benefit only those better off and who can sacrifice the time to attend the training
– Focusing on women can reinforce the gendered status quo and result in alienating men from contributing anything to the household.
– Targeting women also often include backlash from men, who feel left out from interventions, widening inequalities in different ways.

Moreover, the problems with targeting women who are labeled as victims of discrimination are that it may alter incentives and encourage them to adapt to this label so they receive development assistance. According to Ann Whitehead this framing of women without agency largely explains why the market-based strategies of the last 15 years in SSA (1987-2002) have not resulted in significant improvements for food security or agricultural development.

What can be done that is transformational?
Mainstream gender policy and planning maintains a post-feminist logic of empowering women through improving their productive capacity. The implications for this post-feminist logic that focuses on the individual woman are that it can reinforce traditional gender norms, increase work burdens, further intra-household conflict and, limit people and community’s adaptive capacity. In the least, policy needs to take a longer view and offer a broader range of opportunities people can choose to opt in or out of. Most of all, feminists should reclaim policy and planning spaces to politicize addressing the gender bias across various institutions for improving well being.

Why arent there more women?

Other more specific actions include,

1. Be informed by broader sets of interconnected inequalities, which involves a range of actors and activities embedded across various institutions. This includes recognition of discrimination of other oppression and differences, such as ethnicity and age, and other experiences of stigma and violence.

2. Intangible resources need to be considered, which are beyond asset provision, money and commodities include informal networks and associations-collective consciousness and building group solidarity. Moreover, human assets that focus broadly on the labor power, health and skills of individuals are critical.

3. Gender mainstreaming in reforms requires gender consciousness that goes beyond the staff of the programs to also include traditional authorities, men, and women to redress social inequality. This is not just about simply involving or engaging men, but also about holding them accountable to address any inequitable privileged positions of power.

4. Create conditions where people are not only able to express concerns, but also ensure they are listened to for increasing participation in decision making.

5. Most of all we need to examine the extent to which we harbor assumptions, myths, stereotypes, and limiting beliefs that prevent us from treating everyone with dignity and respect.


The slant of women’s empowerment initiatives in current policy discourse logic restricts women and men’s ability to contribute to their own development in multiple ways and ignores the need to transform institutional arrangements that control access, which is what actual empowerment looks like. Providing a group of woman with micro-loans for their shea butter production for example does not address the underlying socio-economic inequalities they face as peasant farmers engaging in a political economy that is actually shutting them out. This can be done by at least having a longer term perspective with the hope of providing a greater range of opportunities for people to decide what is best for themselves and their communities to adapt to changing circumstances.
im the boss


Empowerment only comes from within – thoughts on grassroots development from a development critic

I received a message this morning from someone who is consulting for a BIG agriculture development project in Northern Ghana. The consultant met with me recently because part of their project is in agriculture extension service capacity building, which is my line of work. They met with me to gain insights about the local context, especially since they will be working with the same staff in the Ministry of Food and Agriculture district office I was based in for a year and since very few others have actually spent time with farmers.

The good news is that the project’s initial assessment speaks to the importance of the work we did and the importance of grassroots development that so many NGOs and development projects no longer do (or did they ever?). When I say grassroots development I really simply mean spending time with farmers on their fields and developing strategies with them as opposed to for them.

The project consultant mentioned that even after 2.5 years the local staff in the office are still using the capacity building programs we developed and in new and improved/different ways.

I am always hesitant to work with BIG projects and consultants, especially for capacity building because the project activities are always too short term and the -fly in and out of a place strategy, in which many consultants work, can disrupt longer term localized goals and strategies for development, and waste money on very expensive flights, hotels and other travel related expenses. I understand this because I worked at a local office in Ghana, which saw a lot of this fly in and out of a place strategy.

This development work is funded because of the underlying (false) assumptions of what development should be: technical infusions of cookie cutter ‘expertise’ that seeks to work in different contexts – geography, culture, policy environment – this is the implicit bias in most scale strategies.

I understand this because for the past year I was working as a consultant and managed to convince the company quite easily to keep me in country as opposed to flying me back and forth several times. It makes economic sense -give me a reasonable salary instead of wasting it on air flights etc. It makes sustainable sense – let me get to know the context better so we can co-develop strategies with local partners and monitor more closely. And it makes personal sense as travelling is hard on the body and soul.

So when the project consultant came to me I was happy to relay this information: long term, sustainable development needs to be demand driven and developed with local farmers and partner staff. And the only way to understand these demands and co-develop new strategies to overcome context specific barriers is to be in the context, with local people, testing and trying new things and then communicating that back up in the system.

This is what grassroots development looks like.
This is what my PhD research hopes to focus on, in addition to supporting local social movements that represent smallholder farmers who have no voice in Ghana. The PhD is the only space that has yet allowed me to focus and encourage this work. Differently than many PhD students, it is ideal that I am working closely with African development critics to do this research.

Development ‘experts’ from abroad should merely facilitate problem solving and provide ideas/possibilities to local people, especially farmers. And we should not just work with any farmer, but with those farmers who are most vulnerable – the ones who fall between the cracks of formal, private sector development because they are not profitable enough to work with or who are physically inaccessible.


Agriculture development work that focuses at the top of systems change without accounting for a gendered, racial or class based theoretical understanding of oppression and vulnerability will, and always has, left the most vulnerable people behind.

