Why Our Brilliant Ideas Don't Work

Recently, I have been privileged to attend a workshop on women empowerment in Washington, D.C.  Three speakers presented their organizations’ works and efforts to help vulnerable women around the world.  Shiny presentations were shown on big screens, followed by vibrant discussions and rounds of applause.  There was clearly no lack of good intentions and an honest willingness to help less privileged communities.

Despite the huge experience of these organizations in developmental work, the presentations show a common pattern: A brilliant idea, developed around a round table in some prestigious NGO building, piloted in a number of countries, then taken as is to be implemented somewhere else.

Therefore, and despite all good intentions, many organizations reported a push back from local women communities in some areas, resulting in the slowing down of the project. A push back many had difficulties in understanding. Why would anyone resist ideas so brilliantly developed and formulated to extract those women from the suffrage they are enduring?

There is surely no one simple answer to that question. For this reason, some of us just find it easier to stereotype women as being simply brainwashed or not knowing their own worth. We express pity for them not willing to accept our great ways of life! We see them defending early marriage as opposed to early sexual exploration! We see them not willing to leave their houses to seek employment or to become entrepreneurs overnight.

As a well-travelled woman from a mixed background (German, Syrian, Egyptian, and married to an Ethiopian) I had myself enjoyed access to many diverse communities. The one most important lesson I learned: blanket solutions are bound to fail. And blanket solutions are what we are offering these people: one solution for all.

These solutions are mostly based on what organizations think these women ‘need to be’- not what they ‘want to be.’ This vision is blurred by the assumption that everything that has worked in the developed world must work for anyone else too! Therefore it is only understandable that we feel disappointed after returning from an “empowerment mission” When we see our ideas looked upon with skepticism.

This can be attributed largely to the fact that there is not one common pattern that could identify women in the so called “third –World”. Take the Middle East for example. Women in Egypt are substantially different from women in Lebanon, Iraq, or Jordan. Differences include customs, levels of education, traditions, and even dialects. They are so huge that any attempt to try out a women empowerment project across the board is almost surely prone to fail.

Also, organizations operating out of “ the West” often underdetermine the ‘fear’ of cultural imperialism. For many women around the world “ Western” concepts of living, ranging from morals to culture, however normal they seem in the west are foreign to specific cultural environments.  Dismissal of local customs from some organizations, by describing them- unintentionally- as being backward or simply dysfunctional adds immensely to the overall apprehension of programs. Cultural norms such as clothes, traditions, and beliefs are simply what define people. Taking away any of those does not gain the expected results.

Investing time in studying the culture of the people we strive to empower is never a wasted effort. If anything it would increase mutual understanding of actual needs, thus increasing the effectiveness of programs. The golden phrase stands: “empowering not forcing!


Mayssoun Olabi is the Public Affairs and Media Specialist at Islamic Relief USA. Mayssoun is also a journalist and writer, and has worked for the Aljazeera satellite Network in Doha, Qatar for more than 10 years as a broadcast journalist and program producer.