Should we focus more on Women’s Political Empowerment when Democracy goes off the Rails? Tom Carothers thinks so.


My inbox has been buzzing with praise for a new paper on this issue by the Carnegie Endowment’s democracy tom-carothersguru, Thomas Carothers. Since he’s one of my favourite FP2P guest posters (no editing ever required), I asked him to summarize its findings.

Last year the gender, women, and democracy team at the National Democratic Institute approached me with a question. NDI, like many groups engaged in supporting democracy internationally, was responding to the increasingly fraught landscape of global democracy by attempting to think more strategically and move fully away from any lingering tendency to pursue a standard democracy “menu” across extremely diverse political contexts. NDI’s gender team wanted to insert women’s political empowerment programming into the new strategic discussion. Would I help them think it through? The team deflected my protests that I lack  expertise on women’s empowerment, telling me they would help me get up to speed.  They also politely pointed out that as someone who presents himself as a general expert on democratic change, perhaps it was time for me to correct my lack of knowledge about the gender domain. I signed on.


After some months of delving into the literature on women’s political empowerment and interviewing numerous aid practitioners and women’s activists working on the front lines, some interesting findings came into focus.  I present them in my new paper, “Democracy Support Strategies: Leading with Women’s Political Empowerment.”

At first glance, programs seeking to foster greater women’s political empowerment did seem to follow a standard menu –everywhere I looked I saw training for women candidates in local and national elections, efforts to strengthen the role of women within political parties, advocacy in favor of gender quotas in legislatures, and support for women’s parliamentary caucuses. Yet when I probed how such programming unfolds across different transitional contexts, important variations emerged.  I focused on three alternative contexts distinct from the assumed standard democratization path (in which the dictator falls, foundational elections take place, and democracy steadily takes root):

  • Stuck transitions, marked by significant blockage among the major political actors and growing citizen alienation from politics;
  • Semi-authoritarian systems, characterized by shrewd balancing by power holders between allowing enough

    political space to gain credibility and maintaining enough constraints on political life to head off threats to their power; and

  • Conflict-affected transitions, where conflict erupts in the course of an attempted democratic transition.

I learned that in stuck transitions, women’s political empowerment work can address two critical issues that lie at the heart of what keeps such transitions from moving forward: polarization and inadequate representation. Multiparty women’s caucuses, for example, can provide a bridge across the partisan divide. The ability of women politicians to connect to grassroots networks of women civic and social activists can serve as a start for building a more representative politics.

I found that, at least in some semi-authoritarian contexts, strengthening the capacity of women parliamentarians or women local council members can help bolster the few sources of independent political authority that exist. Power holders determined to screen out foreign political assistance often let in women’s political programming, lulled by the false belief that it always remains at the political margins. For example, years of patient work on women’s political empowerment in Burkina Faso went on in an environment of growing political thuggishness, but paid off in carothers-cover-12014 when women were at the forefront of protests that helped crack open the system.

In conflict-affected countries, significant opportunities arise for women  to play a key role in the negotiation of new constitutions, the brokering of peace, and the reform of security services after peace is restored.

The point is not just that women’s political empowerment work can be usefully tailored to different political contexts. It is that a focus on women’s political empowerment often connects directly to the central levers of political change that democracy aid providers believe could help countries with problematic transitions get back on a democratic track. In other words, women’s political empowerment work should not be seen as an isolated aid sector or a nice extra at the sides of the assistance stage. Properly understood, it can and should be part of the core agenda for responding to challenging democratic transitions.

Interestingly, some of the expert practitioners I consulted were hesitant about formulating focused strategic arguments for women’s political empowerment work in particular contexts. They felt that aid providers shouldn’t need anything more than a basic overarching rationale for pursuing such work—the argument that no democracy is a full democracy when significant gender inequalities exist in politics. In this view, women’s political empowerment work should be pursued wherever gender inequalities exist (which is to say, pretty much everywhere outside of a few very cold countries). While I agree with the basic principle of such a rationale, I believe that in this era of tough competition among multiple aid priorities and the relentless search for value for money, fortifying the case for women’s political empowerment with focused strategic arguments is a worthwhile pursuit.