Political, economic and social systems need to regulate growth and depression for justice – to reduce inequality by working for and with those who are often left behind. The ideal way to do this is to provide spaces for their expression of specific needs and interests, and then feeding those voices back into the systems that oppress them for change. It is not development that should change those oppressive systems, but those who are oppressed. It will not be profitable and it will not be technical, but this is what welfare, wellbeing & justice looks like. It looks like listening, networking and communicating – a lot like a social movements working in a democracy.

Providing a simple functional literacy training program, or extension ‘innovation’, such as ICT, GIS, improved varieties of seed, cook stoves or goats – is never enough. Once you provide to one community and not the other, you are shifting the balance of power, perhaps widening inequality. This is precisely the feminization of labour story we have seen in the past 30 years. Even if farmers agree, it is never enough to assume that your understanding as a foreigner of what is best to solve a problem that you have never experienced yourself because complex power dynamics that are historically, socially embedded are at play.

To provide credit, technological innovation or even capacity building programs that have not been co-developed with those living in a local context, quite simply is an imposition of your own concepts of what development looks like. Development thinks we have the answer – but not only have we been failing for more than 50 years, but what we are doing now (land grabbing, resource extraction, de-regulation for export happy policies) looks an awfully lot like processes of colonialism and structural adjustment.

I gave a lecture yesterday about gender and development in sub-Saharan Africa for an undergraduate course at the university I work at. One of the questions asked was about what works: top down or bottom up development. My answer was of course that the story is complex – that development should never just be one or the other, but should be a blend of the two.

Top down and/ bottom up level development will never progress well-being/welfare if it fails to create empowering spaces for vulnerable populations to express their own ideas of progress, met with resources and facilitation to make those ideas a reality. This is a fundamental ideological shift that we acknowledge as important, but is rarely put into practice.

There is no such thing as a development expert. To assume you have expertise – the answer- the skills, the innovation, the money to empower someone else is not only arrogant but impossible. Empowerment only comes from within.

Ebola – My Experience, Understandings and Recommended Action

Ebola – My Experience, Understandings and Recommended Next Steps

By Siera Vercillo

I have not posted in 6 months because I have been distracted and consumed by the international public health emergency of Ebola that is in West Africa. It is affecting thousands of people’s lives (some of which I know), directly impacting my work and leaving me with sleepless nights. I need to do and say something, so I am raising money to conduct awareness discussions in Pujehun, Southern, Sierra Leone and buying sanitation materials like chlorine that will be implemented by trusted religious, youth and community partners to fight the battle. Check out the fundraising campaign I started to donate here and help me with this. I am also in discussions with international and local NGOs to inform their health and safety policy & project activities.

What You Should Know In Summary

  • Ebola is out of control not just because of the ignorance of local people. Simply put, it is because of poor health infrastructure, trust and denial from local governments and the international community.
  • Solving the Ebola emergency requires drastic measures: quarantined areas, health screening, more training, more resources and materials, but also ‘sensitization’ or education using trusted sources: local religious and youth leaders.
  • This crisis reveals people’s mistrust of the state, that’s why they do not listen to health professionals. People believe that Big Men are using the state to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary people.
  • For Canadians and others abroad a bigger concern closer to home is that some equally as infectious diseases which we once vanquished, like measles, rubella and pertussis, are now making a comeback.
Map of Ebola Outbreak

Map of Ebola Outbreak

My Story

When I was in Pujehun back in March I got a call at midnight by my mother anxiously yelling on the phone: Ebola is in West Africa, a country called Guinea and might have travelled to Canada. Annoyed because I needed to wake up in a few hours for farm visits, I told her that it is ok, Guinea is not Sierra Leone. But she explained and questioned: it has been around since February why isn’t anybody talking about it? Why only now when there is a suspected case in Calgary (which turned out to a bad case of malaria -god, rest the man’s soul). I searched online, I spoke to a few people from Guinea and there was very little information. I was not worried.

In April I was in a community enjoying a homemade lunch of bushmeat stew with rice after a long, typically hot morning in the garden trying to assess the potential value of peppers, eggplant and other vegetables. I then travelled back to the office where the Project Coordinator mentioned Ebola. I soon realized that no one at the office knew anything about Ebola. I quickly searched on the internet and saw the Ebola incidents were reaching historical records in Guinea with possible cases in Liberia. I had an informal staff meeting and naively announced: Ebola is coming here, we should stop eating all meat and we should be afraid. I did this because I was taught that Ebola is the type of virus that is our worst nightmare. Back home it is described as the modern day plague that has no cure, no vaccine and kills almost everyone in the most horrible kind of way- by bleeding to death. The staff I spoke to laughed at me. I realize now it was not because they thought I was being dramatic, but because they have been through this before with Lassa fever and were afraid.


Lunch with colleagues in a community

Over the next few weeks I had received all sorts of information from across the continent: there was a vaccine, there was no vaccine; Ebola is air born, it is only through body contact; you can only get it from people who are dying, but also through sweat and animals. Email chains, text messages were passed around with a lot of contradictory information. Senegal and Mali closed their borders with Guinea – Sierra Leone did nothing. I contacted the Canadian Embassy that sent me the same information that was in the email chains I previously received. It was not until I heard that there were incidents on the Liberian border an hour away from where I was did I contact my Manager in Canada to inquire. I was calm, not afraid and a bit annoyed with the miss information. So I was shocked that night when I was called at 9pm from a conference call from Canada. I was trying to find a quiet enough place to speak, maneuvering in the dark as the EPL soccer game got out. I was told that the next day I was to go to Freetown and then taking the next flight home.

