By Suzanne Hammad, INTRAC Associate.
“Empowerment cannot be defined in terms of specific activities or end results because it involves a process whereby women can freely analyse, develop and voice their needs and interests, without them being pre-defined, or imposed from above… [Empowerment] is an ongoing process rather than a fixed goal in the distant future” – Oxaal and Baaden
This is precisely what a study conducted by INTRAC and the British Council in seven countries of the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region confirmed recently. Women’s empowerment, though much needed, is very difficult to attain overnight. The Women Participating in Public Life Programme (WPIPL) took shape with this in mind, recognising the highly constrained situation of women’s political participation in the MENA region particularly since the Arab Spring and the need for a critical and reflective understanding of the issues that continue to confront women.
Action research was hoped to be that empowering process that would “enable women themselves to critically assess their own situation and create and shape a transformation in society”  and help women be “effective agents of change”. Our study sought to investigate to what extent action research was indeed the right choice and to what extent participants considered it as an empowering tool.
Here are some of its key findings.
Action research is a distinctive form of research
Action research was seen to be a distinctive form of research and of more value to the civil society sector than traditional academic research. In simple terms, as a Libyan volunteer and activist explained, action research was able “to identify ‘real life issues’, ‘real problems’, and because of that, it is of direct benefit to everyday realities and the work we do’.
Action research strengthens advocacy work
“I am able to confront those in decision making positions with a strong case based on evidence” – Palestinian practitioner and activist
Action research transforms practitioners into active partners in research, rather than merely executors of plans conceptualized elsewhere, challenging the usual way of doing empowerment programming. This collaborative co-creation of locally-derived knowledge proved to be a strong evidence base for advocacy work since results and programmes are owned and viewed to be more relevant.
Action research has positive (transformative) effects on individuals and groups
“ [Action research] had a big positive impact on me on how I work and think within a group” – Moroccan activist
The collaborative work-ethic, skills and knowledge women acquired through the action research process made them feel better-equipped to navigate unwelcoming political structures and influence change more effectively. Their self-confidence grew together with the sense that they would be taken more seriously, also enabling women’s coalitions to work together more efficiently.
Action research instills a culture of reflection, largely absent in the sector
“[Critical reflection] forces us to think about why and how we do what we do (…) Now I think differently and I look for everything and everything raises a question in my head”- Jordanian activist
The continual action learning and reflection cycle constantly reminded participants to situate their work within the bigger picture and be ready to redirect the process if required along the way. Therefore, in the context of this programme, action research indeed created a mode of work and space for reflection on practice not typically available in an environment that focuses on project implementation. Several participants described a change in the way they confront issues and work as ‘more meticulous’, ‘accurate’, ‘analytical thinking’ and ‘always questioning and reflecting’.
So what do these findings mean?
The WPIPL is still in progress across seven countries of the region, so it is too soon to tell how things will evolve. What is clear from these findings however, is that the action research has catalyzed a process– one that appears to have been empowering to women at many levels; making action research worthwhile particularly in highly contested disempowering contexts such as some of those involved in the WPIPL (Egypt, Palestine, Libya, Lebanon).
But perhaps the most ‘empowering’ aspect of action research is that it offered civil society actors an explicit role and the right to own and be part of the knowledge construction that influences the design of empowerment programmes.
Could this be what makes future initiatives more likely to be sustainable, effective and meaningful to women and local communities?
The findings were presented at the Asfari Institute Conference “Exploring an Agenda for Active Citizenship” in Beirut.
 The countries initially involved in this process were four: Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia; the programme was expanded in 2014 to include Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine.
Wieringa S, 1994, Women’s Interests and empowerment: gender planning reconsidered Development and Change 25 (4), The Netherlands
 Coghlan and Brydon-Miller (2014) The SAGE Encyclopedia of Action Research, London: SAGE.
Women activists as well as other stakeholders involved in the design and management of the programme were invited to participate in the study and reflect upon their experience of using action research over the course of the year. The results were presented at the Asfari Institute conference “Exploring an Agenda for Active Citizenship” in Beirut.
Illustration by Anna Chai.
Picture: Suzanne Hammad with some of the participants of the Women Participating in Public Life programme in Lebanon. April 2015, INTRAC.