Home > Financial Flows > ‘Investing’ in Women’s Rights: Challenges and new trends

‘Investing’ in Women’s Rights: Challenges and new trends

Angelika Arutyunova.

Women’s rights activists and advocates are not the only ones talking about the importance of inclusion of women and girls in the development processes. From the World Bank to corporations, investing in women and girls trend has picked up over the past years. At the same time, AWID’s Where is the Money for Women’s Rights? 2011 survey results demonstrate very little benefit for women’s organizations coming from corporations. Angelika Arutyunova argues that inclusion of women’s organizations in finding solutions for women’s and girls problems is essential and not only as beneficiaries but as agents of change.


In 2005, members of the AWID network along with is allies were asking, ‘where is the money for women’s rights?’ in the face of concerns that donor interest in women and women’s rights had peaked around the Beijing World Conference on Women and then faded. Now, seven years later, there is increasing talk of investing in women and gender equality not only as ‘smart economics’, but also as ‘the right thing to do’. This renewed interest, which comes from a range of actors – from corporate foundations to mainstream media, international financial institutions to large international development organizations – represents important progress and also comes with several challenges. Principally, among them, how do we ensure that the results of the ‘investing in women and girls’ trend are making a real impact on advancing women’s rights in the longer term? How do feminists challenge a neo-liberal approach that prioritizes economic growth and profit above all else, while leveraging opportunities to tap new resources to support women’s organizing and rights? In the light of the AWID Forum theme ‘Transforming Economic Power for Women’s Rights and Justice’ and against the backdrop of global systemic crisis, such questions about economic power, channels for resourcing development and human rights work, and the politics of funding are highly relevant and timely.

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Where is the money for women’s rights?

AWID’s ‘Where is the Money for Women’s Rights?’ (WITM) Initiative has long sought to unpack the politics inherent to funding by looking at where money comes from, how it is distributed, who can access it, the restrictions and requirements involved and how trends in funding flows influence work for women’s rights. In taking this approach, AWID recognizes the urgent need to move beyond technical notions of funding and ‘fundraising’ to a perspective of ‘resource mobilization’, as a core part of the political agendas of women’s organizations, emphasizing the multiple resources required for social transformation of which financial resources are a part. Since 2005, AWID has worked closely with allies in different funding sectors and women’s rights movements to increase the amount of resources dedicated to gender equality and women’s rights work as well as to help shift from a perspective of funding scarcity and competition to one of abundance of ‘expanding the pool of resources for all organizations’ and movement building.

WITM research, including preliminary results from a 2011 global survey of 1,119 women’s organizations1, consistently demonstrates that a majority of women’s organizations operate on very little money. Sixty-nine percent of respondents to the 2011 survey had annual budgets under US$50,000. Of the 740 organizations that provided detailed income data for 2010, their collective income was just $104 million, a fraction of the annual income of many major international development organizations. Another important finding from the 2011 research was the increasing importance of individual donors, membership fees and income-generating activities as key sources of funding for women’s organizations (each mentioned by more than one-third of organizations in the sample). This suggests that many donors that have historically funded women’s groups may be decreasing their support, leading these groups to seek other sources.

In this context, the upswing in interest in investing in women and girls and the growing interconnections between private sector business models and development finance and philanthropy are of significant importance and merit careful analysis so that women’s rights advocates organizations, and movements can craft informed strategies for resourcing their work.

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Women’s rights and the corporate sector

Few could disagree with the words of Michelle Bachelet, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women: ‘now more than ever, the world needs to unleash women’s talent and energy if we are to make our economies and societies stronger’.2 That this was said at the launch of a ‘global partnership’ between UN Women and the Coca-Cola Company, a frequent target of civil society activism for labour and other human rights violations, is illustrative of the complexities of this current moment.