All I kept thinking is what do I tell the staff I am working with and friends I have made. How do I not panic them? How do I advise them? Because I have very little knowledge and information about what to do if I was in their shoes. My own family in Canada was glad I was leaving, my partner in the UK did not believe me and the family I was with was worried and confused. My coach calmed me, making me realize how stressful the situation would be if I stayed and got sick. Even something as easily curable as malaria would cause panic, as well as if the borders closed who knows what quarantine would happen if I was stuck. The next morning, I packed my things with the help of friends and explained to some staff who thought the decision to leave was drastic. But I knew (and they did to) there was information that we were not privy to because the news, government, NGOs were talking about it.

I got back to the United Kingdom in April and learnt that I was not the only one pulled out or prevented from going back to Sierra Leone. Other foreign staff from international NGOs were not sending consultants, PhD students were delaying their flights for research, local community organizations were not accepting volunteers. I knew within a week of being back home that this was the right decision. All I kept thinking is, why is this information only available once I am out of the situation? Why am I (the foreigner) the only one where precautions are made?

The outrageous thing is that in May I travelled to Canada for meetings where I am now, and was preparing to go back to Sierra Leone because the WHO deemed it all under control. Despite Doctors Without Borders calling it an outbreak. Now the WHO is calling it an international health emergency. Borders are closed, people are quarantined at airports having to go through tests, airlines have stopped flying, whole communities are locked up, project activities put on hold, even public meetings are banned. Ebola is plaguing three of the countries least equipped to cope with it. There aren’t enough clinics with resources, knowledge where tests are false positive, and rumours are going around. West African countries are watching it closely as Nigeria now has cases and I get emails about potential cases from Ghana on a weekly basis.

The outbreak started in February. It is now August. What has gone on in the past 6 months?

Hearty meals from the farm

Hearty meals from the farm

Power and Politics – Outbreak Could Have Been Prevented

I agree with this article: Ebola cannot be cured, but it could have been prevented. I am outraged, as should you be. This is not the result of war over land or resources – Big men fighting for power with man-made weapons. This is a virus that is killing innocent people. People like you and I with families and no idea about what to do or who to trust.

But this needs to be said: the virus has gotten out of control because of power and politics: denial from the international community and local governments. This has also led to denial from ordinary people as well. Evidence of when politics gets in the way is regarding the all of a sudden Hail Mary of a cure coming from the USA. As a Nigerian-Canadian friend on facebook rightfully stated: “So this experimental serum helped the American doctor. Great! BUT HOW COME NO ONE MENTIONED THE SERUM WHEN AFRICANS WERE DYING? Sigh”. Me also insisting with organizations that there are cases in Pujehun and that it would be naive to think otherwise when there are cases an hour away. But until there is ‘proof’ there are no actions taken, which is why the outbreak has turned into an emergency. Thankfully I did what I could and stopped all the activities I am responsible for. But it is not good enough.

As said here, although we should not just blame government or international communities because curbing the spread of Ebola does not happen overnight, what has been done has not been working and public services are still poorly equipped. This is because of the many actors involved in the Ebola response has complicated the response, especially since it’s unclear who is in charge.

Home garden

Home garden

Unfair Cause of the Outbreak – It’s not just the ignorance of people

Fear and ignorance are increasingly said to be playing a role in the spreading of the virus, which is unfair. The news coverage I have heard on the BBC, CNN etc. focuses on how dangerous it is for local people not to comply.  Local practices such as the consumption of bushmeat (like the meal I was eating earlier) and traditional funeral practices are the go-to explanations for Ebola’s outbreak. However, decades of anthropological research indicates: “not only that this picture is an over-simplification, but that disease control policies based on these ideas may be unhelpful”. Yes, part of the problem is that heath officials have been attacked, rumors that the disease does not exist, belief that people who go to the hospital will not come out alive is resulting in more and more Ebola cases. People are going ‘missing’ or families are taking them out of hospital is not helping.

This is explained better here by Susan Shepler “When someone has the symptoms—fever, vomiting, diarrhea—they are supposed to report to the health center, where they will be taken away from family, and if they die, be buried by men in protective gear with no family present.  You can see why people might be loath to turn over their loved ones. Really who among us would want to turn a sick loved one over to a hospital staffed with foreigners, knowing we might never see them again?  … People’s apprehensions about the failings of the healthcare system come from experience, not from ignorance.” This crisis reveals people’s mistrust of the state. That is why communities are taking sick people out of hospitals and keeping them at home. This is understandable in the aftermath of war, but also people believe that the state is actually out to get them or that Big Men are using this to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary people.

We need to understand history from an anthropological perspective and use local knowledge to tackle the problem. For example, Lassa fever, another viral haemorrhagic disease is relevant, with longstanding rumours about medical staff administering lethal injections and people avoiding the hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone where Ebola is treated is something that should have be recognized.

In Kenema doing a role playing exercise

In Kenema doing a role playing exercise

In Mende areas where I was living, there are general categories of big and small fever, and ordinary and hospital sick. Diseases can be understood as caused by multiple things, including ‘witchcraft’. The importance of burial practices cannot be underestimated as they are strictly controlled by the male and female societies. Key to understanding health provision is to “understand how disease categories shift as the illness progresses.”