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5 Responses to “Should we focus more on Women’s Political Empowerment when Democracy goes off the Rails? Tom Carothers thinks so.”
  1. Alice Evans

    Interesting blog. Intrigued, I read the paper. I’d really like to learn more about the evidence base for these claims. I’d be grateful if you could share more insights.

    (1) The paper says that women can make parties more representative, because they do more community outreach. But I couldn’t see a reference for this (universal?) claim…

    (2) Also says that working with women can enable donors to enter politically sensitive arenas.The paper mentions that USAID worked with women in Cambodia, but did this change anything? – relating to the authoritarianism, accountability or gender equality? [I’m not aware of evidence of this, but maybe you have the inside scoop?]

    (3) The paper also asserts that ‘Working to foster women’s political activism and empowerment can be an important dimension of efforts to engage and energize youth
    with regard to needed democratic change’. I’m not aware of evidence of this. Can you please share it?

    (4) I’m also interested in the paper’s policy recommendations. It suggests ‘trainings’ for women leaders. Is there much evidence of their effectiveness? [I did research on this in Zambia and found very little: It also commends women’s cross-parliamentary caucuses, and gives two examples of these. I would add, these are notoriously difficult to establish and sustain in authoritarian contexts. Women may worry about how their party leaders will perceive them consorting with the enemy.

    (5) I think the biggest knowledge gap is that we know women’s movements can be enormously powerful but we are less sure about how best to strengthen their ongoing campaigns.

    Looking forward to learning more.


    • Thomas Carothers

      Alice, thank you for the thoughtful comments and questions. The evidence base for the results of work on women’s political empowerment is badly underdeveloped despite more than 20 years of such work in close to 100 countries. In my research I cast a wide net for patterns, in part to help formulate some hypotheses that can then be pursued in more depth through longitudinal close-focus studies of targeted case studies. Thus for example the ability and proclivity of women politicians to do the sort of community outreach needed for parties to do better in building grassroots constituencies comes through when one talks to political actors in various countries, as diverse as Burkina Faso, Pakistan, and Kenya. The same with the ties between greater women’s activism and youth engagement. On Cambodia, the USAID program referenced is new and so results from it cannot yet be assessed. I wouldn’t expect a single program to reverse the basic shape of Cambodia’s authoritarian structures but a gender framing for an active effort to help empower political actors outside the immediate circles of governmental power did help the U.S. proceed with an active program in a very restrictive environment. And finally regarding training, I don’t mean to recommend training per se, I note its role as one of the ways that outsiders can and do engage with women political activists. Training for women leaders is subject to all the same shortcomings as training in other areas of development work (too short term, too rote, etc.), Just as there is bad training and good training in the educational or health sectors, so too there is the same in the gender domain.

  2. Alice Evans

    Thank you for replying, Tom. Sorry, I’m still a bit confused…

    The paper seems to make quite confident empirical claims about the effects of women’s political empowerment (on community outreach and youth engagement). So I’m just trying to ascertain the evidence base. Are these things you’ve heard political actors say? Who? Men? Women politicians? National or local level? In what context did they say it? Was it triangulated through some kind of observation?

    I interpreted the paper as claiming that working with women is a means by which donors might engage in politically sensitive arenas. That seemed to be a statement, rather than a hypothesis. But it seems based in a programme that has not yet been evaluated..?

    Likewise, for training. I understood the paper as recommending training. Many NGOs already do this. They may interpret your paper as legitimising more of the same. But I’m not sure there’s evidence to show that this is an effective strategy?

    That said, I really welcome your hypotheses. Are you now planning to test them?

  3. Thomas Carothers

    Alice thanks for your further comments. I do take my research methods seriously and am happy to share details about what I’ve done. Duncan has provided me your e-mail address and I’ll write to you directly so we can continue this conversation at greater length..

  4. Thanks for this Tom. I think it raises some very important and interesting aspects. In relation to ‘stick transitions’ (a descriptor I think is very useful especially in the Pacific island context) I agree with Alice that cross-party caucuses aren’t easy to establish and maintain because women politicians are likely t find themselves constrained by party political realities. Colleagues may be interested to see this item which looks at the Vanuatu experience of legislating for reserved seats at municipal council level (partly in recognition of the lack of opportunity to progress this for the national Parliament): – it is illustrative of a number of key issues and I think of particular interest is how political parties gamed the system and how this can be converted to achieving progressive objectives