For Farha Tahir, gender analysis is the key to helping impoverished communities, even those she has never visited. "Good international development policy must consider the different roles men and women play in the communities the policy seeks to help," the La Follette School student says.
After graduating in 2010, Farha Tahir became program coordinator and research associate of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. She later joined CSIS's Africa Program.
"If women are empowered economically, their countries are likely to do better, and because poverty disproportionately affects women, it's critical that we pay special attention to offering increased opportunity for them," Tahir says. "However, this approach does not mean ignoring men."
Tahir has been applying this philosophy for nearly two years through EDGE Project (Empowerment through Development and Gender Equality), a student organization that she, fellow La Follette student Marissa Mommaerts and 2009 University of Wisconsin–Madison graduate Michelle Mazzeo started in December 2007 after participating in the campus' Division of International Studies' Washington, D.C., Semester in International Affairs.
EDGE facilitates student engagement in sustainable international development, project management, leadership and the realities of life in developing nations by connecting students with the resources necessary to research, create and implement community development projects.
EDGE sent Mommaerts and 11 other students to Lingira, Uganda, a marginalized island community in Lake Victoria in summer 2009. They conducted primary and secondary education classes and helped to create a farmers association. They launched a family planning initiative and constructed a grain mill to lower food costs.
To empower women while involving men in the community development process, EDGE started two more projects: an income-generating craft co-op and a girls soccer team. "The craft co-op is led by a male art teacher, and the coaches for the girls soccer teams are males," Tahir says. "Incorporating men into the work we do with women is important, so men recognize the importance of women and so they all work together toward a more positive society."
International aid and governance are the focus of Tahir's studies as she pursues a master's degree in international public affairs. She entered La Follette as an accelerated student, completing her bachelor's degree in 2009. The accelerated program allows admitted, eligible undergraduates to begin taking courses at La Follette toward earning a master's degree in domestic or international public affairs with a fifth year of study.
Tahir spent the summer in Washington, D.C., where she was a global development policy intern with Women Thrive Worldwide, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the incorporation of gender into U.S. foreign policy. She researched foreign assistance reform, economic development, microfinance, gender mainstreaming and gender-based violence to help the agency advocate for appropriate assessment of the roles and responsibilities of men and women so that the impacts of policies are understood holistically.
"I wrote a lot of briefs and memos, helped draft advocacy materials, analyzed different versions of legislation and prepared meeting items for meetings with Congress, the U.S. State Department and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a foreign aid agency Congress created in 2004," Tahir says. "I also went to congressional hearings and coalition meetings to find out more about our issues and worked on appropriations and budget materials."
After graduating from La Follette, Tahir hopes to work for a think tank or consulting firm that addresses international development and policy about governance issues.
She also hopes to travel to Lingira for the first time. "I would definitely like to go as soon as possible," she says.
"My whole field really deals with helping communities that I'm not part of or have ever been to," she says. "My impulse toward international development really comes from feeling fortunate for the luxuries that we have in the U.S. and wanting to offer similar opportunities for everyone. On a very basic intrinsic human level, I feel connected to the people and their stories."
"I feel like Lingira has become a part of me," Tahir says. "I know so much about it and have heard so much about the community that I would like to be able to put faces with the stories and the names."
UW-Madison students foster community development on island in Uganda, November 12, 2009, University of Wisconsin–Madison News
Student to represent development organization at forum in Kenya, August 4, 2009, La Follette School News
—updated January 14, 2013