Swamp Valley Rice

Swamp Valley Rice

Our Perspective from Abroad

We also need to remember that Ebola is not the exception as outlined here, but one example of the terrible norm – where thousands of men, women and children are dying from a range of horrible diseases every day. Dengue, measles (spread through air-droplets) and hepatitis B (spread like HIV but 50 times more infectious). There is no cure for rabies either with an equally as slow and painful death as Ebola.

In reality, the news likes to create a stir of fear for gaining more viewers, which results in unwarranted panic. A bigger concern closer to home is that some diseases which we once vanquished, like measles, rubella and pertussis, are now making a comeback.

Community meeting

Community meeting

More Reading

Most heartfelt story from the front lines here – Trigger Warning- it is a bit gross but reflective of how strong ordinary people can be.

Voices from the heroic people – health care professionals working on the front line here.

How Ebola spread outlined here

Land Grabbing for Agriculture is Causing Conflict in Southern, Sierra Leone

Something I have been hearing about since the day I arrived in Sierra Leone is about the conflict or ‘uneasy calm’ that has arisen from land grabbing for large-scale agriculture by foreign companies. ‘Land grabbing’ simply defined is when governments, banks or private investors buy up huge plots of land to make profits. In the particular case of Sierra Leone an estimated fifth of the country’s arable land has been leased since 2009 to industrial farming, many of them foreign companies producing biofuels from crops, such as oil palm and sugar cane.

On the way to the communities

On the way to the communities

Where I am working there is one particular land grab contract for arguably the largest oil palm plantation in Africa under the company Socfin Agricultural Company Ltd. The local farmers I have been working with in this Chiefdom have explained that this plantation is directly causing uneasiness/conflict, threatening their physical and nutritional security. This report published in 2013 provides evidence towards this ‘uneasy calm’ as a result of the land grab. I had the opportunity to witness this uneasy calm first hand, as I am working alongside three farming based organizations based within two of the communities within the effected Chiefdom.

Socfin Agricultural Company Ltd (SAC)
SOC is part of Belgian Socfin Group. It is leasing 6,500 ha and seeking to lease and plant an additional 5,500 ha with expansion to 30,000 ha in the Malen Chiefdom, Pujehun District, Southern Province. This has been sub-leased from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Services for the next 50 years at a rate of US$12.50 per hectare per year for the purpose of oil palm (crude palm oil) and eventually rubber.

There is an estimated 9,000 people effected across 24 communities.

According to SAC its promise to give back to the communities includes three roadwork projects and has built eight water wells, one ambulance, a primary school, some footwear and jerseys for a friendly football match, a generator and paint for the police station outside SAC’s operational area. To date, SAC has no intention of investing in agricultural programmes, nor has it looked at how local people who have lost their livelihood can be compensated.

The palm oil plantation referred to extends for as far as the eye can see

The palm oil plantation referred to extends for as far as the eye can see

Response from smallholder farmers
Farming based organizations (FBOs) I work with have expressed their ambition to build large scale farms to generate profit. No smallholder I have spoken to wishes to remain small scale, but their vision of large scale is something entirely different from a plantation. Many have expressed a desire to cultivate large areas with a range of diverse crops that service different purposes, such as for community/home consumption or for exports. Almost every farming based organization I work alongside is producing food crops for consumption and sale (rice, cassava, vegetables), despite the Ministry’s push for non-consumable commodities (palm oil).

With the situation in Sahn-Malen, people are extremely dissatisfied with the company SAC. SAC’s plantation has resulted in “loss of farm income and produce from the bush and tree-crop areas, the impact on food and nutritional security, new social ills and discord in the communities, and the limited and short-term employment opportunities available with SAC.” There is also dissatisfaction with the wages provided by SAC to those labourers who work on their plantation. Wages of Le 10,000 [about US$2.30] per day cannot compensate them for their lost farm income and produce. Moreover, due to the loss of local food production, the cost of food has risen with the staple, fish for example rising to between 15,000-20,000SL per unit from LE1,000-2000 prior to SAC’s plantation. The qualities of the meals have also deteriorated with cassava and sweet potato meals now missing meat and fish, vegetables (okra, garden eggs), beans and wild fruits resulting in lower nutrition.

Worst of all, the promises made by traditional leaders, politicians, company representatives and respected local people to agree to SAC’s investment have not been met and people are now angry and afraid. Expressions about the land include ‘It is for our children’ and they prefer the ‘freedom’ they enjoy as an autonomous independent farming community not to work under a company as a labourer.

I am meeting with farmers effected by the land grab situation

I am meeting with farmers effected by the land grab situation

Land is the social glue
As the above report rightly claims, land is a kind of social glue. FBOs and their respective communities have developed social groups that work together on communal pieces of land and share the harvests and profits from their sale. Land is the source of rural livelihoods and in Sierra Leone the farming systems and land use patterns are extremely complex, with different land types used for different purposes. Farmers have in the area have asked for my advice on what to do with their business because due to this land grab, there is a shortage of land with the greatest perceived loss being the upland farms, where people cultivate upland rice,
 as well as fruit and medicinal trees.

Now that people’s land have been taken away for palm oil, the sources of livelihoods have changed. The most important sources of income, such as sale of farm produce, value added farm products and farm labour have been either greatly reduced or gone altogether, which makes the work we are doing much more challenging. This lack of income is resulting in higher rates of poverty —the intended opposite effect of business or/ agriculture development. People often express to me that they are having more trouble paying school fees for their children.

It is also impacting the social context with an influx of ‘strangers’ that have moved to their communities to find work – so the assumption that the company is hiring local people is (might) also be false. There is also expressed concern about the potential risk of water contamination from chemical fertilizers and herbicides being used on the plantation.

