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Empowering Vulnerable Groups

Over the past six months, a group of single mothers in Tajikistan has learned to look people directly in the eye when they speak. Hermine de Soto, working in the World Bank's Eastern Europe and Central Asia (ECA) division, has noticed a pronounced difference, not only in the women's functional skill levels, but also in their self-confidence and self-esteem. By providing a sense of community for single mothers and a platform for their acquisition of skills, the Women's Empowerment and Socio-Economic Development Project in post-conflict Tajikistan , and other projects like it, endeavor to empower a group of people identified as being among the most vulnerable in the population.

In any heterogeneous society, certain groups of people face a higher degree of vulnerability than others. These groups are characterized as "vulnerable" because they are more likely to suffer negative consequences in the event of external shocks, which can range from unexpected illness to natural disaster. Essentially, they are subject to greater risk. More often than with other groups, an unanticipated shock can drive a vulnerable individual or community into poverty or, as is often the case, deeper into poverty.

Vulnerable groups are particularly disempowered, as they are less likely to be formally represented or have a voice in decision-making. Therefore, targeted efforts are often needed to empower vulnerable groups. These efforts can improve people's ability to effectively handle negative externalities as they arise and help them to ensure that their needs are considered in planning for unanticipated situations.

Many different types of groups can be considered "vulnerable," and "vulnerability" can come in numerous forms such as political, social, and economic. Vulnerability can result from social exclusion, such as the case may be with divorced women or minorities, or from lack of access to resources, as with youth, or from dependency on public services, which may be the situation for disabled people. Typically, what all these groups have in common, is a lack of effective public voice and mitigation options, such as a dependable network of support or sufficient fungible assets.

Over the last two decades, the Bank has put more time and resources toward empowering vulnerable groups, through efforts such as Social Funds which finance community managed projects and increased micro-credit lending. There has also been more attention to vulnerable groups as evidenced by policies like the Operational Policy on Indigenous Groups, which is designed to ensure that Bank projects do not adversely affect indigenous groups and that project benefits are specifically fitted to their needs.

Although the most vulnerable people in a society can vary by context, the groups discussed below -female heads of household, the disabled, and youth - each represent a voice that can be classified as "vulnerable."

Single Mothers in Post-Conflict Tajikistan Connect and Learn

In a largely male dominated, post-conflict society, where trust has decayed over time, single, female heads of household are among the most disadvantaged and most vulnerable to being trapped in poverty. For this reason, the Women's Empowerment and Socio-Economic Development Project in post-conflict Tajikistan not only seeks to empower single mothers through classes and training, but also to engender a sense of community where the women can work collaboratively to address their needs and community issues. Hermine de Soto, a social scientist in the Bank's ECA region says, "The main idea is [for the women to be] able to provide for themselves and their children."

The pilot project, one of the first under Tajikistan's PRSP, brought together 60 single mothers in the city of Dushanbe and helped them establish a women's association. The association, much like an NGO, serves the women in multiple ways. First, it provides a forum for the women to reestablish trusting relationships and build a dependable network of support, increasing their leverage in the community. At the same time, the women are taught practical skills such as the logistics behind running an organization and skill sets like computer literacy and accounting. The association also provides training on topics ranging from understanding the Koran to developing self-confidence and assertiveness.

De Soto, who is working with a US NGO that manages the project, Counterpart International, recalls that in the incipient stages of the project there were obvious residuals from the war, notably a strong sense of fear among the women and little social cohesion. She says, "There was a lot of suspicion and nobody trusted each other." Additionally, she recalls the women had no way of asking for resources and they had very little involvement in the community at large.

Over the past year, during project implementation, some lessons have become very clear. The Counterpart team realized that approval and "buy-in" of the program from other family members is important in the Tajik society, as some male family members strongly resisted women's participating in the association. Another learning was that it was important for the community to feel that the project offered overall value to everyone. De Soto says, "You have to create the idea that these 60 women will give back to the community and that everyone will benefit." As well, a problem which arose and can develop when projects target specific groups, is that some members of the community became envious as this group of women acquired skills that the rest of the community could not access. After having turned away married women who were also interested in joining the women's association, De Soto says, in the future, "We would also want to include these women." Finally, the pilot indicated that religion can play a significant role in community life and these sensitivities need to be factored into project designs.

