I recently delivered an academic paper, with co-author Dr. Richard Ledet, at Ft. Leavenworth’s Command General Staff College’s, 2016 Ethics Symposium. The paper discussed the ethical pitfalls of female empowerment and engagement in conflict zones.
As I talked to people about the paper, one question consistently came up that surprised me. “Which women are we talking about? Our or theirs?” For clarity, we’re discussing the host nation females who reside in the conflicted country. It’s illustrative that our current perception of male/female inequality is such that we need to clarify which population of women need empowerment.
This point of confusion goes to the larger idea of our paper. It’s an enormous challenge to achieve a policy level goal when our own internal struggle to create equality is constantly in question. Further, if we have enough doubt in our own female empowerment capabilities, how are we supposed to accomplish the same goals in a place where instability is the norm?
These are big hairy cultural, social and religious problems that demand an enormous amount of context and trust to create the proper affect and effect on the ground. That sentence needs to be broken down further:
Creating female empowerment, in conflict zones requires a different culture than the one the military uses. Frankly, commanders are not incented to adopt, nor should they be, the necessary cultural norms that foster female empowerment. Commanders are looking at a bigger picture. While the requirement to achieve empowerment/equality may be ethical, that leader must first ensure the survival of his unit over the empowerment of local female residents.
The social roles of females in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan are very different from our own. Further the lethality of daily life in these counties creates a more conservative population. These differences in societal demands matter, and are only understood through direct, deliberate engagement with the male leaders of the region.
In conflict zones, the ground truth is, the male leaders represent the government for the population. We, because of our stability, view the government as the provider of security, etc. We put our effort into improving the government’s capacity, but that’s only true for us and not our partner. This view isn’t shared by our host nation elders. If we intend to change the empowerment of females, we must first understand what is normal for them, and what they “want” to do before we can hope improve their lives.
In most other countries, religion effects daily life at a much higher level than in ours. Again, we cannot force our norms on others and expect positive results. Disregarding religion or assuming one can simply use religion as a tool will net chaotic and negative results…which ultimately drives instability.
To successfully exploit these three elements: culture, social and religion; one must gather context to understand where the sweet spots are for achieving goals.
Before one can gather quality context, rapport and then trust must be established and tested. Only when a verified trust is achieved can the necessary context be gathered and analyzed.
Our culture in the US is to “do.” We extend trust on credit and make assumptions about others based upon our own internal success and good fortune. In business and in war context and trust are the foundation for achieving outcomes. The elements of culture, social and religious norms provide the unique answers that lead to success in endeavors like female empowerment.
Achieving big things is possible…but the path drawn out above is where the work begins. Hack that path if you dare, but don’t be surprised if your results, when measured externally, betray your intentions.