How the Aid Agenda Needs to Listen to Women on the Ground
Isis International prepared this statement for the ongoing UNCSW meeting in New York City on Financing for Development and Aid Effectiveness.
Today, the question is about matching the talk about recognising the need for financing for gender equality with actual aid and budget allocations for women’s empowerment by governments, international development agencies, and donors. Within this context of limited funding for women, where the gender budget goes to becomes even more important.
ICT4D is one area that development aid prioritised in recent years. The influx of aid for ICT4D was aimed at advancing gender equality by financing new information and communication technologies or new ICTs for women’s empowerment.
The introduction of new ICTs into the gender and development framework is based on the notion that access and effective use of these technologies will lead to women’s empowerment and development for all. Though this ICT-centric framework for development has been the subject of debates and discussions, development aid fuelled many ICT-focused community projects. The focus was to equip women and girls with the information, skills, and technology needed to ensure their full participation in the “information society”.
But is ICT4D what grassroots women need on the ground?
Isis International together with Aalochana (India), CMDI (Thailand), Femlink Pacific (Fiji), and Help Resources (Papua New Guinea) conducted a three-year study to interrogate the ICT-centric development framework. With the support of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Isis and its country partners examined how intermediary groups use new ICTs and traditional communication tools for grassroots women’s empowerment in India, Philippines, Thailand, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea. So are new ICTs perceived as more effective and more empowering compared to traditional communication tools?
No. Empirical evidence from 5 Asia-Pacific countries shows that traditional communication tools like radio, theatre, and film are still the most effective and empowering tools for grassroots women.
Oral communication or direct, two-way, face-to-face interaction was clearly the most empowering way of sharing information between intermediary groups and grassroots women. The utility, accessibility and effectiveness of traditional communication tools in development work for grassroots women’s empowerment were repeatedly observed and substantiated by the 81 intermediary groups interviewed and validated by focus group discussions with four target communities of grassroots women. Film or video was the top communication tool used followed by radio and popular theatre. Radio was the most accessible. Radio, theatre, and film were consistently the most effective, along with print media for the Pacific countries. Among the new ICTs, only the cellular phone was effective and only for the Philippines.
New ICTs, namely the internet, computer, and the cellular phone, were reported to be generally inaccessible, ineffective, and not empowering for grassroots women across the 5 countries. Only the computer was being utilised with relative frequency primarily for visual presentations when meeting with communities face-to-face. Though intermediary groups found the internet empowering for themselves, particularly for international, regional, and local advocacy and networking; the internet was not empowering for the grassroots women they served. In interacting with communities, majority continue to rely on traditional communication tools such as street theatre, radio, and film. As such, traditional communication tools are still the primary vehicle for grassroots women’s empowerment in these 5 Asia-Pacific countries. These are the modes of communication utilised by the grassroots women themselves in their everyday realities.
So why is the aid agenda prioritising ICTs over traditional communication tools?
The advent of new ICTs and the phenomenon referred to as the “information society” pushed traditional communication tools as a thing of the past. The ICT4D model privileged new ICTs over traditional communication tools. However, the research findings clearly show that traditional communication tools are still very much needed in the present and future. There is a need to finance development projects using traditional communication tools alongside new ICTs. There is a need for development funds to support street theatre, alternative films, and community radio which are of equal or at times greater importance to ICT projects. There is a need for financial aid in support of face-to-face communication in empowering grassroots women and programmes that can facilitate regular interaction with communities rather than mediation through new ICTs.
There is a policy and practice divide in financing for gender equality. And if aid is to empower women on the ground, it needs to start listening to women on the ground.
Underlying the effectiveness and empowering potential of traditional communication tools is the centrality of grassroots women in determining the intermediary group’s choice of communication tool, and consequently choice of communication strategy. It is the focus on grassroots women and what is appropriate, suitable, and yes, empowering from their own perspective and experience that leads to empowerment. Development financing for grassroots women’s empowerment cannot be detached from what is happening on the ground. Instead, states, international development agencies, and donors must ensure that the aid agenda is based on women’s realities and community practices.
PC4D or People’s Communications for Development is our alternative model. For the aid agenda to truly be empowering, it must remain rooted in the practices of women, communities, and peoples on the ground.