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Why stories matter: Quantifying the effects of a women’s leadership program in Rwanda

Megan Lang, Human Rights Center fellow and Ph.D. student, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics | October 19, 2016

Think about your values. Think of a time in your life when your actions demonstrated those values. Now think of a story from your life that illustrates those values — a story where you faced a challenge, made a choice and realized an outcome.

Benigne Ishimwe Mugwaneza

Benigne Ishimwe Mugwaneza

This is what women in Rwanda do during Resonate’s Storytelling for Leadership workshops, as they develop a “story of self.” Women like Benigne, who took a job far from home after completing secondary school, defied the odds to study engineering at university and now works as a trainer at Resonate to inspire other women and girls to become leaders.

As I listened to women tell their stories, I got a glimpse of the power of this work. But as a UC Berkeley economics doctoral student and Human Rights Center fellow, my job was to measure the impact of these workshops on the lives of the women who participate — to quantify and understand their effectiveness.

In economics, the gold standard for impact evaluation is a randomized control trial, or RCT. Often compared to clinical medical trials, RCTs compare a treatment group and a control group, chosen at random. The treatment group receives whatever intervention is under study while the control group does not. In this case, the treatment group would participate in Resonate’s Storytelling for Leadership workshop, and the control group would not. Since groups are chosen at random, the impact of the intervention can be measured by comparing the treatment and control groups before and after the intervention.

Resonate’s work fascinated me because there isn’t a standard economic theory about precisely why Resonate’s workshops would affect outcomes like income and decision-making power. How could simply developing a personal narrative improve economic outcomes?

Resonate has developed a theory of change: Workshops increase self-confidence and public speaking skills, which in turn increase decision-making power in women’s lives, their households, and their communities. Ultimately, this causes women to take on more leadership roles. With higher leadership capacity, women are empowered to improve their economic status and to drive changes that they want to see in their communities. As I began to design a pilot RCT for Resonate this summer, I observed workshops while delving into the economic literature in an effort to translate this theory of change into concepts that I could measure and model.

Guided by work done by Tanguy Bernard in Ethiopia, I started exploring the literature around self-efficacy and locus of control, as well as the work of Bruce Wydick and others on aspirations. Economists typically follow Ray (2004) in thinking of aspirations in two parts: an aspirations window, which defines what you aspire to, and an aspirations gap, which is the distance between where you are now and where you aim to be. Aspirations failures happen in high-poverty regions either because the poor do not include the rich in their aspirations windows, or because the poor aspire to be like the rich, but the gap is too vast — the steps to get from being poor to being rich are not clear. Either one could lower self-efficacy. People with low self-efficacy never gain the confidence to pursue their dreams because they never try.

How does this apply in practice, to a country like Rwanda? Rwanda has arguably the highest level of support for women in government of any country in the world, with women comprising over 60 percent of the nation’s parliamentarians. However, women are underrepresented in local leadership positions. Resonate’s work strives to address this challenge: most women don’t consider themselves leaders, perhaps because they don’t see women leaders in their villages who they can aspire to emulate, or because the gap between their own lives and the lives of women in parliament is just too large.

Did Resonate’s workshops work? Did explicitly identifying a time in their life where they had overcome a challenge increase a woman’s self-efficacy? Did these workshops enable them to recognize if or how they had already acted as agents of change? I wondered if that recognition would increase women’s self-confidence, and make them more likely to view their lives as the results of their own actions rather than the unpredictable forces of fate and destiny. Would their aspirations be higher after participating in Resonate’s workshops? And in turn, would these internal changes in beliefs translate into observable changes in plans, such as how they would choose to spend additional income or what they would do if offered a loan?

My research seeks to answer these questions. Over the course of the summer, I developed a pilot RCT to test confidence, self-efficacy, and aspirations by applying measures of self-confidence and self-efficacy from psychology, measuring aspirations windows and gaps, and evaluating the outcomes that result from changes in these mechanisms. The pilot study will run over the next year to measure changes in all of these elements both directly after Resonate’s workshops as well as their persistence over time.

In the grand scheme of international development, addressing self-confidence can seem low on the list of urgent priorities. But as Amartya Sen argues in Development as Freedom, “Expansion of freedom is viewed…both as the primary end and as the principal means of development.” Empowering women to use their voices and giving them the confidence and leadership skills to identify and pursue ambitious solutions for themselves and their communities is precisely this: a realization of increased freedom for women, and a means for driving development more broadly. Precisely measuring and understanding these mechanisms is the key to effectively implementing them in practice.

Comment to “Why stories matter: Quantifying the effects of a women’s leadership program in Rwanda

  1. empowering women is very important to have more women leaders in the world. Most of the female talent goes wasted in domestic chores. Tapping women’s potential is very much important for any country to have a better impact in GDP.
    Women empowerment could be achieved by having more role models, Mentors and mindful leadership programs

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