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Empowerment through research: IDRC’s 10th Annual Public Meeting


Empowerment is fundamental to development and to Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, IDRC Chairperson Margaret Biggs told the audience at IDRC’s 2018 Annual Public Meeting on November 20.

“People are empowered when they have the knowledge, resources, and agency they need to make decisions and take actions that can improve their lives and their communities,” Biggs said.

The event in Ottawa provided an opportunity to review highlights from the previous year and priorities for the year ahead.

Putting women and girls at the centre of development

Biggs explained to the audience that gender is taking on greater importance for IDRC and for Canada’s international assistance, which aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals’ commitment to advance economic growth that works for everyone. “For growth to work for everyone, we must take a transformational approach to women’s economic empowerment — one that prioritizes eliminating the structural, social, and political barriers that prevent women from achieving their full and equal economic rights,” Biggs said.

Stories of change

IDRC President Jean Lebel shared stories of change that were made possible through IDRC-supported research. One of these stories is centred on Zipporah Muthoni, who lives in Korogocho, an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya.

Following the birth of her daughter, Muthoni had trouble finding a job while balancing childcare. There were many days that she made the equivalent of about 20 Canadian cents. Her challenge is common, as childcare costs prevent many women from pursuing their economic potential.

Muthoni was among more than 1,200 mothers who participated in a randomized control trial that tested whether improving the affordability and quality of childcare services in poor urban environments increases the participation of women in economic activities.

“The result? Affordable childcare freed many of the women to pursue employment,” Lebel told the audience. “Their earnings increased and so did their savings.”

Muthoni is now working and using childcare. She managed to save enough money to move from a single room to a larger rented house.

The project behind this research was part of the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women program (GrOW), which ended this year. GrOW supported 14 projects related to women’s economic empowerment across 50 countries.

Artificial intelligence rising on the global agenda

Matthew Smith, Acting program leader of IDRC’s Networked Economies program, provided the audience with insights into IDRC’s work on artificial intelligence (AI) and the opportunities and risks it poses for developing countries.

Smith told the audience that the scope for AI benefits in developing countries is large, as AI technologies bring exciting opportunities to help tackle some key challenges facing the world in areas such as education and healthcare. “AI has a role to play in advancing quality education at scale,” Smith said. “For example, AI embedded learning software, such as adaptive educational games and intelligent tutoring systems, can enable high quality personalized learning to anyone with sufficient access to the technology.”

Smith cautioned that there are downsides though. “Unfortunately, it appears that AI is poised to increase inequality and instability in the Global South,” he said. “This is primarily because the current context is one of tremendous inequality — between and within countries, and among different socioeconomic classes, genders, and ethnicities. This inequality will shape AI innovations and who they will benefit or harm.”

Smith added that IDRC is approaching AI in several ways. First, by launching a network of excellence in sub-Saharan Africa that will be the first such network to connect machine-learning researchers across the region with social scientists, ethicists, development actors, policymakers, and sources of funding. Second, IDRC is focused on improving education in developing countries to support citizens who are adaptable, resilient, and prepared to participate in the AI landscape. Third, IDRC is engaging with other like-minded funders to set up an AI for development initiative. “These interventions are not intended as a short-term fix,” Smith said. “Rather, they are the beginning of a long-term plan to build local, individual, and organizational capacity to ensure ethical development and deployment of AI applications for the public good.”

Learn more about IDRC’s results in the 2017-2018 Annual Report.
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