Over decades much attention has been devoted to the relationship between foreign aid and economic growth, while few studies have focused on the effects of foreign aid on female empowerment. This despite the fact that empowerment of girls and women is a key driver of development, and often an explicit objective of foreign aid. Using geo-coded data on aid project placement and household-level survey responses, Perrotta Berlin, Bonnier and Olofsgård (2023), show that foreign aid has a modest but robust effect on several dimensions of female empowerment. This is the case for both aid in general and gender-targeted aid, highlighting the potential of foreign aid to reduce gender inequalities. It is also found, though, that the impact is contingent on the context, and that there can even be a backlash in male attitudes towards female empowerment in more traditional communities.
The donor community has long been invested in the empowerment of women and girls, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development also includes gender equality as an explicit goal. Yet surprisingly little quantitative research has tried to make a broader assessment of the effect of foreign aid on gender equality measures.
This policy brief summarises a study by Perrotta Berlin, Bonnier and Olofsgård (2023) which addresses this question by matching the location of aid projects with geo-coded household surveys in Malawi between 2004 and 2010. Analysing the community-level impact on five different female empowerment indices, the study finds foreign aid to affect positively women’s empowerment across several dimensions. Furthermore, the authors find that gender-targeted aid has an additional impact on an index measuring women’s control over sexuality and fertility-related decisions and an index focusing on violence against women.
When considering areas with patrilineal land inheritance traditions, the results however partly shift, especially in relation to men’s attitudes. This implies that the success of foreign aid and gender-targeted aid in reducing gender inequalities may be conditional on the community context.
Gender Equality and Foreign Aid in Malawi
Malawi is highly dependent on foreign aid. Net official development assistance (ODA) has exceeded 10 percent of gross national income yearly since 1975, reaching as high as 23.5 percent in 2016 (World Bank, WDI database).
In recent years, reforms have been undertaken by the Malawian government to improve gender equality. The minimum legal age of marriage was raised from 15 to 18 through the 2015 Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill, and the 2013 Gender Equality Act strengthened the legislation concerning gender-based violence and included a universal condemnation of all types of gender-based discrimination. Yet, in 2020, Malawi was ranked 116 out of 153 in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report and 172 out of 189 in UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index. An area of concern regards the high rates of child marriage, with 9 percent of girls already married at age 15 and 42 percent by the age of 18. Alongside these numbers, 31 percent of women report to have given birth by the age 18.
Another aspect potentially influencing gender equality is the prevalence of matrilinear land tenure systems, particularly in the southern and central parts of the country (as depicted in Figure 1). While previous research has shown that land ownership empowers women and suggested that property rights affect decision power over key decisions, fertility preferences, age of marriage etc., less research has been devoted to analysing the effects on women’s empowerment outcomes in a matrilinear kinship setting. Some recent literature however suggests women in matrilinear societies have greater say in household decisions – including financial ones – and are less accepting of, as well as exposed to, domestic violence (Lowes, 2021; Djurfeldt et al., 2018).
Figure 1. Intensity of matrilineal tenure in Malawi.
Methodology and Data
For the analysis, the authors make use of geo-coded data on aid projects from the Government of Malawi’s Aid Management Platform (AMP) and match it to household-level data from the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (DHS). The country of Malawi and the period 2004-2010 were chosen in order to maximize data coverage on aid disbursement. Malawi’s AMP covers 80 percent of all aid entering the country during those years, which gives a much more complete picture compared to only focusing on one specific donor.
To identify causal impact, the authors apply a difference-in-differences specification on survey clusters in proximity to aid projects implemented between 2004 and 2010. Proximity was identified as within a 10-kilometer radius from an aid project. Among those, households interviewed in 2004, i.e., prior to the implementation date of any aid project, were considered the control group, and households interviewed in 2010 formed the treatment group. The underlying assumption of parallel pre-treatment trends was confirmed with the use of earlier DHS surveys. The model specification includes individual-level controls (age, ethnicity, household size, a Muslim dummy, years of education and literacy) and also a geographic fixed-effect based on a grid of coordinates.
