Breaking the Cycle of Poverty with Economic Empowerment

“Lack of food is a story of the past for me and my family. I did not know livestock would turn my life around through the money I make from being a Community Animal Health Worker.”

– Bertha, Program Participant, Malawi


It’s not difficult to slip into poverty or to be born poor, but it can be extremely challenging to escape poverty. Research suggests that many people that do escape poverty will also “fall” back into poverty within a short time. Limited resources can turn circumstances like illness or crop failure into major obstacles for communities struggling with economic empowerment. When families have to make impossible choices between sending their children to school or putting food on the table, between urgent medical care or paying to heat their home, between buying a source of clean water or fixing necessary farm equipment – everyone loses.

The causes of poverty are complex and can include political, social, economic and environmental factors that often create barriers for poor households in particular. Addressing these barriers to economic empowerment within a community not only strengthens their ability to succeed in the short-term, but also helps them become more resilient in the face of unexpected disasters.

PCI’s economic empowerment programs address these barriers and seek to help poor households escape poverty and stay out.

The Tweende ReadytoWork Project, funded by Barclays Bank in Botswana, helps young people to build their employable skills and young entrepreneurs to grow their businesses. As of August 2017, over 4,400 youth have received ReadyToWork training, either in the Employability or Entrepreneurial Pathways (or both). In addition, 98 young entrepreneurs have participated in the business incubation component, and 48 of these were paired with business mentors. In late 2017, the program also launched an internship matching component that placed at least 100 youth into internships.

Wealth Generation Pathways

As members of PCI’s Women Empowerment Initiative groups began to create savings and become more financially active, PCI recognized that the opportunities available to the women to earn incomes were still limited. With support from the Neeley Foundation, PCI developed and recently launched the Wealth Generation Pathways (WGP) framework to empower poor households to achieve career and income pathways that make sense for themselves and their families. WGP is a market-based approach designed to help the poor escape poverty by attacking the problem from two sides:

  1. Workforce Development: Helping the poor build skills so they can become better entrepreneurs and employees;
  2. Empowering Markets: Supporting private sector businesses in their efforts to provide better products, services, and income-generating opportunities for poor households.

The framework has been integrated into many of PCI’s programs, striving to help the poor households we work with to become better employees or entrepreneurs. While still a new approach, preliminary WGP activities have been piloted based on local need and interest. Examples include: business skills training programs, mentorship programs, forging linkages with local markets, and business accelerators.

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Economic Empowerment of Women

Women’s economic empowerment is a critical piece of addressing global poverty. We know that empowering women leads to gender equality, the reduction of poverty, and better health for all. Yet women remain disproportionately affected by so many barriers that prevent them from truly thriving.

  • Studies show when income is in the hands of the mother, the survival probability of a child increases by about 20% in Brazil, and in Kenya, a child will be about 17% taller, because mothers will invest more of their income in health and nutrition.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank estimates that agricultural productivity could rise by as much as 20% by allocating a larger share of agricultural input to women.
  • A study using data from 219 countries from 1970 to 2009 found that, for every additional year of education for women of reproductive age, child mortality decreased by 9.5%.
  • GDP per capita losses attributable to gender gaps in the labor market have been estimated at up to 27% in certain regions;
  • According to the ILO, women’s work, both paid and unpaid, may be the single most important poverty-reducing factor in developing economies;
  • Accordingly, higher female labor force participation and greater earnings by women could result in higher expenditure on school enrollment for children, including girls, potentially triggering a virtuous cycle, when educated women become female role models.

Women’s economic empowerment in developing countries has the power to transform entire regions. Research shows that when women are engaged and empowered, they become change agents in their homes and their communities. PCI uses a gender lens in all economic empowerment programs that are implemented.

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The Women Empowered (WE) Initiative is a global initiative to increase the social and economic empowerment of women through savings group methodologies. PCI understands that lack of financial resources is not the only cause of poverty. Economic, social and political factors all play a part. As such PCI’s WE Initiative focuses on economic as well as social empowerment, working to help women find their own voices and their power to bring about positive change. Women join together to marshal their own financial resources, providing an opportunity to save for the future as well as access credit. At the same time, they gain experience and confidence in their ability to address issues in their homes and communities. WE group members practice public speaking, gain leadership skills, and build a sense of identity with the group, enabling them to make full use of the economic empowerment brought through the savings and lending. Across the globe, these groups have proven to be incredibly successful.

One approach under the WE Initiative is PCI’s work with the Government of Bihar in India. The Parivartan Project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to increase the adoption of key maternal and child health and sanitation behaviors among women in India. The project combines savings groups with health messaging in order to make dual impact and empower women to plan for their future. Over 320,000 women in 8 districts of Bihar have been impacted by this program directly through PCI, while over 1 million women have been reached through the adoption of the approach by the Government of Bihar.

In Malawi, agriculture is the primary industry and employs over 80 percent of the working population. When drought and inconsistent rainfall plague the region, their main staple, maize, fails to grow and leaves smallholder farmers struggling to adapt and overcome climate-change effects. In times like these, women and children are the hardest hit. Our WE groups in Malawi not only help members build their resilience to the financial shocks and stressors of a fluctuating agriculture-heavy economy but also empower them to have a voice in household and community decision-making to prepare for and respond when these situations do occur.

Women in our WE groups across the globe have accomplished incredible feats like purchasing farms on their own, sending their children to school, and installing electric utilities in their homes. Empowered women are starting businesses, investing back in their families and communities, and ensuring that their children have the best start in life.

We’ve seen in every corner of the world that when women are empowered and take on leadership roles, communities are forever changed.

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