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The Pathways of Women’s Empowerment research programme promoted academic exchange among the Consortium’s partners by supporting a limited number of internships of IDS MA students at partners’ offices. Sara Callegari, an IDS student reading for a MA in Gender and Development, was awarded a grant to conduct research at the Social Research Centre of the American University in Cairo in July 2007. Thanks to the grant, Sara spent a month in Cairo, researching on gender myths which influence the development practice of microcredit in Egypt.

In Cairo, Sara was supported by Hania Sholkamy, the convenor of the Middle East Hub, and the staff of the SRC. Sara conducted interviews with seventeen medium and high level practitioners working in the design and delivery of microcredit in Cairo, belonging to six local NGOs, one international NGO, four international development agencies, two local and international consultancies, one bilateral donor, a governmental organization and a research institute. Her final dissertation, conducted under the supervision of Professor Naila Kabeer, is entitled ‘The tyranny of replicability: myths and discourses around empowerment in Egypt’.

It analyses perspectives and practices and the pervasiveness and consequences of gender myths around women’s empowerment and microcredit. Microcredit is often presented by the development industry as the magic bullet which can bring about women’s empowerment. The dissertation argues, drawing on primary qualitative research, that the “magic” microcredit-empowerment relationship relies on myths.

The Egyptian microcredit sector seems to be vulnerable to three sets of tyrannies. Firstly, the tyranny of the Grameen model imposed on the Egyptian microcredit sector, despite it being not backed by appropriate impact assessment, thus overlooking cultural specificities and potential local constraints. Secondly, the tyranny of discourses has “monetarised” empowerment, limiting it to the economic realm and depriving it of its cognitive essence. It has also individualised it, downsizing empowerment to a process of mere self-enhancement rather than of structural power re-distribution. Lastly, the tyranny of interpretation has standardised female beneficiaries into non-threatening categories, ghettoising and objectifying them.

The dissertation concludes that the sum of these tyrannies threatens the efficacy of microcredit. If it is to offer sustainable development, it needs to be packaged and sifted of gender and operational myths which in fact neutralise the transformatory potential of empowerment. Sustainable microcredit needs to be inclusive to strategies that acknowledge the multidimensional, structural and collective essence that lies within the idea of empowerment. Microcredit possesses big potential for development if packaged and demystified.

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