Beyond A Cookie Cutter Approach To Building Leadership
By Lydia Alpizar
The role of women in various demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa this spring provokes interesting reflections about mainstream initiatives to build capacity and train women leaders in the Global South.
Clearly, the very visible and political role of Arab women in leading protests and mobilizing others—and, importantly, not just their sisters—is not something a leadership development program can teach. Similarly, from the pro-democracy activism of leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, to indigenous fights for land and rights in Latin America, to the enduring resistance against Iran’s draconian regime, many social justice movements already show great capacity and leadership among women. Rather than trying to develop a “one-size fits all” approach, we should analyze these important examples to update and transform our current models for building sustainable and effective social change organizations.
Capacity building as we know it today found its origins in programs offered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which in the 1970s provided guidance to its staff and governments in “institution building.” This perhaps explains the heavy focus of capacity-building programs to ensure that individual organizations would be strengthened through skills, training, and material resources. A good number of capacity-building programs today focus on a range of skills and administrative tasks including registering NGOs, clarifying visions and missions, formulating organizational structures, strategic planning, fundraising, Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E), financial and personnel management, and communications. There is one underlying assumption behind this approach—that creating a sustainable institution with the right skill set can replicate social change.
But the vast experience of women’s organizing indicates that while skills to ensure an individual organization’s survival are important, they are not enough. Instead, we need dynamic ways to build capacities, examine collective leadership models, and effect more radical and fundamental social change. And we need to recognize that social change is advanced not via one model, but by diverse forms of organizing and movements. In each social, political, or geographical context organizing looks different, and therefore, building capacity needs to be adjusted to each particular reality.
Finding a Good Fit
Today’s many skill-based approaches to capacity building have evolved in the relatively stable environments of Western liberal democracies where legal rights and the rule of law provide a certain degree of security and protection to nonprofit leaders. We know that the realities in which women’s rights advocates in the Global South operate are far different. Additionally, with the increasing inequality and social tension in Northern countries, these more ‘stable’ environments are also experiencing significant changes. Constant threats, political uncertainties, government crackdowns, repression, conflict, fundamentalist attacks, increasing militarization, and corruption are a few of the challenges that mark the fragile and tenuous circumstances under which understaffed women’s rights organizations in the South operate on a daily basis. Capacity building programs therefore need to expand their scope and range of issues they address to accommodate these unique challenges posed by the diverse contexts in which activists operate.
Additionally, AWID’s research on M&E with women’s rights organizations found that sometimes even the available skill-building tools may not be a right fit in terms of the needs of women’s rights activists. For instance, in the field of impact assessments, women’s rights organizations find the current range of assessment tools to be inappropriate or inadequate to capture their interventions which are often movement-based or designed to deal with the structural roots of gender inequality. As a result one way these organizations have coped is by using a combination of a number of M&E tools to capture the impact of their work.
Applying Feminist Principles
By fostering individualistic leadership styles, supporting institutions that attract external funding, and promoting restricted conceptualizations of organizational structures, capacity-building frameworks have tended to exclude collective decision-making processes and broader peoples’ movements. For example, leadership trainings tend to focus on building the individual skills of a dynamic leader who will motivate and ensure the organization’s growth. But this may be contradictory to the principles and goals of women’s groups who are re-examining the power vested in one individual leader and working towards a collective decision-making process. With such a large emphasis on the individual organization and individual leadership, there is a real danger of focusing on personal or organizational growth as an end in and of itself, rather than promoting change on the ground.
When developing capacity-building and leadership training it is important to tap into the wealth of knowledge and experience that has been generated by feminists, women’s organizations, and movements from all regions of the world. We should invest in curriculum that builds and sharpens a strong knowledge base of theory relevant to social transformation, political analysis, strategic organizing, and movement building, and which also promotes access to emerging social research from different parts of the world. Some important alternative capacity building and leadership training approaches have been developed by organizations like Women’s Learning Partnership, CREA, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, MADRE, Just Associates, the Simone de Beauvoir Institute in Mexico, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights in Nigeria, FAHAMU (which runs the “Movement Building Boot Camp” in Africa), and the Young Women’s Leadership Institute in Kenya, among many others.
We must also ensure that capacity-building programs incorporate feminist approaches to working with the self, such as dealing with internalized feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness, victimhood, anger, or a sense of entitlement. Additionally, we need more dynamic transference of knowledge and skills, not just from the North to South, but from South to South, as well as South to North.
When we are truly responsive to the needs of women working in different contexts, we will be able to build lasting capacity, provoke thoughtful leadership, and create fundamental social change.