Published on Development Impact

Building the evidence based roadmap for women's economic empowerment

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On Monday I was at the UN Foundation's launch of a new report, A Roadmap for Promoting Women's Economic Empowerment.  Authored by Mayra Buvinic, Rebecca Furst-Nichols and Emily Courey Pryor this report provides a significant step forward in making sense of the rapidly growing evidence base on what works and what does not for gender equality.   [Full disclosure: with co-authors I contributed two of the many background papers for this report].
I am not going to summarize this report (the executive summary does a nice job of that) but rather offer a couple of reflections on what went into the report, and what came out.
First of all, they clearly put together a lot of evidence. This starts with a nice database that has a lot of the experimental, quasi-experimental and some other empirical work (you can download this off the main page here).   Then they commissioned a bunch of reviews -- some of which are quite blunt in their conclusions (more on this below).   And then they added it up in a way that ought to be pretty accessible to policymakers.
One neat thing Buvinic and co. did was take a stand on the aggregate state of the evidence on some sets of interventions.  (And keep in mind here that they are specific about the outcomes they care about:  women's earning and productivity). They classify the interventions into proven (e.g. CCTs, land rights, savings), promising (e.g.  mobile phones, unconditional cash transfers, modern agricultural inputs), high potential (e.g. mentors, farmer field schools, information on jobs), and unproven (e.g. microcredit, stand alone business training).       And they also give some indication of whether this should (or should not!) be aimed at poor or non-poor women, young or all women. 
In terms of some of the background studies, Petra Todd was on hand at the launch to discuss her thoughtful paper that looked at interventions around labor market participation.   She tackles active labor market policies (evidence suggests that women may benefit more than men),  youth employment (positive impacts on wages and employment), childcare (good for labor force participation), and elder care (mixed).   (I was surprised to see that there were actually some impact evaluations of elder care – a part of the demands on women’s time that we know much less about)
Oriana Bandiera set out an overview of her work with coauthors on a paper that looked at a set of interventions that tackle capital and skills constraints of the poor.  They look at ultra-poor programs that provide meaningful levels of capital and training and show pretty significant effects (I wrote more about one of these papers in an earlier post).  They also touch on some of the recent work on training programs -- for adolescents but also women (and men) more generally.   Finally they take a look at microenterprise development programs: capital alone, training alone, and capital plus training (the combo is the way to go). 
Speaking of business training, Chris Woodruff and David McKenzie also did a review for this project.   They lay out a number of methodological challenges that have stymied the literature to date and these are reflected in the results:  there are improvements in business practices, but the picture is still pretty murky for impacts on profits (I blogged about an earlier incarnation of this paper in an earlier post).
Rekha Mehra was also at the launch to talk about a review she did with co-authors on financial services.   They cover microfinance (mixed evidence on a good day), savings (cause for optimism), microinsurance and branchless banking (more evidence needed for both).  
These are just a couple of the reviews, and I haven't tackled any of the papers with new analysis.  If you're interested in more, it's worth checking out the website with all of the background papers. 
For me, the report also lays out some big gaps in the evidence, as well as areas to push further.    Here are a couple:
  • We know very little about agriculture.   There is some stuff on land, a bit on extension but on getting inputs into the hands of women and used well there is a lot of work to do -- the papers by Doss and coauthors (on promising interventions), Quisumbing and co-authors (on value chains), and Knowles (on interventions in the rural space) give us some food for thought.
  • The report makes the point that autonomy is key -- for example we often see some more positive outcomes for female headed households.  Now, as my colleague Dominique van de Walle likes to point out, these are a select group.   Indeed they are, and understanding the dynamics that get some of these women the autonomy to make it alone is important for thinking about interventions to get women more control over households in which they cohabit with a partner.   And, more generally, we need to think about these issues of control and how to affect them -- ranging from legal interventions to keeping certain things private (for example Nava Ashraf's work) and other ways to avoid within household expropriation.
  • I would be psyched to see more on mobile phones.   There is a lot of discussion (and some work in progress I know of) but the promise of what they can do both in terms of securing control over cash and giving women access to productive information (e.g. agricultural extension) isn't yet proved by the evidence
  • Daycare.   So Petra's paper shows it has positive impacts when labor markets are immediate (and mostly in middle income countries).  So what about low income settings?   Rural areas?
  • Of course, we also still have more to do on businesses.  What combinations of training and resources work?   Can we get a bunch of well powered training studies?   Will some new kinds of training work?
There's more to think about (comments welcome!) and plenty more to do.    But this report lays out a lot of the progress that has been made and some clear avenues for work in the future.


Markus Goldstein

Lead Economist, Africa Gender Innovation Lab and Chief Economists Office

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