The analysis distinguishes between the impact of aid in general, and the additional impact of gender-targeted aid. Gender-targeted projects are defined as projects that have any of the words woman, girl, bride, maternal, gender, genital or child, in the title, description or activity list. When estimating the effect of gender-targeted aid the authors control for overall aid intensity in the household’s vicinity. The estimated effect should therefore be interpreted as the additional effect from being exposed to a gender-targeted aid project while keeping the general number of aid projects in the area constant.
Figure 2. Map of aid projects and household clusters from 2004 and 2010 survey waves in Malawi.
To capture female empowerment, the authors make use of thousands of responses to DHS survey waves from 2004 and 2010. From these responses, the authors construct four different indices. Two of these are modelled on indices used in different contexts by Haushofer and Shapiro (2016) and Jayachandran et al. (2023). The former captures experiences of violence together with men’s and women’s attitudes towards violence, and some measures of decision making and control over household resources. The more recent index by Jayachandran et al. (2023) focuses on female agency and includes questions on women’s participation in decisions on large household purchases and daily expenditures, decisions on family visits, and decisions concerning their own healthcare.
To also capture questions related to sexual and fertility preferences, often regarded as measures of female empowerment, the authors construct two additional indices. The women’s attitudes index is based on responses to questions about whether the respondent is able to refuse sexual intercourse with her husband and ask him to use a condom, age at first marriage, and age at first childbirth, among others. The men’s attitudes index is based on questions about whether the respondent thinks it is justified to use violence to force intercourse, if a woman is justified to refuse intercourse, as well as fertility and child spacing preferences. In addition, all four indices are weighted and combined into an aggregated general index.
Considering all aid projects, the authors find that being exposed to an aid project in the 2004 to 2010 window has a significant positive impact on the agency index, the female attitude index and the combined general index (12, 11 and 31 percent of their respective means). When considering gender-targeted aid, the authors found the exposure to at least one such project to increase the women’s attitude index by 7 percent and the general index by 17 percent of their respective means. The impact is present for both a narrower and a wider exposure area, and quite persistent over time.
When breaking down the analysis for areas with matrilineal versus patrilineal land tenure systems the results diverge. In communities where the share of matrilineal ethnic groups exceeds the mean of 73 percent, the results are largely in line with those in the full sample. In patrilineal communities (< 73 percent matrilineal households), the results are however vastly different. Aid projects in general, and gender-targeted aid in particular, affect negatively the men’s attitudes index. In addition, gender-targeted aid seems to have no additional impact on the other indices.
In the paper underlying this brief, the authors study the effect of foreign aid on female empowerment, a frequent but understudied objective often set by donors. Looking at geo-coded aid projects in Malawi, the authors estimated such projects to positively impact girl’s and women’s empowerment across several indices. This is true for aid in general, and for some indices even more so when considering gender-targeted aid. Some of the positive results disappear or even change sign, though, in patrilineal communities, displaying the significance of pre-existing community norms for the effectiveness of development investments. Aid even generates a backlash when it comes to men’s attitudes towards women’s sexual and fertility preferences in these communities.
The takeaway from the study lies in foreign aid’s potential to empower women in targeted communities. This however hinges on pre-existing norms in recipient communities – something that aid donors should be aware of.
The authors emphasize the need for more research to better understand the role of pre-existing norms in the uptake of aid, to distinguish direct effects from aid from potential spillovers, and to understand what type of aid projects deliver the best outcomes in terms of female empowerment.
- Djurfeldt, A. A., E. Hillbom, W. O. Mulwafu, P. Mvula, and G. Djurfeldt. (2018). “The family farms together, the decisions, however are made by the man” -Matrilineal land tenure systems, welfare and decision making in rural Malawi. Land use policy 70, 601-610.
- Haushofer, J. and J. Shapiro. (2016). The short-term impact of unconditional cash transfers to the poor: experimental evidence from Kenya. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 131(4), 1973-2042.
- Jayachandran, S., M. Biradavolu, and J. Cooper. (2023). Using machine learning and qualitative interviews to design a five-question survey module for women’s agency. World Development 161, 106076.
- Lowes, S. (2021). Kinship structure, stress, and the gender gap in competition. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 192, 36-57.
