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Powerwashing: Kristin Gilliss’ Trip to Ghana with Camfed

November 13, 2012

By Kristin Gilliss Moyer

I spent last week in Ghana with Camfed, learning more about the return on investment to girls’ education and young women’s economic empowerment. On a hot afternoon near Tamale, as both we and our food melted, our group joked about the fancy word deliquescent, which we collectively defined as the scrumptious state of your Oreo cookie turned to mush in milk (or an English digestive biscuit which has absorbed your afternoon tea, said our British contingent!).

What happens, though, when WORDS deliquesce? Answer: the same thing. Original meaning dissolves into watered-down mush. Sustainability, anyone? Choose your meaning. In the environment sphere, we criticize how “greenwashing” and nominal CSR activities undermine genuine sustainability efforts of corporate leaders, such as those engaged in Ceres’ company network. Well Greenwashing, meet your new friend: Powerwashing.

In international development, phrases associated with tenets of sustainable development, such as “community empowerment” and “stakeholder engagement,” have joined the list of jargon. Recent research funded by donors such as DFID is confirming that What Works in Girls Education in Ghana is a model that holds true to these principles. But not the watered-down, deliquescent version of these terms. To reclaim meaning from jargon, these words must define evidence of genuine power transfer.

Which is why visiting Ghana was energizing last week. Camfed believes that successfully supporting an individual girl means investing in the structures—community, school, government– that support her, and I saw power in communities. How do you see a new vector of power that centers on investing in girls’ education? I saw it as I thanked a Ghanian chief for permission to visit his village, and he shared a guinea fowl and yams with the Camfed team. It may seem simple, but support from a traditional leader for girls’ education is anything but in a culture where development firm Coffey reports “massive inequalities in educational outcomes remain, especially between rich and poor, north and south, and girls and boys… By the time children reach secondary school, inequalities are particularly apparent. For example, only 3% of girls from the poorest 20% of the population complete Senior High School, compared to 88% of girls from the richest 20%.”

Too often, development practitioners have an agenda to impose on communities, and convenings center on informing rather than listening to citizens. Camfed approaches development as a social change process. And it works. Because for Camfed, “community empowerment” is not an afternoon workshop to check the box on “stakeholder engagement.” Communities have decision making power (which girls are neediest in this village? Who should represent the community at the District level?) over their own investment in girls and young women. Men don’t have to lose power for women to gain it; real development is accretive and advances the interests of both men and women or it will not be sustainable.

But it can’t ignore differences. I was grateful to a young woman for sharing her perspective with me about why Camfed’s financial literacy curriculum in Ghana should include a module on reproductive health. Again, as she explained it, it seemed obvious that money and sex are related—that truth is not limited to geographies of rural poverty! Girls often need to negotiate control of their own bodies, and talking about topics from family planning to HIV/AIDS  in the context of financial literacy can be powerful:  “You can manage your finances, but if you don’t manage your family size it will in the long run affect your finances. So we talk about family planning,” she shared. In fact, girls expressed desire for more access to information on reproductive health.

Camfed’s approach represents an alternative development paradigm.  And, thanks to amazing research and documentation of key principles by Linklaters, it’s open source. From traditional tribal leaders to elected officials, from mothers to fathers, from teachers to alumni: power is shared. Camfed is a conduit for resources and sees itself accountable, together with the community, to the client they jointly serve: the girl. There’s nothing mushy about that.

Read more about Camfed’s work in Ghana and learn about similar results in Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwehere.

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