Collective action can play an important role in facilitating women’s political engagement, and in advancing women’s empowerment in formal and informal politics, in low-, middle- and high-income countries, as shown by significant rigorous evidence. Yet, there is only limited and patchy rigorous evidence about how aid interventions can strengthen collective action to facilitate women’s political empowerment (WPE) in low- and middle-income countries. This narrative review synthesises a selection of key evidence based on a rapid, non-systematic literature review (this makes it subject to limitations).
Overall, there have been five major strands of interventions: combining multiple types of interventions; providing funding; enabling relationships (e.g. among members of a coalition, or between them and state actors); supporting policy dialogue, advocacy, and campaigning; and leveraging institutions that rely on collective action (e.g. self-help groups). Within all strands, aid actors and their partners have employed many common types of interventions, including building relationships (e.g. convening actors, brokering dialogue, supporting networking); developing individuals’ and groups’ capacities; providing financial or technical resources, directly or through intermediaries, to groups working for gender equality; and holding policy dialogue, for example with government or civil society partners, to create or defend space for collective action and WPE. The focus of interventions on collective action for WPE has been on women, and to a lesser extent on girls, with some limited attention to involving men or boys.
The effectiveness of each common strand and each type of intervention is uneven and mixed. Effects have ranged from negative to neutral to positive, although they seem positive overall. Sustaining positive effects is often a challenge. At a general level, combining several types of interventions is more effective than carrying out single interventions. Beyond this, the evidence offers hardly any comparative rankings on which types of interventions have been more effective. Within types of interventions, few specific interventions emerge consistently as more effective than others. One exception is the finding that classic short-term training is less effective than sustained peer-based or experiential learning. In addition, there are variations by region and country in the interventions frequently used, and in which interventions were effective. Consequently, reliable differences in effectiveness do not seem to be between interventions or intervention types, but across them. The effects of interventions seem to be highly dependent on two aspects: internally, on the quality of programming; externally, on the political savvy of the supported partners involved in collective action, and on the wider political, economic, social, and cultural conditions.
Indeed, all frequent types of intervention can be effective if designed, implemented, and combined well, and if enabled by favourable external variables. Effective aid depends on deeply knowing the political, economic, social, and cultural context, and adapting any lessons from other settings to it. Better understanding the links between collective action and State response is also important. For example, in politically closed or socially conservative contexts, state policy responds less to public activities by grassroots citizens in formal politics (such as petitions) than to informal efforts that also involve some connections to elites.
When choosing which initiatives and partners to work with, effective aid actors base their work on local empowerment dynamics, work with locally anchored, representative actors, and account for their own position in the country’s political economy. They work with diverse partners over the long term, through collaborative relationships. They support both feminist groups and a variety of other women’s groups, especially marginalised women’s groups. Simultaneously, they encourage mainstream groups to advance women’s rights and gender equality. In all cases, they let their local partners own and set agendas, collective strategies, and ways of working on women’s empowerment. They strengthen their partners’ collective capacities, over the long term, through tailored collaborative techniques, such as peer-based, experiential, or reflective learning.
Effective aid actors support multi-dimensional interventions aiming to advance women’s empowerment simultaneously in the personal, social, and political spheres, and to do so at different levels (e.g. local and national). The strategies chosen must address specific barriers to WPE in sequences of successive priorities. Interventions need to also engage with men and boys, with families and communities, and with elites, as a complement to engaging respectively with women and girls, individuals, and grassroots contacts. They also identify and plan for security and political risks, such as backlash in restrictive or closed environments.
In addition, supporting collective action requires a longer-term, more adaptive approach focused on the process, compared to typical approaches in aid projects. Work needs to go beyond 3-5 years, to focus on problem-solving and local strengths, and to design for multiplier effects (e.g. between economic and political empowerment). It needs to encourage inclusion, collaboration, democracy, and transparency within the partners’ collective organisation.
Effective donors use their agency. They improve their own and other donors’ practices on gender and accountability, invest in relationships among local actors, and stay committed over the long term. They remain realistic, but are willing to take risks and be creative in supporting collective leadership and agency, for instance by providing space and time for different stakeholders to meet, deliberate, and find common ground.
In ‘fragile or conflict-affected States’ (FCAS), aid actors can effectively support women’s collective participation in peace processes, political negotiations, and institution-building. In particular, they can provide logistic support to the participation – formal or informal – of women’s organisation and networks. They can also engage men and boys for gender equality.
Outside interventions, a number of factors and conditions affect effectiveness, but evidence is scarce on general lessons. The main barrier lies with entrenched gender norms detrimental to women and girls. Other barriers include a lack of democratic space, and dominant social conservatism and backlash. Conversely, there are a number of positive factors and conditions. In all of these, women activists’ ability to work in politically savvy ways is crucial. Having domestic actors that are effective at collective action for gender equality, in both formal and informal spaces, also significantly contributes to success. Organisation and collective action by women – especially by marginalised women – are essential, as is women’s ability ally strategically, among themselves and with powerful mainstream groups. Other favourable variables include: mutually reinforcing dynamics in empowerment (economic, political, social, and personal); political openings; and support within the State.