The Women's Empowerment Project in Tajikistan has, thus far, had numerous successes, such as providing a strong safety network for this group of women deemed the community's most vulnerable during initial assessments. The women also have more clout in the community and more self-confidence to interact with men in the society. Additionally, many of the women are also using their new skills and resources to plan out future goals, with one endeavoring to open a bakery and another to become a hairdresser.

An area the women have not yet entered is the realm of local government or community decision-making. That is something De Soto expects in the future. She says, "They don't yet have representation in decision-making. The idea is to (first) get them there, to train them that they have to be there."

With financing from the Post-Conflict Fund, the project currently has two years of funding, with hopes of securing 6 more, after which time the women ideally will run the group self-sufficiently. De Soto hopes the success of this Dushanbe project will expand to other parts of Tajikistan. She comments, "This is a pilot so we have to demonstrate that we can help these vulnerable people and that they feel empowered, so it is seen as a good practice and we can scale up."

She also hopes that the Dushanbe women will play a significant role in the process, taking the skills they have learned and bringing them to other women throughout their country.

Fighting Stigmas for Inclusion

To even a larger degree than some other vulnerable groups, one of the greatest challenges for the disabled is overcoming particularly high levels of social exclusion and stigmatism. Pervasive exclusion coupled with negative social perceptions result in substantial barriers to opportunities and services for the disabled. Judy Heumann, who works on disabilities within the Bank says, "People have looked at disabled individuals as being unable to contribute and worthy of charity." She adds, "[they] see disabled people as incompetent, devalued, unemployed, uneducated, with this belief that that's all [disabled] people can do."

At any given time, data reveals that 10 to 20 percent of people in a population have a disability, and that there is an undeniable link between disability and likelihood of poverty. The correlation is so intertwined that one can likely lead to the other, which adds particular weight as to why special efforts are needed to target the disabled. As Heumann notes, "We in the Bank, see [the correlation] all the time when we go on mission; disabled people crawling along on the floor, begging for money or food."

Integrating the disabled into society can be particularly challenging for a variety of reasons. Unlike other vulnerable groups, disability can come in numerous forms, ranging from blindness to physical handicaps to mental illness. So when looking at specific problems and issues, solutions often need to be extremely varied. For example, there is a need for two totally distinct approaches when educating blind people about HIV versus educating deaf people. In addition, addressing the disabled is challenging because disabilities can strike at any point in a person's life, stemming from innumerable maladies, such as conflict, malnutrition, or accidents in the work place. Heumann asserts that regardless of the nature or cause of the disability, essentially the goal is the same, "Every one of these people just wants to be able to enter society."

Thus work on inclusion and empowerment of the disabled has to be far reaching. Heumann feels that a key approach is for existing groups, which represent the disabled and/or are comprised of various kinds of disabled people, to form federations which then have stronger power lobbying governments. She has seen these types of federations form in countries such as South Africa, Ethiopia, and Uganda. The main goal of these federations is to further the process of giving the disabled equal access to services and equal opportunities for improving their lives. Success can be enhanced in countries like Uganda, which has a number of disabled people within the parliament.

Work on disabilities is still in the incipient stages within the Bank and overall capacity still remains relatively low. Heumann refers to it "like gender 20 years ago." This low level of priority can have problematic effects in many realms. For example, the Bank finances numerous infrastructure projects, such as sidewalks and roads, which do not account for the disabled. Additionally, there is no Bank policy mandating that schools built with Bank money need be constructed so that they accommodate the disabled. In addition to deterring inclusiveness, these oversights very likely increase a country's future financial burden, as when the country develops more fully these issues will need to be addressed.

Progress in the Bank may not yet be at a rapid pace, but Heumann envisions that change will begin with movement at the country level. When NGOs start pressuring governments on these issues, governments will, in turn, begin asking the Bank for more assistance, whether it be technical or for socially oriented empowerment/inclusion projects.

