What does Feminist Social Innovation look like?

May 31, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post from Chloe Safier

In the global development world, there are a lot of conversations about social innovation and (separately) a lot of discussions about Chloe Safierfeminist approaches to development and women’s rights. Social innovation labs, incubators and accelerators are popping up everywhere, from San Francisco to Beirut to Delhi. Major development actors like the Gates Foundation are issuing ‘challenges’ to advance innovation and cultivate the next big idea- whether that’s a new condom or a better way of combatting disease. At the same time, there is a growing recognition of gender inequality and the injustices that women and girls face globally, from the UN to the media to governments and beyond.

Social innovation and feminist approaches to development share many of the same principles and a high degree of overlap. Many of those who work in social innovation employ feminist principles in their leadership or processes, or are developing initiatives that advance women’s rights. Many women’s rights and feminist organizations are being innovative without formal links to social innovation.

Women-in-TechSo what happens when you put the two together? FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, Global Fund for Women, Oxfam and the Young Foundation have been finding out for the past year, as part of designing a new program called the Roots Lab. The Roots Lab is a social innovation incubator: a two-year program designed to catalyze social change driven by young women activists. Through consultations with organizations and companies dedicated to advancing either women’s rights or social innovation, we developed a laboratory model that will give young women the tools, skills, networks, and financial support they need to take their game-changing ideas (to advance women’s rights) and make them a reality. A pilot program will kick off in Lebanon next month.

There’s plenty of examples to draw on. In Fiji, a group of young women volunteers built a new technology that allowed them to produce a monthly radio broadcast from a “suitcase radio,” bringing radio production to rural areas and creating the Pacific’s first woman-led community radio network. Harassmap combines technology, activism and social innovation to address sexual assault and harassment in Egypt by using SMS mobile technology to allow people who have been harassed or assaulted to report those incidences, where they are mapped for the purposes of advocacy, policy change and research.

In developing the Roots Lab, here is some of what we learned about from our interviews with innovators:

  • In building a new program, communicate the process clearly from the outset, and keep the model simple enough to make that possible.
  • To advance innovation, bring people from multiple sectors together in a structured way, but allow for flexibility in how those people relate to each other in the spaces you create.
  • As stated in Stanford’s Center for Innovation definition, “social innovation focuses attention on the ideas and solutions that create social value — as well as the processes through which they are generated, not just on individuals and organizations.” So make sure process is a big part of the focus.
  • Learn quickly from your mistakes, adapt, and get comfortable with failure. If you do fail, fail fast.
  • Create space for people to learn from each other, and push people to realize the potential in those around them.
  • And most importantly, open up funding streams for riskier ventures, from non-traditional leaders, if you really want to see new ideas for change.

We also spoke to young feminist activists and grassroots organizations around the world, including in Tunisia, Zambia, the US, and South Africa as well as more established women’s rights and feminist organizations in the UK and Lebanon. Here’s some of what we Paper doll graffiti in a public street - Romeheard:

  • Young women have great ideas for creating change, but they’re struggling to find funds, access and the network to get their ideas off the ground. In one design session in Beirut last month, a young activist trialing exciting new work told us that the only two funders globally whose criteria she fit were already in the room – Global Fund for Women and FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund.
  • New technologies – especially cell phones and social networking sites like Facebook- are hugely advantageous, but are also creating risks (of increased government surveillance, trolling or privacy violations).
  • In most parts of the world, established women’s rights organizations, are struggling to cover basic operating costs. The average women’s rights organization has a median annual income of US$20,000. This leaves little room for trying and testing new things, or for creating space for a new generation of leaders.
  • Young women told us they have struggled to connect with the networks and contacts it would take to mobilize their ideas because they didn’t know who to talk to, or didn’t think their ideas would be taken seriously.
  • Young women activists said they felt left out by the existing women’s rights organizations, and some young women felt included but marginalized because of their age and inexperience.
  • Younger women want to learn from the generation of women activists who came before them, and they want to share what they know and the challenges they’re facing that are unique to their generation, but there are too few opportunities for that exchange.
  • Many established women’s rights organizations want to connect with younger women activists, particularly around employing social media and engaging young women in campaigns and policy influencing efforts.

Roots Lab timelineOur conclusion? If you bring people and organizations from across different sectors together (one of the drivers of social innovation) applying a feminist approach means doing so in a way that recognizes and accounts for the intersectional identities and power inequalities that exist in the room. This means providing redress, in the form of naming power dynamics explicitly and creating more space for those with less power to speak and be heard. Otherwise the people who come to the space with the most power (due to their race, gender, class, privilege, ability, age or status) can easily dominate the space – often unknowingly.  That is likely to mean that the innovation itself reflects the privilege of those who create it. The history of gender and development can help us predict that if social innovation doesn’t challenge global patriarchal norms that say men have and hold the most power, access to, and control over resources, gendered inequality will be perpetuated.

But there are real challenges to getting young feminist activists and social innovators to work together, especially when the latter come from the private sector. Taking money from a corporate funder risks activists seeing their messages or brand co-opted by the corporate donor. But staying ‘clean’ may also mean staying marginal, and losing out on access to funding and influence in networks.

An important caveat, however, is that funding or supporting feminist innovation shouldn’t come at the expense of funding existing feminist or women’s rights work; it should be in addition to increased core support. Innovation isn’t always the answer, and often feminist organizations already know what works – they just don’t have the available resources at their disposal. Compelling organizations to take up innovation (through persuasion or by dangling funds) is not in line with feminist approaches to development as it means that those who receive the funds aren’t themselves defining the agenda. Feminist organizations and those who fund them can build more space for innovation within feminist spaces by opening up new funding streams and building on existing ones, and investing in dedicated feminist innovation spaces. We hope the Roots Lab will be one of them.

Chloe Safier is an independent gender and women’s rights consultant who worked as the Program Design Lead for The Roots Lab. Follow her work at @chloelenas or chloesafier.com

For further information about The Roots Lab, see here or contact Emily Brown at Oxfam embrown@oxfam.org.uk.

The Roots Lab in Lebanon has been made possible with the generous support of The Open Society Foundations, ShineMaker Foundation and Oxfam.