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Self-belief with Teeth: the Usefulness of Soft Empowerment

It's 2017. In Kampala, Uganda, University of Oxford graduate student Emma Riley is examining the effects of watching Queen of Katwe on students preparing for their final exams. Starring Lupita Nyong’o of the hyper-successful Black Panther film, the Disney movie is based on the life of Phiona Mutesi, a successful Ugandan chess player from the largest township in Kampala.

Official trailer for the Disney film "Queen of Katwe".

Riley found that students who were shown the movie performed markedly better in their exams than those who were shown a film that did not feature a relatable role model. This effect was strongest for female and lower-ability students, and the New York Times reports that significantly more of those students who watched Queen of Katwe scored high enough in their exams to gain admission to a public university.

The implication of this study might strike one as unrealistic; that a single film viewing could practically improve maths scores overnight. But consider the value of self-belief for a student preparing for their final exams.

The difference between a student believing that they are capable of passing their matric exams or not in community abundant with successful doctors, academics and businesses is one thing, but the same difference in a community with a 50% literacy rate, one doctor and where only 2% of students go to university? What might exposure to a successful role model, personalised career guidance and empowerment training do for young learners in such an environment?

The psychology of empowerment

Poverty alleviation programmes have been recorded to have major psychological and behavioural benefits. These “soft” benefits, like self-belief, improved mental well-being and greater aspirational attitudes, have been shown to improve not just an individual's sense of self-worth but also enhance their productivity and motivate greater commitment to their own health and environment.

Social activism or empowerment work that focuses on these soft benefits, work that does not dramatically improve individuals' material conditions, is often – and often correctly - labelled as cosmetic, unable to change the balance of forces that keep people mired in poverty.

SHOFCO founder Kennedy Odede with students at the

Code Club in Kibera, Kenya.

But with thousands of socially active individuals and organisations without the financial capacity to dramatically affect the core drivers of poverty in Africa, and with growing evidence of at least some meaningful benefits of ‘soft empowerment”, there is value in determining whether it is possible to produce meaningful results through workshops, school talks, entrepreneurship training programmes and other empowerment strategies that don't have the power to affect the forces that drive and sustain poverty.

The benefits of soft empowerment

In Bangladesh, a programme intended to enhance incomes among poor farmers by giving participants livestock and training on how to care for these animals raised participants’ incomes more than the researches had expected. The study determined that the outsized impact of the programme was a result of participants starting to work longer hours, motivated by the potential payoff of greater productive assets like cows or goats. Significantly, a marked improvement in the participants’ mental health was also reported to have contributed to the enhanced impact of the programme.

The psychological benefits of poverty-reduction programmes was also evidenced by the effects of a child sponsorship programme run by the christian non-profit organisation Compassion International. In this programme donors support the education and healthcare expenses of children from impoverished communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America, supplemented by spiritual instruction after school and the opportunity to exchange periodic letters with their sponsors.

Sponsored children, the study found, completed more years of education and commanded higher incomes later in life than their counterparts, and children in the programme also reported greater aspirations both in school and in their potential careers. They also, according to the researchers, tended to have more positive outlooks regarding their futures and better all-round mental health.

These studies looked at the psychological and behavioural effects of anti-poverty programmes that included some form of material or financial support. This makes it difficult to determine which positive effects could be attributed to their psychological components, and which could be recreated without also improving the material conditions of the participants.

Jennifer Huxta on assignment for The MasterCard Foundation.

Studies on programmes that focus exclusively on providing psychological support suggest that some of the benefits of well-financed anti-poverty programmes can be recreated without the high costs of material contributions.

A study conducted in four districts in India found that following a one year life-skills education programme the adolescents involved had significantly better self-esteem, perceived adequate coping, exhibited more prosocial behavior and better adjustment generally.

In a study in Kolkata, India among sex workers, participants who took part in a personal growth course reported that they had began saving more money and had voluntarily begun attending more frequent health checkups. In addition, after participating, the women reported measurably greater self-esteem and "a stronger belief that they could determine the course of their lives."

School education programmes and empowerment workshops, projects within the capacity of small, youth-led initiatives, may be limited in their impact potential. But they evidently have the power to affect lasting and meaningful change when paired with measurable empowerment, skill development or capacity building outcomes.

The limits of good intentions

Still, in none of these examples can we be certain that the psychological and behavioural benefits are responsible for the gains in participant's outcomes. Like rearranging chairs on a ship designed to sink, efforts that don’t address the forces that push people to such extremes are unlikely to radically affect them.

Soft empowerment that does not consider wider structural barriers also risks placing responsibility for poverty reduction at the feet of individuals who are primarily held back by structural constraints. This takes the responsibility off of governments and exploitative corporate entities with whom the greatest impact and responsibility for the conditions that perpetuate poverty lie.

A primary school teacher guides a pupils in a language class in one of the primary schools in Kampala suburbs.

As Jayachandran said in that New York Times article, hope isn't a cure-all. But as Barry Segal of the Segal Foundation notes, “we might argue that there is power that goes beyond hope: the power of persistence, passion, and partnerships... we have seen that the impossible becomes possible when leaders unwaveringly seek the change they want to see in their communities, their countries, and the world at large.”

Looking at the evidence from Uganda and India, soft empowerment efforts that emphasise real and measurable capacity building seem to have the power to develop the kind of persistence and passion Segal speaks about.

Hope, with muscle.

We shouldn't think of soft empowerment as an alternative for the kind of work that would change the balance of forces that keep people in poverty. But we should not underestimate the potential of empowerment efforts that could meaningfully improve the lives of students, farmers, sex workers and women and children in Africa, especially when these outcomes could be easy to achieve by those already inspired but underfinanced.

A sign of success in poor and under-supported communities around the world is being able to leave. These communities can retain their best and brightest either by offering real opportunities, or by instilling in them the belief that better days lie ahead. In places where opportunities and role models are hard to find, the potential for something better lies in the hands of those with self-belief, passion, commitment and, significantly, the tools to affect change.

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