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Gender equality as smart economics?

I was recently sent a fantastic article by Sylvia Chant (former Prof. of mine from the LSE) and Caroline Sweetman titled ‘fixing women or fixing the world? ‘smart economics’, efficiency approaches and gender equality in development’. This article can be found in the gender and development journal here. It really struck a cord, for reasons that will become obvious, and although this for me is not a new discussion, it’s worth highlighting for those who might think all ‘girl advocates’ speak with one enthusiastic voice in support of investing in girls.

Chant and Sweetman take on the ‘girl agenda’ and ask whether the new interest in investing in girls as a route towards poverty reduction is simply ‘Women in Development’ (WID) in a different guise. For those unfamiliar with the history of gender/development, here is a brief explanation:

WOMEN IN DEVELOPMENT (WID):

Dates to the early 1970’s. Height of WID was during the UN Decade for Women (1975-1985). Was concerned with women’s ‘predicament’ in developing regions. Fuelled by growing academic research on the ‘gender blindness’ in development. Focuses on women as a group in their own right. Women were seen as an ‘untapped’ force in economic growth. Emphasis was on integrating women into development. This provoked the creation of national machineries, bureaus, units, programs and departments within States.
PROs: 1st time resources apportioned to women’s development; more women than ever ‘infiltrating’ international development system; potential for creating awareness of gender inequality in development planning.
CONs: concentrated exclusively on women; essentialized women as a single group; sex was highlighted above all other identity categories; women’s concerns only ‘added in’ to mainstream development projects; not about changing gender relations and ideology; led to tokensim, marginalisation and ghettoisation of women’s efforts and concerns; rising resistance from women in the global South who saw WID as an imposition of neo-colonial development strategies that prioritised external interests.

GENDER AND DEVELOPMENT (GAD):

Evolved out of WID, beginning around the 1995 Beijing Conference. Basic theoretical premise is that gender identity is a dynamic and social construct shaped by time, place, age, class, ‘race,’ etc. Understands a unilateral focus on women as inappropriate and non-transformative. The focus is now on gender relations rather than women. Short term-goals are similar to WID: improved education, access to credit, legal rights. But long-term goals are very different: structural shifts in male-female power relations; empowering women through collective action; challenging gender ideologies and institutions that subordinate women.

So what happened after GAD became popular, i.e. from 1995 onward? According to Chant and Sweetman the World Bank comes out with a new report that lauds women’s ability to withstand economic crises and other emergencies (see here). In other words, the policy powers that be realize that women can act as cushions for the fallout of neoliberal restructuring. This adds to the emerging evidence of the social goods that can be gained in terms of reduced fertility and children’s health outcomes as a result of investing in women directly. The WB follows this publication up with a later Gender Action Plan and Global Monitoring Report that depict ‘gender equality itself as smart economics, in that it enables women to contribute their utmost skills and energies to the project of world economic development’. Chant and Sweetman site the Girl Effect campaign as taking these messages to a whole new level by ‘proposing that once these investments are made girls will ‘do the rest’, ‘change the course of history’ and safeguard the ‘future of humanity’.

Now look back at the WID summary.
concentrated exclusively on women (read girls) = check
essentialized women (girls) as a single group = check
sex was highlighted above all other identity categories = check
not about changing gender relations and ideology = check

Basically Chant and Sweetman argue that women and girls are working for development, again (check out an older version of this argument from the fantastic Rosalind Eyben). or in their words: ‘Smart economics seeks to use women and girls to fix the world’. I think they make another important point in this context, which relates to the last part about WID being unconcerned with changing gender relations, that there is a risk that this instrumentalist messaging will overestimate ‘what women are capable of in a global order characterized by ongoing gender bias and structural barriers to their capabilities’. Which means detaching the messaging of investing in girls from the feminist project of transforming the laws, policies and practices which have so far kept women and girls oppressed will not lead to women and girls’ empowerment.

Now that we have thoroughly taken the ‘invest in girls’ agenda out back and set it on fire, let us take a moment to put all this in perspective. Firstly, for those who decide to read the article in full, you’ll note the authors mention the ‘because i am a girl’ report series which i coordinated for a good number of years as an example of how INGO’s have taken up this call for gender equality as smart economics. And to some extent public campaign messaging has been toeing this popular line. However, research, analysis and certainly programming has stuck to GAD quite faithfully, in part due to Plan’s commitment to rights based programming which inherently means tackling gender inequality holistically to remove barriers to the realization of rights.

But this isn’t a manifesto in the defense of any one organization. In fact, the disturbingly instrumentalist, or efficiency-led, approach to girls’ empowerment has been at the forefront of my blogging endevours for a while. see here for a three year old blog post lamenting the language used at the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative meetings. They quite clearly leveled the discussion at the private sector and World Bank type donors stating their sessions focused on ‘adolescent girls, the most underutilized resources in the world today’. At the time, i felt this was letting duty bearers off the hook. almost three years later, im worried it will lead to an epic fail. and if so, will the backlash and disappointment move the policy discussion away from girls altogether? when they are unable to deliver on the expectation that they ‘move their community and country’ out of poverty, will the trickle of funding dry up altogether?

Some will argue that we should engage in ‘strategic essentialism‘, which is an important concept that means strategically using a heterogenous category like ‘girls’ in a homogenous way for a political end. If donors are pouring millions into education systems to ensure girls receive basic schooling, does it really matter that they are motivated by a reductionist approach to ‘girls’, an instrumentalist argument and 20 year old data?

I can’t answer that. but I would quote Chant and Sweetman again when they say: ‘structural discrimination constrains the agency of women and girls and presents them with insurmountable obstacles, despite their best efforts to advance their own interests and meet their own needs…what is needed is a gender and development approach which recognizes inequality as a relational issue, and which recognizes the equal rights of all women and girls – regardless of age, or the extent or nature of their economic contribution’.

Keshet Bachan

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