Arguments for investing in women and girls have been economic in nature and have been supported by documents such as the World Bank’s Gender Equality as Smart Economics strategy published in 2007 and more recently their 2012 World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development. The Nike and NoVo Foundations partnered to launch the ‘Girl Effect’ in support of adolescent girls around the globe, building on research about how investments in girls translate into economic growth and community well-being. The partnership gave a total of $100 million through 2011.3 Through corporate social responsibility initiatives and other ‘philanthrocapitalist’ efforts, corporations have increasingly been part of this trend in recent years, for example, Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women initiative and their $100 million commitment to educate women in developing and emerging markets in management and business skills.4 Other examples of the increasing currency of investing in women and girls abound, including cover stories or special features in The Economist, The Guardian, BBC and Newsweek that have featured the vital roles played by women in economies around the world.

It is gratifying that women’s movements are no longer the sole voice advocating for the importance of women and girls in development agendas, and indeed this should be considered an achievement of sorts. These initiatives represent important potential opportunities to advance women’s rights, if women’s actual needs and interests inform the selection of strategies and interventions, if corporate practices are coherent with philanthropic interest in the rights and well-being of women and girls and if such campaigns go beyond simple marketing purposes.

A healthy dose of scepticism with regard to these initiatives is likely the result of the long history of private sector models filtering into development practice in ways that raise concern. For example, AWID’s research and that of many partner organizations has noted the challenges with the influence of corporate logical frameworks on systems for monitoring and evaluation in development, despite these frameworks being poorly suited to tracking the messiness of social change. These frameworks have perpetuated the notion that what can be measured is what counts. Similarly, an emphasis on efficiency (not effectiveness or development results) and return on investment have infiltrated much donor and development thinking, based on assumptions about the adaptability and superiority of for-profit models for ‘enhancing’ the non-profit sector. Take, for example, claims by venture philanthropists like eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and others about the benefits of a business ‘make-over’ of social change and development sectors.5 Business models are likely to further infiltrate social change and development work as a result of growing interest by venture philanthropy and investment sectors.

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Impact investing

While investment logics are gaining ground in the social change and development world, the idea of the ‘social good’ is also entering the private sector. This can be seen in the area of ‘impact investing’ – the idea that investment can achieve financial returns as well as positive social and environmental impacts. Impact investment models offer more socially responsible and aware investment portfolios than traditional investment plans. Within this area, it is encouraging and inspiring to see a strong gender lens in impact investment research, advocacy and investment options. These efforts are getting women and gender equality on the radar of investors and businesses. At the same time, key questions remain unanswered. What happens in scenarios in which profit and social change are at odds? Considering that most impact investments take the form of loans and business investments, it remains to be seen how this can broadly transform social injustices and reduce poverty at a more systemic level.

What are the origins of the impact investment trend and the more general view of women and the ‘base of the pyramid’ – poor people around the world – as untapped markets? It appears to be creative thinking on the part of investors in this time of global financial crisis and reflects the resiliency of capitalism, where the imperative for growth drives an unending search for new markets and ways of making profit. Moreover, some market studies romanticize the ability of the poor to innovate and to adjust to constraints, at the same time relying on local entrepreneurs familiar with new market contexts to shoulder the bulk of the risk and pave the way.

Without a doubt, we must find creative ways to mobilize resources for women’s organizing. The private sector clearly holds substantial resources that, if tapped for women’s rights, could do significant good. The corporate sector is also tremendously diverse, and there is little to gain from vilifying, over-simplifying or dismissing private sector collaboration in social change and women’s rights agendas. What follows are several important considerations and possible strategies for how women’s rights movements and others can engage with swelling corporate interest in social change.

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Strategies for funds for women’s rights

First, we must hold onto the rights dimension of women’s empowerment and gender equality. Narrow conceptions of women’s economic and political empowerment must be broadened beyond their utility for advancing economic growth as entrepreneurs, recipients of microcredit,6 or formal political leaders. Visions of women’s empowerment and leadership should be expanded in line with existing international commitments to women’s rights, so that empowerment is a tool for advancing rights.

Second, a conceptual shift is needed away from the short-term impact and ‘low-hanging fruit’ mentality of the impact investment framework towards one that recognizes the need to invest in systemic change. In the impact investment framework, goods and services are divided into ‘push’ and ‘pull’ categories. Push categories require awareness building to persuade consumers to access a service like preventative healthcare while pull categories are things that consumers are already to desire, such as cell phones. Thus investment strategies tend to prioritize pull categories where return on investments are faster and do not require cultural or behavioural changes to convince consumers to access the good or service. There would seem to be little likelihood that such a framework can thus generate resources for long-term change for women’s rights, for which deep, sustained investment in social and behavioural change is often needed.

