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Forget the Apprentice: women using business as a force for change

Posted by Caroline Sweetman Editor, Gender & Development Journal

30th Mar 2012

Women filtering honey at the Agunta Primary Cooperative at Dangla. Credit: Tom Pietrasik/Oxfam

Gender & Development editor Caroline Sweetman on the inspirational stories of social enterprise supporting women's empowerment in the business and enterprise issue of the journal.

This month, the well-known TV show The Apprentice returned to British television, and a motley crew of young men and women swaggered across our screens at the start of their competition to obtain start-up business financing from 'Suralan' Sugar. 

The solipsistic self-promotion, and clear belief that the cut-throat pursuit of short-term profits is both desirable and also a guarantor of success in business, sets these young people far apart from the truly innovative work currently going on between governments, NGOs, community groups, and progressive businesses. These bodies are run by leaders who realise that the profits from ruthless business practices are short-term and unsustainable. They're showing that it's possible for business to be a positive force for change in the world, and there are synergies to be found between commercial success and business practices which return a fair share of profits to all involved in the 'value chain', from women workers in the factories and fields of the global South, to the big businesses which sell products to consumers. 

In eighteen years of editing Gender & Development, I've never felt so enthused by an issue as this one. Contributors share their experience of business and enterprise as potential springboards for women's empowerment and gender equality. They reflect the enormous current interest on the part of the state, NGOs, and women's own organisations  in finding creative partnerships with business to create enterprises which are built on a commitment to providing decent work and justice for workers, as well as a commercial profit. 

To the best of my knowledge (and let me know if I'm wrong!) this collection of articles is the first to bring together the real-life experiences of the 'private sector' - that is, commercial enterprise - in supporting women to empower themselves economically, but also socially and politically, and promoting gender equality. There's an elephant in the room here of course: feminists have long argued that whilst capitalism may be a friend to individual women who can take advantage of commercial opportunities (and in so doing possibly change ideas about their economic and social worth), there are also many examples of exploitation of women from poor families and communities in developing countries, whose conditions and wages have been depressed by greedy businesses  in the pursuit of profit, in a 'race to the bottom'.

Yet the experiences in this latest issue of Gender & Development  tell a different story; of progressive ways in which businesses are supporting women's empowerment and gender equality. These are firms which 'get' the connection between sustained business success and the need to value the (female and male) human beings who make, sell, and buy their goods. The managers, employees, and entrepreneurs featured here are working with governments, NGOs and workers' rights organisations to find the synergies between human development and business goals. 

Highlights include Catherine Dolan, Mary Johnstone-Louis and Linda Scott on the sale of shampoo, saris and SIM cards in rural Bangladesh. This project, known as the Rural Sales Progam is a partnership of commercial companies including Unilever, Danone and Bic, with CARE Bangladesh. Many enlightened companies are now looking for all kinds of opportunities to create openings for women sellers to run businesses targeting consumers in the global South. 

Also in this issue is an article about Afghan organisation Zardozi and its progress in enabling Afghan women - many of whom are prevented from leaving their houses - to grow handicraft businesses, and an article from Elaine Jones, Sally Smith and Carol Wills assessing the ways in which Fair Trade and collective ways of working are enabling poor women producers to overcome gender-specific barriers to business success. These include barriers to obtaining credit to start up businesses, lack of resources and training, and lack of access to lucrative markets. Their considerable success in so doing makes the dog-eat-dog attitudes featured in The Apprentice look so very, very over.

Blog post written by Caroline Sweetman

Editor, Gender & Development Journal

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Caroline Sweetman