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Abstract

A growing trend of the last 20 years within the international development community is the budding focus on “women’s empowerment.” States, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and supranational organizations – such as the United Nations and the World Bank, have directed development initiatives toward women, most notably emphasizing income-generating and market-based projects as vehicles of economic and social empowerment. This paper argues that a concentration on women’s entrepreneurship as a major development mechanism is potentially flawed, particularly when the enterprises generate products that are dependent on the ebbs and flows of the global market and fluctuating tastes of consumers in the Global North. This investigation will examine the sustainability of market-based women’s empowerment mechanisms and poverty alleviation initiatives, focusing on social enterprises generating “niche products.” It will compare two globally popular cosmetic products as case studies: argan oil, produced primarily in Morocco, and shea butter, produced in West Africa – specifically Ghana and Burkina Faso.

In exploring the implications of social enterprises for women’s economic empowerment, it is necessary to first contextualize shea and argan gendered production processes and examine the transition from a locally essential raw material to a luxury cosmetic product demanded by wealthy consumers all over the world. We must then describe the “neoliberal development paradigm,” a concept encouraging development initiatives rooted in ideals of individualism and entrepreneurial spirit. Situating shea butter and argan oil production and consumption within this paradigm will catalyze three things. First, this analysis looks at quantitative economic data, focusing on local household returns to income and wealth in the wake of the argan and shea booms to quantitatively corroborate (or disprove) the notions of success dominating discourse on market-based development projects. Second, it constructs a theoretical framework that critiques the paradigm from feminist and sociological perspectives, elucidating the power dynamics and inequality between producers and consumers of argan and shea. Finally, this paper compares those empirical findings and qualitative critiques to anecdotes collected on the ground from Marjana Cooperative members. These independent analyses taken together will allow exploration of an important debate dominating development discourse: whether short-term material benefits are provided by market-based initiatives, and if so, whether these benefits outweigh long-term structural weaknesses of such initiatives.

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