The E.M.P.O.W.E.R. Initiative


Education and Microcredit for Poor Women in Endemic Regions


By J. Wes Ulm, MD, PhD





The E.M.P.O.W.E.R. initiative represents a systematic, coordinated effort to rapidly enhance sustainable development on a global scale.  It focuses on cost-effective and widespread improvements in an area with the most consistent, demonstrated causal link to optimal community health and sustained economic gains in poor societies: provision of the means for girls and young women to improve their station, decide their own futures, and acquire a stronger say in the direction of their towns and villages.  E.M.P.O.W.E.R. provides an efficient, targeted strategy to establish the social structures that open such opportunities, focusing on innovative steps to supply relevant basic education and facilitate access to streamlined microcredit sources.  By emphasizing the growth and maintenance of local networks, gains can be sustained even in the face of adverse social and economic circumstances—while fostering “islands of stability” that spread the knowhow and experience of local volunteers to adjacent localities with or without the direct input of E.M.P.O.W.E.R. participants themselves.  I first conceived and outlined E.M.P.O.W.E.R. in 2004 while in medical school, and have since been exploring approaches toward concrete implementation.  This document furnishes a brief (two-page) introduction to the initiative, intended both as a general description and an invitation to potential partners to join in this crucial effort.




            From the perspective of global health, economics, environmental planning, and technology policy, the most important challenge facing the world in the near future is achieving sustainable development: economic advancement and improved per capita standard of living, managed in the context of sufficient equilibrium with a region’s ecology to make the gains sustainable.  Given the current circumstances of increasing resource scarcity in the face of a still-rapidly growing global population, the need for more innovative and efficacious action in this area has become unquestionably urgent.  Many proposals have been offered to better facilitate sustainable development, but the most high-yield and cost-effective route addresses an issue that may seem peripheral at first glance yet is, in fact, instrumental to fostering the societal advances that make such development possible: Systematically providing girls and young women in poor regions with the tools to increase their say and impact in the structure of the community, and in deciding their own futures. 

Community health and sustainable development have a symbiotic, recursive relationship through which gains in one area tend to reinforce improvements in the other, and vice versa.  Thus, the foregoing aim is closely related to the health of a society’s women, and in turn—due to women’s pivotal roles in raising the next generation and tending to the overall well-being of towns and villages—the overall health and ecology of a given community.  To rapidly expedite the desired results, E.M.P.O.W.E.R. focuses on implementing two proven, highly cost-effective strategies to endow women with the tools necessary to improve their positions and take control of their futures: Improved basic education and streamlined, targeted microcredit pools that reach the areas of greatest need.  Incremental gains in these areas, even in the face of chronic political instability and widespread poverty, are both well-retained and efficiently disseminated, since they tend to foster “islands of stability” and local networks of women leaders who, in turn, are able to assist their neighboring communities. 


Outline of the Initiative


E.M.P.O.W.E.R. stands out for its cost-effectiveness and potential high yield, even with modest initial investment by governments and non-governmental organizations. 

1. The basic objectives of the plan—the focus on systematic provision of pertinent education and microcredit pools, and their natural linkage to improved community health—are uncontroversial and welcomed across diverse societies, as a valuable contributor to human rights.  The chief aim of the initiative is to systematize and optimize these efforts and, equally important, to concentrate resources and policymakers’ awareness on the centrality of its objectives, as a cornerstone of sustainable development. 

2. The initiative would commence with pilot projects in a few selected regions of the developing world.  The “endemic” within the initiative’s acronym refers to both chronic poverty itself, and the communicable diseases that accompany such conditions and exacerbate them in a self-reinforcing vicious cycle: HIV, malaria, and polio in particular.  This devastating feedback loop, as discussed before, is amplified further by lack of education and decision-making power for girls and young women, and E.M.P.O.W.E.R. in such regions represents a concerted attempt to break the vicious cycle.

3. Crucial to the E.M.P.O.W.E.R. effort is fostering “collective intelligence” and “emergent intelligent networks,” to borrow the interdisciplinary lingo as used in AI and related network organization fields.  For dynamic communication networks with a “bottom-up” structure, this refers to a specific methodology of instituting communication channels to quickly filter, select out, communicate, and amplify useful information and empirical results in real time.  (These principles can be applied equally to low-tech settings as those with rapid data-processing equipment.)  Since the social milieu, needs, and ecosystem will vary from village to village, the particulars of each E.M.P.O.W.E.R. project—from the recruitment drives for local teachers to the distribution channels for microfinance pools—will have to be carefully adapted for each locality.  Nevertheless, data collected from each particular site can be pooled and efficiently applied to modify initial project designs for subsequent sites.

4. Therefore, the overriding structure of the E.M.P.O.W.E.R. initiative is essentially one of “recursive local-global feedback” (i.e., “acting locally and applying globally”).  A solid emphasis is placed on vigorous data collection, pooling, and substantive analysis at each site.  For example, educational projects (conducted in the local language) can yield multiple dimensions of valuable data which, when collected by local volunteers, can be pooled over several weeks to reach statistical significance, and be correlated closely with the specific conditions of the site in question.  Simultaneously, the most useful conclusions can be quickly communicated (in real time) back to the volunteers at the site, while being applied to modify the initial plans for subsequent sites in the region. 


The aims for the E.M.P.O.W.E.R. initiative are global and ambitious, as they must be in the face of perhaps the most acute challenge facing the nations of the world: to grow and develop in a sustainable manner, and thus to protect the health and well-being of their citizens and the surrounding ecosystems.  Nevertheless, the bedrock of this global endeavor consists of rigorous efforts and improvements by motivated local volunteers, the fruit of whose exertions is brought to bear in a worldwide context—an innovative and effective model for changing the world from the grass-roots up.


J. Wes Ulm


A brief résumé/CV can be viewed here.

More detailed plans and schemata for the initiative are available on request.  For further questions, prospective partnerships, collaborations, and so forth, please contact me at the following address (Spambot-protected):

wangzi304 at yahoodotcom



The E.M.P.O.W.E.R. Initiative and associated terms are copyright J. Wes Ulm, MD, PhD, Harvard Medical School and personal Websites, 2004-2014.  All Rights Reserved.