The above report mentions that SAC’s plantation has resulted in less sharing and trust within the community, increased poverty which is resulting in conflict, teenage pregnancy (as families cannot afford their daughters), increased borrowing and debt, theft, sex work and divorce. There have been multiple murders over the past month, making the place unstable. Staff I work with can no longer travel alone, making service provision that much more difficult to provide and coordinate. After 4pm, people fear any vehicle on the road, and I have witnessed women jumping into the forest as we drove by. To be clear, this is not a security threat to me, as I do not live in the area, but a big challenge to our work, to people’s livelihoods and the well-being of those living in these communities.

Agricultural sector development is meant to improve the wellbeing of its communities. It is supposed to provide strong livelihoods, competitive markets, food and nutrition and all of the other benefits that come with development NOT instability, fear, mistrust, poverty, and violence.

Christian Aid (2013). ‘Who is Benefitting?’ Found at:

Grain. (2014) Sierra Leone farmers reject land grab for oil palm plantation. Found at:

Women’s Farmer Organizations as a Collective Action Strategy for Food Security

The majority of the farmer based organizations (FBOs) I will be working with in Sierra Leone are women’s groups. Here, I argue that these FBOs are more formalized strategies of collective action where assets, decision-making and resource control is maintained by women. This contributes to their individual and collective empowerment needed for food security.

There is a tendency for development planners and policymakers to forget about women, what we call ‘gender neutral’ development. Fortunately, the project I am working on has not. Half of the implementing staffs I am working with are women field staff and many of the FBOs are comprised mostly of women. This is important as the diverse needs and challenges that are unique to women need to be accounted for in order to address inequality in access to ‘food entitlements’ or the different components that contribute to food security.

These unique needs and challenges are socio-cultural because they are dictated by a cultural construction of gender ‘women’. This culture interacts with economic and political issues. For example in Sierra Leone, if I am responsible for purchasing, cooking and distributing all of the food in the household because I am a woman, but do not have independent control over the budget allocated to me (because I am a woman) than that is a gendered issue that will effect nutrition. As those who control the major budget (who are not women) might not have interest in spending it on food as it is not their responsibility. Below I also argue that women’s roles, assets and agency beyond the domestic sphere or household in West Africa are integral to meeting food and nutrition security.

One way to build off of the power women have is through collective action or coordination. This means that people (women and men) come together to use their diverse strengths to overcome the barriers they face (Kania & Kramer, 2011). Women in West Africa in particular are well connected in markets, communities and networks of households/compounds in relation to food. This is why it is not surprising that most of the FBOs involved in this food security project are women’s groups and that implementing staff express the importance of working with them.

Meeting with the implementing staff on strengthening FBOs in Sierra Leone

Meeting with the implementing staff on strengthening FBOs in Sierra Leone

The Implementing staff I am working with in Sierra Leone

The Implementing staff I am working with in Sierra Leone

However, It is Insufficient to Simply Target Women in Agriculture

Those in development who focus on advocating for women’s rights often classify rural women as female farmers, branding them as the major contributors to subsistence agriculture (the production of food for household consumption). They enlist statistics to support their cause, stating that women make up roughly 70-80 per cent of the world’s agricultural labour force, but in many places only having access to one meal per day (World Bank, 2009). This advocacy is meant to justify targeting development efforts on the household or domestic space, such as home gardens, branded as women’s issues to tackle the problem of food insecurity. The focus on women in agriculture strategy as highlighted by the World Bank etc. is comparable to the women in development theory (WID), whereby the strategy is to target women.

However, to address the socio-economic challenges of food insecurity and malnutrition there is a pressing need to consider the gender dimensions and unequal social structures as an integral element of food security in and related to agriculture. For example, you can give a woman a fish to eat or even teach her how to fish, but if her socio-economic environment does not permit her/discourages her from using the fishing skills or eating the fish herself than we have not solved the problem. Instead, we need to address the socio-economic environment. There is insufficient understanding of how the social roles and responsibilities, access to resources, and control over decisions related to food production and allocation exists across various spaces.

Moving beyond this, I would argue that women in West Africa have important roles and strong assets beyond the household and have traditionally had power across many spaces that should be leveraged to tackle food insecurity. The iconic ‘Market Queen’ image depicting women in specific West African markets is an example of women who have gained economic and political power. Market women are well organized and successful in generating income. I think a key strategy for development would be to leverage these strong trading and business skills, which have existed in the region for hundreds of years.

This is also why I get frustrated when those in development speak about women in West Africa as if they are powerless – as if rural women do not know their own problems. The most common phrase I hear is that ‘We need to empower women!’. This does not reflect reality as empowerment comes from within. A more correct strategy would be to facilitate empowerment or unlock potential across various spaces that women themselves identify with.

One way I hope to facilitate empowerment and leverage the legacy of West African ‘Market Queens’ is by fostering open, safe and inclusive communication across FBO meetings between members and extension service providers. Focus group discussions, matrix scoring, key informant interviews and women leaders are shaping the monitoring plan I am developing to try and capture the strategies and ambitions local women have for the FBOs. Hopefully this information can inform future development or investments made.

