Aasha Pai is a freelance consultant in global health strategy and market analysis and capacity-building for social purpose organisations. She has over 20 years of experience working for nonprofit organisations and social enterprises with a focus on sexual and reproductive health and gender equity. She is Co-Chair of EMpower’s Hong Kong Board of Directors. Recently she spoke with EMpower’s President & CEO Cynthia Steele about new directions in the field, priorities for young people today, and more.
I’m curious to see what are some of the biggest changes that you’ve observed over your 10-year journey with EMpower?
When I joined EMpower, I felt there was already a really solid organisation with a clear mission, with great staff. That’s why I got involved. But if you think about where we were then to where we are now, it’s been such a great evolution. I think in so many ways, organisational capacity has really jumped up several levels in terms of sophistication. The staffing reach has increased globally—we only had one person in Asia at the time. We still have a small office, but it’s become this hub, it’s become a true regional office.
Across the organisation, there’s been so much development in terms of policies and systems, and things that have enabled us to have the tremendous growth that we’ve had. Along the way, we’ve been very intentional about putting those things in place so that we could grow, so we could attract more people, attract more supporters and that’s all been happening at pace these last 10 years. I think other ways that we’ve changed is that our strategy has become a lot more focused on what we do and why we do it. And the programming itself has also really grown leaps and bounds in terms of what we’re doing, for example our participatory work with adolescent girls, more integration work across pillars, and inclusion of mental health.
What are the directions that we’re working on that you’re most excited about for the future?
The first one that comes to mind is how we work with our grantee partners, and developing those very deep, long-lasting relationships—that is what attracted me to EMpower in the first place. We are working with organisations over time, it’s not just a one year or transactional type of relationship, it is working closely with them. And this is really important, especially now as everyone in our sector is talking about how we should be working more with local organisations.EMpower has been doing that from the beginning. We don’t need to put a spin on how we work; we’ve already been working with organisations that are rooted in the communities. I do think that has also very much intensified over time. I’m excited to see that we’re doing that.
Then specifically, we’re taking up recommendations around having more multi-year grants, working with partners in more flexible ways, and that’s done so well under COVID in terms of our being able to be really responsive to what people need and want. Another thing is looking at not just what we do in and of itself, the programmes, but looking to build the field, the whole sector. Over the last 10 years—as we’ve gone from primarily grantmaking, to more thought leadership, providing technical support, doing learning exchanges, and working very closely with other organisations—we’re really punching way above our weight. I think we always have done so, but that has increased exponentially.
I was thinking about all the countries that you’ve visited with EMpower over this time. What stands out to you when you think about some of the commonalities or the common threads among our grantee partners?
The first one is that so many of them are trailblazers. They’re doing work that nobody else is doing. If you think about Roots of Health: they’re the only ones in Palawan [Philippines] working on sexual and reproductive health in really conservative communities. Back in the day, you had Susan, the founder, driving around with condoms in the back of her car, ready at any time to do a condom demonstration! This work hasn’t been done by anybody else there.
There are other examples. In India, you have Azad Foundation training women to be taxi drivers. This is really groundbreaking in many ways.
I would also say that the quality of leaders and managers in these organisations is very, very strong. And it isn’t just the director of the organisation, you also see strong programme managers or strong other members of staff in the organisation, which is why they are successful in what they’re doing. It isn’t just a one-person show. Of course, our work is to further develop the strength of these organisations so that they can be more sustainable.
And how about the young people that you’ve met, what stands out to you about them?
What’s striking to me with the young people who are participants in EMpower programmes is the sense of belonging that you see with them. They don’t just appear as young people who are benefiting from a particular project; they’re really part of that organisation. And it’s because those organisations are in the community, and they know their families; they see these young people holistically.
I know you care very deeply about girls and young women, and you’ve been a champion for those rights. And I’m curious to know, what inspires you about EMpower’s leadership in this area?
When I first heard about EMpower, what resonated the most with me was that focus around girls and young women and their opportunities. It wasn’t just about: let’s do programmes for girls and young women. It was very much about: let’s look at gender, let’s look at power relations, let’s look at the root causes as to why there are these inequalities. How do we remove those barriers so that young people can actually get an education and do all the things they want to do?
It’s been very powerful to see the different ways in which we’re approaching that through the programmes. I think the leadership has been very strong, and particularly in my area: sexual and reproductive health. I’ve been so pleased to see how this has been very prominent in the portfolio from the beginning, but also how this has been integrated into our other programming pillars. EMpower is seeing the fact that all of these are interrelated. And that, if girls and young women can decide if and when they want to have children, then they can stay in school, they can have the chance to do what they want to do in terms of their livelihoods. All of these things are connected, and that’s what I really appreciate about the way that EMpower works on these issues.
What else do you think we ought to be doing? What more would you like to see us be doing in this area?
This whole idea of sexual and reproductive health self-care is really important when it comes to young people and to think in different ways about how we can supply what young people are demanding in the ways and in the places that they need and want it. So that it becomes more in their hands, and it isn’t just about doctors and nurses having to give them these services. But them being able to go to a community center, go to a local drugstore (maybe one in a far-away village where no one knows them), in ways that they want to access these services. There are a lot of interesting movements happening with that—whether it’s community-based organisations, hotlines, or advocacy. We’re working on this to some extent, but we could be more intentional and do more in this particular area.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I want to say to donors and supporters that when you’re funding EMpower—fortunately, because of the generous underwriters we have—you’re funding all this work directly. You aren’t just funding projects, you aren’t just funding particular grants, you’re funding a whole system of learning. You’re investing in platforms, and you’re investing in movements, as all of our grantee partners are working so hard for social justice.
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