Investing in poor women helps them earn more, but does it 'empower' them?

Columbia political scientist and aid blogger extraordinaire Chris Blattman discusses the results of a recent study that he and several other researchers carried out along with the NGO AVSI Uganda, looking at the impact of small grants on some of the world's poorest women. Despite the claims of many charities and microfinance outfits, evidence for the effectiveness of aid for female entrepreneurs is mixed at best, particularly when these programs have been tested with more methodologically rigorous randomized control trials. 

In this experiment, the intervention was pretty simple:

AVSI identified the 15 poorest and most vulnerable women in 120 villages that they wanted to support - 1800 in all. To each, they delivered WINGS’ three core components:
1.       Four days of business skills training (BST)
2.       An individual start-up grant of roughly $150
3.       Regular follow-up by trained community workers

Sixty villages were helped right away and 60 were helped 18 months later, giving the researchers the opportunity to analyze the impact over the gap period. The region in which the study was conducted has been devastated by violence and the women studied had an average monthly income of around $11.

The economic results were dramatic: 

Cash Earnings: Earnings nearly doubled. For the average WINGS beneficiary, monthly cash income increased by UGX 16,211 to 32,692 UGX, a 98% increase over controls. In absolute terms, an increase of UGX 16,211 does not seem large (about $6.50 a month at market exchange rates). However, relative to the average income in the control group, UGX 16,481 ($6.60), it is huge.

Participants also saw a 33 percent increase in household spending.

Why was this program more successful than othes have been? Blattman suspects it's because "it mattered that these women weren’t already entrepreneurs, that they were given cash, and that they weren’t confined to cows or tailoring training or other things we think are good for them."

But on the trickier question of whether entrepreneurship "empowers" women, the results were more mixed:

Empowerment: The conventional wisdom also assumes that lending to women will enhance their status in the household. Data from this study, however, showed no evidence of resulting empowerment for women in household decision-making, independence, gender attitudes, or rates of intimate partner violence. This pattern has been seen before, and is often referred to as the “impact-paradox.” 

There was also little impact observed on the physical or mental health of the women or that of their children. 

Folks more knowledgable about this than me are already weighing in on the implications of this, but I wonder if 18 months might be too short a time to expect the kind of non-economic impacts the researchers were looking at. As several observers have also pointed out this week in looking at a study on the impact of medicaid in the United States, it can be difficult to observe divergent health outcomes over a short period of time. In an average year, a typical person's health just doesn't fluctuate that much no matter their lifestyle or medical care. With something as entrenched as gender relations, it seems like it might take even looking to see a noticeable change, even with women becoming breadwinners.