Market Women in Sierra Leone - my host mother and her business

Market Women in Sierra Leone – my host mother and her business

Women’s FBOs
FBOs are one form of collective action that have traditionally focused more on group formation and mobilization, and the provision of technical and financial inputs via groups. This translates to charities and governments formally creating groups by registering them and giving them free products. After the registration and free products the groups usually stop functioning. This is where I hope we can adapt current efforts in development to move above and beyond the technical provision and formal to actually overcome gender-specific barriers in markets, group governance and the wider policy environment. This might be overly ambitious for a three-month pilot, but I will continue to think BIG, work hard and ask tough questions.

The Evidence So Far
Women’s participation in informal savings groups, alongside their formal participation in mixed groups have been found to be correlated with greater benefits from formal group participation since this strengthened their capacity to exercise leadership, and enabled them access credit. The evidence suggests that these same women were able to retain control over incomes from their participation (Baden, 2013). These findings are also supported by Fischer and Qaim (2011) who found that when both men and women from the same household are group members, women are able to exercise greater control over income. In this particular case, income resulted in better nutritional outcomes at the household level. I would label this ‘economic empowerment’ as women are participating in decision making, and having authority and control over assets in market activities.

This increase
 in economic empowerment of women through formal and informal FBOs is also associated with benefits beyond income, such as improved self-confidence through,
•Group participation and expansion of social networks (I now have more power and a wider network to negotiate across);
•Enhanced decision-making ability due to exposure to new ideas and increased knowledge (I can now begin to think outside the box to make decisions);
•Increased mobility through attending group meetings (I can also leave my community more which will allow me to interact with the network);
•The acquisition of new skills, which can be transferred to household management (I can take this knowledge/skills and convince those within my household to listen to my decisions);
•And increased access to credit (I have the money to improve my business).

According to Kepe and Ferguson (2011) women members in FBOs claimed to have improved their confidence, their negotiating skills, the ability to be of service to their communities through transferring skills to others, and the ability to take control of certain household decisions when dealing with men after they became members of an FBO. They conclude that these social benefits could be enhanced if women were fully acknowledged as important by ‘agents of change’-perhaps development practitioners in general.

What is Needed for FBOs to be an Empowering Space for Women
•Transparent internal governance and strong leadership;
•Support of men and community authorities;
•Leverage market opportunities in growing sectors – better business and opportunities for more profit and other negotiating assets;
•Utilize new technology with training to facilitate women’s participation in new activities;
•Formal membership alone is insufficient it needs to be complimentary with the socio-cultural context;
•Link informal women-only groups to mixed men and women formal groups – larger umbrella FBOs;
•Provide direct support to particular groups of women, such as youth who have less authority or power.

Meanwhile, I hope to promote interest in improving the efficiency of women in pre and post harvest activities as buyers, processors and traders through FBO development. According to Christine Okali, women’s engagement in post-harvest activities in West Africa, such as processing is more organized and powerful than in production, particularly in the production of food where women are often quoted to have the most activity. The focus of women as only actors in domestic spaces, such as subsistence agriculture is too simple. Recognizing and supporting other important roles they might have, such as processors is critical for having a positive impact towards food security.

View of the school in Pujehun Village near where I am living

View of the school in Pujehun Village near where I am living

Baden, S. (2013) ‘Women’s Collective Action: Unlocking the potential of agricultural markets’ [Online] Oxfam International DOI: 978-1-78077-299-8. Available at: [25 July 2013].

Ferguson, H. and Kepe, T. (2011) ‘Agricultural Cooperatives and Social Empowerment of Women: a Ugandan Case Study’ Development in Practice, 21.3: 421-498

Fischer, E., and Qaim, M. (2012) ‘Gender agricultural commercialization, and collective action in Kenya’ Food Security vol. 4. Pp. 441-452.

Kania & Kramer (2011) ‘Collective Action’ Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Pandolfelli, L., Meinzen-Dick, R., Dohrn, S. (2008) ‘Gender and Collective Action Motivations, Effectiveness and Impact’ Journal of International Development
J. vol. 20, pp. 1–11

World Bank. (2009) Gender in Agriculture Sourcebook, Washington: The World Bank.

The Varied Roles of Extension Services Provided to Farmer Organizations for Food Security

It is official, I am moving to Pujehun district located in southern, Sierra Leone for a few months. I will be consulting on a project that aims to improve the food security of people living in poor, rural communities in West African countries to ensure that they have access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food.

I will be consulting on one part of the overall system to contribute to,
a) Increasing the effectiveness and use of agricultural extension services (government, NGO) by training extension staff in planning, implementing, and monitoring and,
b) Provide business support services to farmer organizations, and strengthen them for the adoption of good agricultural and livelihood practices.

Here, I want to explain the value farmer organizations have for food security and the importance of the different roles extension services have.

Why Agricultural Extension?

Agricultural extension historically has been about technology transfer, through an extension staff transferring knowledge from research stations to farmers by using individual, group, and mass media methods. Farmers gain this knowledge and improve their practices to produce greater yields. The obvious link between this to food security is: an improved and greater yield of food crops, such as rice leads to more food available.

