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The authority on gender empowerment in business for nearly 20 years.

How capabilities building can bring about social and economic change

Written by Staff Writer

April 25, 2023

By Debra Ogilvie-Roodt, Chief Commercial Officer for Digital Frontiers.

How can we achieve a long-term positive impact that drives social progress? Increasingly, the answer appears to lie with capacity building, which the United Nations defines as “developing and strengthening… skills, instincts, abilities, processes and resources” to deliver meaningful action. But how do you go about creating an impact for an entire society? This is where the idea of capacity building needs to go one step further, writes Debra Ogilvie-Roodt, Chief Commercial Officer for Digital Frontiers.

Addressing skills gaps is a good first step towards identifying how to affect change. But how do you go beyond a transfer of knowledge, and actually shift behaviour? This is where, in our experience, ‘human connection’ plays a pivotal role. Because only when you connect with other individuals, find a common language and begin to understand a person’s context can you truly bring about lasting change. 

We call this approach capabilities building. Capabilities building is about creating a more sustainable outcome from the typical learning experience. For us, it’s about instilling something in individuals and organisations that can lead to tangible institutional, and systems change on some of the world’s most pressing issues, such as alleviating poverty and gender equality.

Social change through language and context

Theoretical knowledge is important to the foundations of any course or programme. But without understanding and incorporating language and context, anyone hoping to see real shifts in learning outcomes may be disappointed. Take, for instance, breaking down gender disparity. While we tend to focus on the idea of gender equality, it’s just as important – if not even more so – to understand and promote gender equity. But what is the difference between equality and equity and why does it matter? 

Gender equality focuses on creating the conditions for equal opportunities. Examples here include granting men and women the same set of rights for things such as owning land, attending school, or attaining certain positions at work. Gender equity goes further by putting in place interventions which seek to address and correct societal norms that placed women on an uneven footing with men. These interventions, such as female-focused scholarship programmes, or HR policy implementations around recruitment and hiring, seek to help correct historic imbalances. 

Equity, in other words, requires a change of culture and not just at an organisational level. Such a shift involves participation across the board – buy-in from stakeholders across society – willing to take the steps to break existing barriers and provide that extra support over and above promoting equality. So how do we break this barrier through capabilities building? 

Equipping people with an understanding of the complexity of these social and cultural constructs in both the global and local context and giving them the language, and support systems they need to facilitate both attitudinal and behavioural change, within themselves and within their organisations, is where we see real sustained change happening.  

The economic knock-on effect

The strength of a country’s economy is proportional to its number of economically active citizens, making women important economic contributors, but they can only fulfil this role if they are given the right opportunity to do so.  According to a recently published article by the UN Women, even though Gender Equality is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (No. 5), and is a global priority, we are still centuries away from achieving gender equality.  

There is no silver bullet when it comes to tackling gender equality, but the social and economic effects of it should not be understated, in fact, a Mckinsey Report found that advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth. We need an integrated approach which challenges us to find and understand our gender blind spots as individuals, organisations and governments. Deeper levels of understanding of the nuances of gender disparity in each country and context are vital.

A good example of such an intervention is our Gender Equality Change Programme. Working in both the public and private sectors across the globe, this five-part capabilities-building programme offers an immersive learning experience which seeks to mobilise a league of gender equity champions who undertake gender equality change projects in their organisations and significantly impact inequalities. To date, we have seen 170 change programmes implemented in 28 countries.  

Whilst capabilities building is certainly not a silver bullet – we strongly believe that when used as part of an integrated approach to solving some of the world’s problems, building strong, resilient systems and empowering individuals and organisations through capabilities building can help to create a better future.

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