Student Voices

Travel Report: Jennifer W. Johnson, International Studies

November 05, 2015
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Jennifer W. Johnson, a Master's student in International Studies, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award to further her research in Ethiopia. Her report:

I used my GIRTA Summer 2015 to fund two months of fieldwork in Ethiopia to research how the growth of women’s entrepreneurship intersections with changing gender relations in that country. This research constitutes the basis of my thesis for a Master of Arts in International Studies (International Development) in SFU’s School of International Studies.  I used my previous knowledge of Amharic and Ethiopian culture to conduct interviews and ethnographic observations with 23 female small- and medium-enterprise (SME) owners in Addis Ababa, and an additional twenty individuals in the business, NGO, and government sectors.

I landed in Ethiopia with few contacts and just as many “Call me when you get here” notices. An impact investment firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. and Addis Ababa provided me with contact details for several successful women entrepreneurs, and I began making calls. I spoke with the women in my core sample of entrepreneurs about their motivations for running businesses, their goals for their enterprises, and what challenges they faced. Land is expensive, credit is tight, and government regulations are poorly communicated—these problems face all entrepreneurs in Ethiopia. But women SME owners face gender discrimination, too, making each of these problems more challenging. The Ethiopian government and many NGOs have programs to support women entrepreneurs, but not all of their methodologies address the root of the problem: an unequal distribution of power between men and women. In particular, women lag far behind men in their participation in formal and informal business networks. My thesis focuses on programs and other activities that enhance women’s power by expanding their productive social and business networks.

The Human Development Report ranks Ethiopia 173rd out of 187 countries on its Gender Inequality Index; per capita gross national income (GNI) for women in Ethiopia is only two-thirds of GNI for men. Entrepreneurship is widely regarded as the best way to gain wealth and status in Ethiopia, and women entrepreneurs who are successful in their ventures have the potential to become significant role models for successive generations of girls. In a country where women’s educational attainment lags far behind men’s, birth rates remain unsustainably high, and the majority of women live in poverty, a new class of enterprising women leaders may prove to be critical to improving women’s lives nationwide.

A related piece of my research, which focuses on “gender economics” discourses within the foreign policy realm, was accepted to the 2015 Political Discourse Conference hosted at University College of London. I stopped in London on the way to Addis Ababa to present my research there—my first solo presentation at an academic conference. My paper was well received, and I am preparing it for submission to a critical discourse analysis journal.

I have been fortunate enough to have guidance from two esteemed anthropologists of development, Dr. John Harriss and Dr. Elizabeth Cooper, in the development of my thesis, which I will defend in December 2015.

For more information on Jennifer or her research please see her LinkedIn page.

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