However, making more food available in communities is only one part of the food security story. Mostly because you cannot grow everything you wish to eat. Also, there is often times enough food available, but the most hungry cannot access it. Food can be inaccessible because of,
•Poor infrastructure & natural disasters (I cannot physically get to the markets where food is sold);
•Food is too expensive (I cannot afford / have the cash to buy food);
•Social/cultural norms (I cannot leave the house alone or I can only interact with certain actors in certain markets);
•Violence and corruption (I do not feel safe when buying food because of potential threats from others);
•Poor health systems (I am too sick to get food and process it);
•Lack of information (I do not know where or when the food is sold or what the standards/rules are);
•Inadequate support institutions (I do not have the capital needed etc.)
Source: Angela Mwaniki, ‘Achieving Food Security in Africa: Challenges and Issues’

The goal of improving productive yields is only one dimension of food security. I would argue, more importantly, access to food, varied markets (not just food markets, but also agricultural markets) and overall livelihood development (employment generally) is critical for food security. Bearing in mind the issue of nutrition is much more complex as this requires improved health, water and sanitation systems beyond agriculture or livelihoods.

More recently, agricultural extension has varied roles to improve availability and access to food, markets and overall livelihood development. Some of the roles include,
Human Resource and Empowerment role: help farmers and rural communities organize themselves and take charge (empowerment) of their growth and development.
Community-Organizing role: understanding the structures, by-laws, rules will help leaders to plan, implement, and monitor their own livelihoods. Helping communities to build, develop, and increase their power through cooperation, sharing, and working together to negotiate and interact with other markets.
Problem-Solving and Education role: helping farmers and their communities to identify problems and seek the right solutions by combining their indigenous knowledge with other knowledge and by using their resources properly.
• And most commonly…Technology Development role: by linking research with community group needs and helping to facilitate appropriate technology development
Source: Shankariah Chamala and P. M. Shingi. FAO. Chapter 21 “Establishing and strengthening farmer organizations” in Improving Agricultural Extension. A Reference Manuel

Extension staff learning from farmers about their technology, not just the other way around

Extension staff learning from farmers about their technology, not just the other way around

Rice Sheller - simple technology, but critical for agribusiness development

Rice Sheller – simple technology, but critical for agribusiness development

Why Farmer Organizations?

Farmer organizations give farmers bargaining power in the market place, enable cost-effective delivery of extension services, and provide a space for empowered members to influence policies that affect their livelihoods. Private sector organizations establish farmer organizations to reduce the cost of dealing with farmers, enhance the volume and quality of farm produce, and improve credit recovery from farmers. Governments establish farmer organizations to improve rural service delivery. National policies aimed to help rural people become organized even provided blueprint structures in the form of cooperatives and commodity organizations.

Problematically however, extension staffs traditionally have never had training in the theory and principles of community organization or skills in the process of establishing these organizations. As a result, many farmer organizations were established overnight on paper and remained only active during the period that government subsidies were distributed and not beyond this. Today, the elite tend to capture the services and resources, while the poor and marginalized are left out. Very few attempts are made to develop the management capacities of farmer organizations leaders, their members, and extension staff. This is where my work comes in.
Source: Wilhemina, Quaye; Ivy, Yawson; Tawiah, Manful John; Joseph, Gayin. (2010) ‘Building the Capacity of Farmer Based Organisation for Sustainable Rice Farming in Northern Ghana’ Journal of Agricultural Science 2.1 :93-106.
Source: Salifu, A., Lee Funk, R., Keefe, M., and Kolavalli, S. (2012) ‘Farmer Based Organizations in Ghana’ Ghana Strategy Support Program. IFPRI Working Paper 31. August

Extension Staff & Farmer Group Training Session

Extension Staff & Farmers Training Session, where everyone role plays being a women in a women’s farming organization. I made the real life female farmers the decision makers for 2.5 hours and you should hear them challenge others and make difficult decisions for planning a business!

Rural bank account application example

Rural bank account application example

What I hope to Accomplish

My aims are to build the capacities of farmer organizations: rice farmers can actively create cooperatives, partnerships and mobilize local resources independently.

I also hope to strengthen the varied roles agricultural extension staff have in strengthening the potential for community empowerment, human resources and problem solving. I will be training extension staff in modernized techniques for engaging with farmer organizations that are based on learning by doing, visual educational techniques, and participatory action and facilitation. This includes understanding the rules and governance structures needed for sustainable and functional collective action through farmer organizations.

Why In Sierra Leone?

When people think of Sierra Leone, the not so comforting images of Blood Diamond spring to mind (where Leonardo Di Caprio was heard coining the term TIA –This Is Africa- remember?). But it has been 10 years since the end of the civil war, and the country has made progress. This is why the Government’s focus has shifted towards agricultural sector development. In 2010, the Smallholder Commercialization Program was launched to support smallholder farmers’ linkages to markets through farmer organizations, subsidized inputs and infrastructure rehabilitation. Rain-fed upland rice dominates food supply and tree crops supply the bulk of Sierra Leone’s agricultural exports and domestic palm oil consumption, but many trees were destroyed during the war.

This agricultural focus has come out of the destruction from the civil war when significant proportion of the rural population became marginalized from productive land. Institutional structures were destroyed, including much of the road networks, input materials etc. It is hard to imagine a place with no national water supply, sewage system or electricity grid, where everything runs on a generator, but that is Sierra Leone today.

I have had the opportunity to travel to meet the staff in Sierra Leone for initial needs assessment. I was amongst several organizations that pitched different tools for change and it was what I had to offer that the staff opted in for and thought was worth investing in. I will keep you posted on any progress made.
Source: Binns, T., and Maconachie, R. (2005) ‘Going Home in Postconfilct Sierra Leone’. Geography 90. 1: 67-78.

Project Staff & Farmer Group Representatives

Project Staff & Farmer Group Representatives

What am I worth to ‘Development’?