- Perrotta Berlin, M., Bonnier, E., and A. Olofsgård. (2023). Foreign Aid and Female Empowerment. SITE Working Paper Series, No. 62.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
This policy brief presents the evidence on gender biased sex selection (GBSS) in Georgia, giving an overview of the so-called “sex ratio transition” process, and discussing the determinants of GBSS using a demand and supply-side approach. After its independence from the Soviet Union, Georgia started experiencing a significant rise of the sex ratio at birth (SRB) and in 2004 the country had reached one of the highest SRB rates in the world. A traditionally pronounced son preference was further strengthened by deteriorated economic conditions, decrease in fertility and relatively easy and cheap access to technologies for early sex determination and abortion. However, Georgia has managed to reverse and stabilize a skewed SRB rate. Among the factors that might have contributed are the strengthening of the social security system, improved economic conditions, a rise in fertility rates, economic empowerment of women, and the increased cultural influence of Western values. This trend reversal places Georgia in a unique position and may provide valuable insights for other countries who struggle with the same problem.
It is widely recognized that the Caucasus has traditionally been a “male-dominated region,” with a particularly strong son preference. However, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, sex ratios at birth in the Caucasus countries were very close to normal levels.
After independence from the Soviet Union, the SRB started rising immediately in Georgia, reaching 114.1 male births per 100 female births by 1999 (while the biologically normal SRB level is 105 male births per 100 female births). In the early 2000s, SRB peaked and stabilized between 112 and 115 male births per 100 female births for several years. As Figure 1 shows, after reaching historically high levels in 2004, SRB started to decline and finally returned to a normal level by 2016.
Figure 1. Estimated sex ratio at birth in 1990-2016
Source: UNFPA, 2017.
The sex selection here is not discussed as “an archaic practice” in Georgia, but rather a modern reproductive behavior, a rational strategy responding to the surrounding environment – demand and supply factors. Demand-side factors include socio-economic and cultural factors that make having a boy more beneficial for a family and lower the value of girls – leading to son preference. The fertility rate is also accounted as a demand-side factor since low or decreasing fertility can increase incentives to perform selective abortions. As for the supply-side factors, they cover the ease of access to technologies for early sex determination and selective abortion and its cost, as well as the content of the legislation regulating abortion.
Demand side factors
Factors increasing demand
Son preference and a patrilineal system. The traditional Georgian family is patrilineal. Patrilineality, also known as the male line, is a common kinship system in which an individual’s family membership derives from and is recorded through his or her father’s lineage. It generally involves the inheritance of property, rights, names, or titles by persons related through male kin. In such systems, women join their husbands’ families after marriage and are expected to care for their in-laws rather than their parents. Sons are expected to stay with their parents and take care of them. Thus, patrilineal systems make daughters less beneficial and desirable to their parents compared to sons. UNFPA (2017) concludes that the practice of post-marital co-residence with parents is still quite widespread in Georgian society, and this pattern is biased towards the male kin line, downplaying the role of women and their kin. The patrilocal residence (the situation in which a married couple resides with or near the husband’s parents) is more common in villages (more than 90%) than in urban areas (75%). The incidence of patrilocal residence is the lowest in Tbilisi (69%). In general, patrilocal residence decreases with improving economic conditions.
Demographic change – changes in fertility rates. Low or decreased fertility rates (when other factors favorable for GBSS are in place) mean that families are no longer able to ensure the birth of a son through repeated pregnancies. In societies characterized by strong son preference, and with increasing availability of sex detection technologies, couples start to opt for sex selection because they want to avoid additional births of girls, something that contraception cannot alone ensure. Therefore, low fertility acts as a “squeeze factor,” forcing parents to make choices ensuring the desired gender composition of their family.
An inverse relationship between fertility and SRB is observed in Georgia. The first decade of transition to market economy was severe for the country. Reducing household size was one strategy chosen by Georgian families to cope with increased rates of unemployment, deterioration of the social security system and deprivation of basic needs such as water and electricity. The decline of fertility during the years 1990-2003 coincided with increased SRB levels. When fertility started to rebound in 2003, the “squeeze factor” began to vanish, removing pressure on the SRB. At the same time, the SRB started to decline.
The low value of women. In Georgia, women are stereotypically perceived as natural caretakers, whose core responsibilities involve child care and household duties. They are also expected be obedient to their husbands and let them have leading positions in various activities (UNDP 2013). The majority of the population in the country thinks that men should be the ones who are the family’s decision-makers and that they should also be the main breadwinners. According to a 2010 study, 83% of respondents think that men should be the main breadwinners in the family, and 63% believe that they should also be the family’s decision-makers (CRRC, 2010). It is evident that such attitudes and values contribute to decrease the perceived value of girls in society, compared to boys, and add additional stimulus to GBSS.