Third, the impact-investing framework places strong emphasis on the idea of ‘scaling up’ or expanding and adapting successful programmes. Such a framework welcomes growth by any means and leaves unquestioned the system or unsustainable or undesirable scalability. This is problematic for two reasons: one is that truly sustainable economic development strategies must challenge models based on untenable patterns of consumption and production, the privatization of public systems, and exploitation of unequal gender and social relations.7 In addition, experience has shown that the context-specific nature of many successful strategies for achieving women’s rights means that scaling them up may be difficult or likely to have quite different results.

The fourth consideration in engaging with the actors and frameworks that make up the investing in women trend is the need to ensure that new actors cultivate relationships and partnerships with, and learn from, women’s movements and organizations. Many women’s groups have been working on gender equality and women’s rights for decades and are ready to share their learning and take new challenges on board. As is often the case with actors new to a field, there is a tendency to ‘reinvent the wheel’ and focus on ‘magic bullet’ solutions.8 Support and investments from the private sector must complement and strengthen existing initiatives, not undermine them due to lack of knowledge of existing work, or lack of a gender analysis that could lead to increased burdens and risk for women. By collaborating with women’s rights and gender equality advocates, impact investment has a better chance of achieving and sustaining systemic change.

Lastly, how can private sector actors be held accountable in the context of their investments and engagement in these initiatives? Public-private partnerships, a major trend in development financing, lack clear regulatory and accountability mechanisms for private sector actors. Collaborative initiatives between the private sector and government agencies, development or women’s organizations should serve to leverage stronger respect and accountability for labour rights, environmental sustainability and other human rights issues. What if, in that global partnership between UN Women and Coca-Cola, for example, the terms of agreement specified clear expectations of Coca-Cola’s practices? The recognition as a ‘partner’ in gender equality and women’s rights work should count as a sign of quality that is contingent on performance that advances rights.

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What are the facts?

Turning back to the results of AWID’s WITM survey, it is notable that only 0.2 percent of respondents reported receiving corporate funding. Given their relatively small budget size (i.e., a median income of $20,000), the majority of these groups are barely on the radar for large investors and currently unlikely to benefit from the significant resources coming from the private sector. Channelling these new resources to the broad diversity of women’s organizations will require strong, reliable intermediaries that are willing to filter these resources to smaller organizations – something that many larger women’s organizations and funds have been reluctant to pursue given the reservations outlined above. Yet there are examples of successful collaboration that can be learned from, such as the Girls Action Information Network (GAIN). This is a Nike Foundation-supported collaboration with the Global Fund for Women, the American Jewish World Service, EMpower, Firelight Foundation, the Global Fund for Children and Mama Cash. GAIN works to support and strengthen programming on adolescent girls, better understand the challenges and best practices of organizations working with adolescent girls, and increase the visibility of girls’ programmes and issues in order to increase donor attention and investment.9 These types of innovative cross-sector networks and collaborations stand to meaningfully support and advance women’s rights, by building on the unique strengths and capacities of different partners.

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Not engaging with corporations seems to no longer be an option. The resources are already out there, shaping the work that is taking place and the voices being heard on women’s rights and gender equality. Women’s organizations must bring to bear their solid expertise to ensure that investing in women is informed by the long history of work in this area and that support is filtered through to women’s organizing at all levels.

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1 It is difficult to claim a ‘representative’ sample, given the diversity and spread of women’s organizations and movements. However the survey attempted to reach as broadly as possible (in five languages). To understand the profile of survey respondents, they primarily included organizations working at the national (55 percent) and local (52 percent) levels, with about one third working regionally (19 percent) or internationally (12 percent). Respondents were based in sub-Saharan Africa (37 percent), Latin America (15 percent), South and Southeast Asia (11 percent), Southern and Central Europe (9 percent), the Caucasus and Central Asia (7 percent) and the Middle East and North Africa (7 percent). Less than five percent of respondents per region were located in Eastern Asia, the Pacific, North America and Western Europe.