Hello blog world, it has been a long time since we connected – more than one year to be precise. Some of you know that this is because I was completing a Masters degree in Gender and International Development and I got distracted with academics. After spending my year primarily learning about the social, economic and political challenges across ‘developing’ countries from a book, I find myself reflecting further about going from reading about ‘development’ to doing it. Some of the common challenges that cross people’s minds in this industry are about how to put policy into practice, or theory into action; how to translate complexity of a specific context into a generalizable statement, actionable item or evaluative indicator. However, I find myself asking a different set of questions and having different conversations with fellow recent graduates regarding our (individual) role within development. More specifically, these questions are about our worth as recent graduates to this industry. We have been handed a set of powerful analytical tools, introduced to networks, developed important skills that are both tangible and intangible, yet I find myself still asking what is it worth? What am I worth?

There has been a common thread circulating Twitter and Facebook that I have read consistently over the year that has put forward some key points: that the volunteer internships, the high levels of education, the indebtedness is not translating into rewarding or sustainable career paths for youth. This post highlights how the current economy continues to fail for our generation. This was made in response to generalizations made about how our generation expects too much. In reality, the barrier to entry or cost of building a career in relation to our ‘passion’ is very high, possibly too high. For example, it is said here that we might have very high levels of education, but this is insufficient to find a job in that respective field. This draws my attention to the opportunities and experiences I have had to build a career related to my passions and forces me to reflect on my privilege and what this will translate to for myself. The question I have distilled from this self-reflection is at what point do I as an individual demand more compensation for my efforts?

Volunteering and volunteer internships have likely always existed in development as non-profits and government, who are major actors in this field, have tended to have limited funding. Currently, this is also translating into private businesses that operate for profit, such as banks hiring marketing interns, which might make less sense. This is not to say that there is no money in development. On the contrary, development is a multi-billion dollar industry where many directors, project managers, researchers, and administrators get paid a market wage equivalent to that of the developed world.

To undergo this self-reflection, particularly now when I have decisions to make following graduation on where to go next, is critically important. In 2013, I was offered several volunteer positions, two of which were ‘prestigious’ positions within the United Nations. All of which I ultimately declined with the hope for something that compensated me alongside all the benefits of unpaid work, but that actually paid me enough to cover my living costs per month. At the beginning of the year I had adopted a new principle: I would no longer work for free (be the change you want to see right?). I decided this because I do believe I have given my fair share of free time – completed several unpaid internships, gaining the equivalent of a local person’s wage in a developing country and self-funding all education and training – but also because I do not want my privileges as an upper-middle class, white woman from the largest city in Canada and who holds dual passports to further distort the market that requires you to do all of this. I think this system is distorted not because volunteer work is not meaningful or useful for those without a set of skillsets or experience, but because it seems to be a requirement for those even with experience and skills to offer. I think something is wrong when a recent graduate who has volunteer experience and $35,000 worth of training is still expected to work for free or is paid less than minimum wage for the number of hours they work. Financial compensation is important, as it is a basic necessity of life. At what point is this industry exploiting or actually widening social and economic inequality? At what point are they working against the principles of equality and poverty reduction that they are striving for?

Reflecting on the work I was doing with Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) in Ghana, I do believe I got as much out of my experience as I put into it. Although I got paid the equivalent of a local person’s wage in Northern Ghana (and not Canada), the opportunity benefitted me in ways that were not predictable. Today I still feel like I am growing because of my experiences from working with EWB. Extrapolating further, I do believe that colleagues there are choosing to volunteer their time or take a salary that is below minimum wage for the hours they work because they feel compensated individually in other ways. EWB benefits because without these volunteers, it would not be able to function and do the good development work that it does. But I have to ask further: how are we contributing to the broken or distorted system? The system that under pays its entry-level staff? Perhaps, EWB is not the best example because it is a non-profit and the level of underpayment is consistent across the organization from the CEO to the field staff to the administrator, which is uncommon across many NGOs. Even so, what are the implications of this on ‘development’? I do not think it a coincidence that the majority of people working in non-profits are women and that this further reinforces the gendered income inequality. Nor do I think that the percentages of minority ethnicities are sufficiently represented, which affects the quality of the work. There are many reasons and the topic is complex, but before I digress…

Positively, it has worked out for me. I declined the ‘prestigious’ volunteer internship opportunities with the UN and it turned into a well-paid job doing the exact same work that was instead on my own terms. Moreover the paying job has been alongside a strong mentor who has worked to develop my self-confidence and self-worth. It has worked out for me so far because of my hard work, my strategic decisions, principles, partnerships and most of all – my privilege. My mentor has helped me to dream big and remember that I am worthy of being compensated. But I cannot help to think of those who also are, but are not so privileged.

I have been offered a different position as a consultant for a large development programme doing work similar to what I was doing in Ghana, only this time I will be receiving consultancy-level wages. Despite my arguments to the contrary, the programme leadership has reminded me of what I am worth by refusing to under pay me, literally saying “do not underestimate what this is worth – what you are worth”. I see this as a good opportunity to take the well thought out and tested approaches of EWB and scale its impact, while at the same time giving back to EWB so they can continue to do the good quality work they prefer to do in other areas.

The aim of this blog post is to humbly, share reflections with fellow recent graduates, colleagues and to those working in development. I may not be living the dream yet (of having a stable job that I get excited about) but I am extremely happy and satisfied. I want to provide you with the same advice that was given to me: you are worth it! Remember to have principles, set standards that are unique to you and your needs, and stick to them. Dream big, and work hard!