However, incrementally more work is being done on disabilities and the area is receiving more attention. Heumann refers to the work of John Wall, country director of Pakistan, and progress in that country as encouraging. Pakistan has a national policy on disability, which has recently been translated into numerous dialects, as well as braille, and there have also been recent meetings to elevate awareness about education for the disabled.

Another optimistic sign for the future is that there are increasingly more NGOs working on behalf of the disabled and they can be found in every country. According to Heumann it is important for Bank staff to talk directly to NGOs and the disabled and ascertain their needs in that manner. She says, "As we develop a greater number of people within the Bank who are interested in these issues, there are answers out there…. You just have to find them or create them and be willing to believe that they make a difference."

Tapping into the Voices of Youth

Though their voices may lack years of experience and are often overlooked in policy making, the youth of a society can play an active and important role in enhancing development outcomes. Recently, a draft was completed on the youth portion of the developing Children and Youth Strategy and the draft stresses that along with preventative and curative measures, empowerment measures are critical to creating a sustainable, healthy environment for youth to flourish.

Youth are often considered a vulnerable group due to the social and institutional barriers they face, their lack of capital and assets, and general exclusion from decision-making. Paula Lytle, who works on youth projects in the ECA region, stresses that in spite of those factors, "We should be looking at youth not just in terms of what they need, but we should be seeing them as important resources of human and social capital." She emphasizes that youth should be viewed as "agents."

There are numerous ways in which the skills and creativity of youth can be used to progress development. For example, since young people often receive a fair amount of information through their peers, empowered youth can serve as peer counselors to one another. Educated and informed youth can reach others in their age group who are out of the spectrum of formal institutions, such as those not attending school. Peers can counsel one another on a variety of issues such as drugs, HIV, and on how to identify illegitimate jobs (which may be the case in a trafficking situation).

Equally important is including youth in determining the government policies which will affect their lives. When youth are included in decision-making, the outcomes can often be surprising to some policymakers. According to Lytle, their involvement, "can serve as a reality check." For example, she notes, in the recent Youth, Development, and Peace Conference held this past summer in Paris, youth stressed that they want education to be relevant and applicable to the functional roles they will fill in society. "That message came across loud and clear" she says. Another example of effective youth participation in policy-making is the Youth Parliament in Bosnia. This group was set up after the 2002 Rome conference held on youth inclusion and empowerment in South Eastern Europe. Members of the Youth Parliament present youth needs and represent youth opinions in both municipal and national forums.

As with other empowerment projects, when working for youth inclusion and empowerment, there is a need to address both the micro and macro levels. In addition to working at the grass roots level, it is also important to address the enabling environment and to remove barriers to services and participation. The Macedonia Children and Youth project can serve as a successful example of integrating both levels. The project focuses on enhancing the life skills of youth as well as on the formation of a national youth strategy, which has government commitment and in which youth will be actively involved. A similar project with a strong emphasis on youth employment has been developed in Moldova.

When asked about challenges this agenda may face within the Bank, Lytle notes that "mainstreaming a cross-sectoral approach" can be challenging. She says, "Children and Youth is a multi-dimensional issue and can't be addressed without the others (sectors)". However, she says that recently there has been more cross-regional exchange of ideas, and there is strong commitment among the people across the Bank working on youth issues. Additionally, Lytle considers Mr. Wolfensohn's involvement in the Paris conference as an encouraging sign of corporate interest. Though the challenges "may require a certain amount of vision and willingness to try new things," she comments, "there is a good environment for [doing so] right now."

Three main themes can be drawn from these interviews with Bank staff working with "vulnerable groups." The first is that while there are groups of people who often hold a disadvantaged position in society, this does not imply that their capacity to contribute to society is diminished. Vulnerable does not equate incapable. The second theme is the importance of organization. For a multitude of reasons, from financial to psychological or political to social, joining with others who share a similar situation increases the likelihood of success. Finally, without removing the barriers that prohibit empowerment and inclusion, people cannot reach their goals or potential. To be empowered means to have open access to opportunities and services, free of stigma, biases, and unfair legislation.

For information on social protection, social funds, and safety nets, please see:

For information on the Bank and disabilities, please see:

For information on the Bank and youth, please see:

Back to Empowerment Newsletter (Dec. 2003/Jan. 2004)

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