A key question for Oxfam and the development sector is how to address the different challenges faced by people living in poverty in a holistic fashion. However, our partners are often already successfully addressing multiple issues at once as Caroline Ashley saw in Bangladesh.
I’ve seen gender treated as a ‘tick-box’ exercise – yes women participated. The same goes for resilience – people are better off so better able to cope with shocks, goes the line. But there is no tick-boxing in the markets work of Oxfam that I visited in northern Bangladesh last month.
Tackling many dimensions of poverty simultaneously
As well as helping women to increase their incomes, the ‘multi-function’ community based organisation also tackles women’s organisation, teen marriage, and training on life skillsThe core of the project supported by Oxfam focuses on the milk market, and related livestock management. Through community organisation, asset-poor women in flood-prone areas have revamped how they sell their milk. As a result, they have been integrated into markets, gaining market knowledge, market access, and business skills. Now that milk provides a greater and more secure return, they are moving onto investing in better cattle and improved management.
As well as helping women to increase their incomes, the ‘multi-function’ community based organisation also tackles women’s organisation, teen marriage, and training on life skills including flood preparation and adaptation. This ‘horizontal integration’ would probably look horribly complex in a planning document, particularly as different activities are funded by different backers. But the end game is efficient and effective; a room of 20 women, each telling me about the committees they run, the aspirations they have, voices getting louder. When we stray off the topic of cattle, they tell me that they go – in a group – to visit households who are planning to marry off their 13 year old daughters, or to protect the most abused wives. Sometimes they have success, sometimes they don’t. So far.
Market interventions at multiple levels
It’s a core principle of market interventions, and certainly of Oxfam’s approach, to intervene at multiple levels. But it was great to see it in practice.
In the dairy value chain, Oxfam works through its partner with small community based organisations. But it also works with local and national dairy businesses. Oxfam partnered with PRAN (a national dairy company) to set up milk collection centres close to the women dairy producers, enabling them to sell into the formal market at last. We have also partnered with a local entrepreneur and university to pilot a pasteurising machine, which aims to increase quality and quantity of sales.
entrenched women’s constraints were recognised, but at the same time new norms practisedOxfam and our partner, SEED, have worked with a government bank, to secure livestock loans for 30 women. This is useful for the bank, helping them to implement a government ambition to lend to dairy entrepreneurs which was otherwise proving more than challenging. Thanks to the partnership the bank didn’t require the usual level of collateral, credit history and ID documentation. These women clients simply wouldn’t have those. So entrenched women’s constraints were recognised, but at the same time new norms practised.
Promoting better working conditions for domestic workers who live in Dhaka slums, Oxfam is likewise working on the ground and at policy level. One partner works in the slums training women in domestic skills, such as how to use a rice cooker or hoover. Another partner works alongside Oxfam at the policy level, where wider recognition and active implementation of the Government’s code on domestic workers is needed.
Rapid and substantive change
What struck me most in my entire visit, was not where the women have got to, but the contrast with where they have come from.
What struck me most in my entire visit, was not where the women have got to, but the contrast with where they have come from.Both rural producer groups that I visited were established in 2014. Members of Tista Vangon producer group now take their morning and evening milk to their collection centre in the village, where it is measured tested and recorded by the village women that staff the centre. Some is sold at the nearby chilling centre, where price depends on fat content. The lower quality litres are taken to local markets. The prices, margins and costs are clear, and to raise fat content and volume women are investing in cattle fodder and artificial insemination to breed improved cows. Some are purchasing new breeds once they have seen how much more milk they yield. So what did they do before 2014? They milked their cows and each handed the milk to their husbands to cycle to market and sell. They didn’t know the price, and each litre was cycled and sold on its own.
At Pepulia community based organisation, I asked the women what had changed in the past several years. After some time of lively discussion, the list was impressive: less violence against women, fewer child marriages, less dowry practice, more participation in different committees and groups, improved hygiene (hand-washing and toilets), improved livestock management and hygiene, more mobility for women, more education of children, increased income from vegetable cultivation and cattle rearing, more disaster knowledge and preparedness. They volunteered a progress score of two out of three – good but further to go.
Bangladesh is a place of extremes: some of the fastest economic growth, deepest constraints on women’s opportunity, and greatest exposure to climate change. Certainly markets are developing, with or without NGO projects. What is good to see is how targeted thoughtful intervention can swim with the tide of market formalisation, ensuring the asset-poor are included in growth and risk-preparedness, while challenging women’s constraints both in the market and in cultural norms.