2 Coca-Cola Company (2011).

3 Nike Foundation (2008). For more information, see Nike Foundation (2012).

4 Goldman Sachs (2012).

5 http://www.omidyar.com/approach Also, the Business Model of Social Change http://www.hbr.org/2011/09/ebays-founder-on-innovating-the-business-
model-off-social-change/ar/1. ‘By the early 2000s, I’d realized what a profound social impact eBay was having as part of its business. It had about 100 million users, and it was teaching people that they could trust a complete stranger over the internet – at least, trust him or her enough to make a transaction. It was providing people with new careers and livelihoods. This was large-scale impact. I began to wonder: If I had created a non-profit organization and set a ten-year goal to build a trusted network of 100 million people, with a start-up grant of $10,000 and no additional grants, would it have succeeded? Probably not. But somehow a business had been able to reach this level of social impact in less time, using less outside capital’.

6 For example, the Nirantar survey of micro-credit groups and poverty reduction in India has found that micro-credit programmes, instead of increasing women’s agency and empowerment, can reinforce traditional gender roles, and does not challenge the roots of existing inequalities. ‘… The new construction of the good woman, who saves regularly, repays faithfully in the service of the family, while bearing a greater burden of work, is also epitomised as the progressive woman, with all the symbols of outward and upward mobility, as well as the responsibility to keep those symbols intact’ (Nirantar, 2007).

7 See ‘Key Demands From Women’s Rights Organizations And Gender Equality Advocates To The Fourth High Level Forum On Aid Effectiveness (Busan, Korea, 2011) and the Development Cooperation Forum (2012)’, October 2011. Accessed 19 June 2012. http://www.awid.org/Library/Key-Demands-from-Women-s-Rights-Organizations-and-Gender-Equality-Advocates-To-the-Fourth-High-Level-Forum-on-Aid-Effectiveness-Busan-Korea-2011-and-the-Development-Cooperation-Forum-2012.

8 A recent critique by Ofra Koffman (2012) challenges ‘Nike’s Girl Effect’ and the UN 2010 taskforce data that suggests women that ‘marry later, delay childbearing, have healthier children, and earn better incomes that will benefit themselves, their families, communities and nations’. Koffman argues instead that the relationships between early marriage and fertility is much more complex and context-specific (Koffman, 2012).

9 See WorldPulse. GAIN discussion group. N.p. 8 May 2012, accessed 19 June, http://www.worldpulse.com/node/48357.

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Coca-Cola Company (2011) ‘The Coca-Cola Company and United Nations Women Form Global Partnership to Accelerate Women’s Economic Empowerment’, N.p. 22 September. Web, http://www.thecoca-colacompany.com/dynamic/press_center/2011/09/partnership-to-accelerate-womens-economic-empowerment.html, accessed 19 June 2012.
Goldman Sachs (2012) ‘10,00 Women’, N.p. Web, http://www.goldmansachs.com/citizenship/10000women/10000-women-immersive/
10000-women-brochure.pdf, accessed 19 June 2012.
Koffman, Ofra (2012) ‘Will the ‘Girl Effect’ Really Help to Combat Poverty?’ N.p. 10 February, Poverty Matters, The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/
feb/10/will-girl-effect-combat-poverty, accessed 19 June.
Nike Foundation (2008) ‘Adolescent Girls Initiative Launched’, N.p. 10 October. Web, http://nikeinc.com/nike-foundation/news/adolescent-girls-initiative-launched, accessed 19 June 2012.
Nike Foundation (2012) ‘Nike Foundation and Buffets Join to Invest $100 Million in Girls’, N.p. 27 May. Web, http://nikeinc.com/nike-foundation/news/nike-foundation-and-buffetts-join-to-invest-100-million-in-girls, accessed 19 June 2012.
Nirantar (2007) ‘Examining Empowerment, Poverty Alleviation and Education within Self Help Groups (SHGs) – A qualitative study’, http://www.nirantar.net/docs/SHG_%20qual_%20eng.pdf, p. 41, accessed 19 June 2012.


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