Factors decreasing demand
The strengthening of state institutions and the social security system. Georgia has experienced a deep transformation of its social, economic and political systems in the last fifteen years. Reforms were carried out in all sectors. Most importantly, the country totally restructured its social security system, which was practically non-existent in Georgia at the beginning of the 1990’s. Currently, Georgian citizens are offered: a) universal pension system, above the subsistence minimum, which provides a flat rate benefit to all elderly; b) social assistance, which represents a monthly subsidy to poor families, is well targeted, and has contributed to reducing poverty (Kits et al. 2015), and (c) a universal health insurance system which covers all people who are uninsured by private companies and softens the burden of health care expenditures for households.
These changes, together with the improved general economic situation in the country, have decreased the role of the family as a buffer institution offering protection and stability (notably through sons), and provided more formal alternatives for social security, bank loans, contractual employment, etc. Due to this, the (large) intergenerational family is no longer perceived as the only strategy for coping with social and financial uncertainty.
New cultural influence of Western values. From the early 2000s, Georgia has been increasingly exposed to Western norms and culture through media, migration, increased tourism, and the process of economic integration with the European Union. According to experts, this process was accompanied by “media support and an enthusiastic, quasi-propagandistic hail. The general spirit was to promote an image of Georgia as a country open to the world with West-European views and lifestyles” (UNFPA 2017).
Supply side factors
While the availability of technologies for the early determination of sex and for abortion is not the root cause of GBSS, it constitutes a facilitating supply factor. Without prenatal diagnostics and accessibility of abortion, parents would not be able to resort to selective abortions even if they had a pronounced preference for boys.
Currently, Georgia is among the countries offering high-tech reproductive services. Private clinics, hospitals, and special reproductive medicine centers compete to supply reproductive services, and one can easily see the most recent ultrasound technologies in the great majority of the urban facilities. In addition, the cost of an ultrasound test is extremely low, depending on the service provider. This represents only 1.9%-4.8% of the average monthly incomes per Georgian household. In this context, the GBSS-related demand for prenatal diagnostics can easily be accommodated, when it arises.
Georgia has had a unique experience of “sex ratio transition” in the region, which was an integral part of its overall transformation process. The deteriorated social and economic conditions of households following the beginning of the transition process, coupled with easier and cheaper access to prenatal diagnostics were reflected in a skewed SRB and manifested son preference. Only when socio-economic conditions improved, and the country accelerated its institutional strengthening and modernization process, did the SRB returned to its normal level.
It is too early to conclusively state that Georgia is back to normal SRB levels for good. Birth masculinity still remains at a high level i) for third-order births, as the most of the couples are reluctant to have more than three children, and giving birth to a third child is the last chance for families to have a boy; ii) there is a significant urban-rural divide in the context of birth order. For three or higher order births, SRB is significantly distant from normal levels for almost all regions, reaching beyond 145, while in Tbilisi the bias remains moderate; iii) gender-biased sex selection remains high among poor people and ethnic minorities.
If Georgia is to minimize the incidence of GBSS in the future, it needs to act on several fronts: enhance gender equality through qualitative research and civic activism; increase the perceived value of girls and women in the society through policies and initiatives addressing cultural stereotypes, as well as by publicizing illuminated stories of success of girls and women that provide positive role models; monitor SRB trends; support advocacy actions and awareness-raising campaigns on GBSS and encourage the ethical use of sex detection technologies.
- CRRC, 2010. “Caucasus Barometer”. CRRC, Tbilisi
- Kits, Barbara Viony; Santos, Indhira Vanessa; Isik-Dikmelik, Aylin; Smith, Owen K.. 2015. “The impact of targeted social assistance on labor market in Georgia: a regression discontinuity approach”. Washington, D.C. World Bank Group.
- UNDP, 2013. ”Public Perceptions on Gender Equality in Politics and Business”. UNDP, Tbilisi.
- UNFPA, 2017. “Trends in the Sex Ratio at Birth in Georgia – An Overview Based on the 2014 General Population Census Data”. Tbilisi, Georgia: Geostat; UNFPA.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.