Gender and development debates: overlooking diversity

Twenty five years after Gita Sen and Caren Grown made an appeal for development practitioners to use the diversity of feminisms as a starting point to work towards achieving more just societies, Anastasia Chung asks why this appeal is overlooked in gender and development paradigms today

Anastasia Chung
18 November 2013

Twenty five years ago, Sen and Grown published a seminal book entitled Development, Crises and Alternative Visions, exhorting that feminism cannot be based on the monolithic concept of ‘woman’ that overlooks the ‘wide variation in women’s experience’. Their argument is that development analysis should begin with the diversity of feminisms in striving for societies to be free from all forms of oppression. Their vision was for ‘Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era’ or DAWN, as they called their network of Global South feminists. So why is the appeal for diversity of feminisms in development still largely ignored?

I attended a recent workshop celebrating the publication of Aid, NGOs and the realities of women’s lives. Three contributing authors to the book (edited by Wallace and Porter) opened the floor. They shared their concerns of how the imperative to secure funding, provide evidence of “successful” practice (i.e. not anecdotes), and the lack of a multi-sectoral approach can compromise community values and engagement. All the authors emphasised the need for honest dialogue and learning between and within development agencies, communities and donors. And as important as these concerns were, I also noted that I was one of a handful of people of colour, and hesitated to raise the contributions of scholars and feminists of colour such as Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Chandra Mohanty lest I was deemed the ‘race girl’. But it was as if the 1988 publication by DAWN representatives never happened. Perhaps this omission is an instance of the ‘perpetual present’ that David Lewis speaks of in his contributing chapter to the book above, where learning from past experiences is constrained in the development framework. Lewis’s observations may be in regards to high expatriate staff turnover and the ‘new managerialism’ appetite for innovation but are also relevant for dominant gender and development debates today that overlook diversity. I do not consider it useful to attack development professionals and find it more productive to pursue the question of why there is an omission of the variety of feminisms in development in order to isolate some structural factors.

The views of Indigenous scholar Maggie Walter in ‘The urban and regional segregation of indigenous Australians: out of sight, out of mind?’ can be helpful in exploring this question. Walter is not baffled that well-educated urbane Australians constantly (re)discover the poverty experienced by indigenous Australia given that a ‘vast majority of non-Indigenous Australians [91 per cent] do not mix regularly with Aboriginal people’. In a similar way, the non-recognition of the diversity of feminisms in development may be tied to the dominance of white (women) development workers. Another factor may be institutional racism within the Academy, where gender equality efforts precede racial discrimination as author Jack Grove found. Further, if the feminist identities of non-governmental organisation workers can be traced to ‘a very personal moment of feminist political awakening in education or the women’s movement’, as Sara de Jong finds in her dissertation ‘Performing Global Citizenship’, then there is something amiss if their awakening in education or the women’s movement does not take into account differences between women such as sexual orientation, class, ability and race.

The experience of development consultant Uma Kothari is telling when she points out the disappointment her ‘local counterparts’ show when they realise that she, ‘their expatriate consultant[,] was not white’ (although she does not specify the country she was writing about) which points to racialised ideas of who is “developed” and who is not. As Kalpana Wilson claims in regards to population control initiatives, images in these programs ‘dr[a]w upon and sustained racialised representations of people in the Global South as sexually deviant and dangerous, with policy documents littered with explicitly racist references to the ‘bestial’ and primitive’ approach to sex of their ‘targets’. Here again is the image of the “average third world women”, the uneducated, ignorant victim that Chandra Mohanty reveals as a dominant figure in Western feminism in her 1984 publication ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’. Educated African feminist Everjoice Win feels delegitimised by this dominant image of the African woman when she writes: ‘The world does not yet know how to deal with the articulate non-poor African feminist’.

I am not denying the contributions that development has made to the lives of women in the Global South. There are certainly persisting inequalities, one of which is the ‘digital divide’, where women in the Global South have less access to and use of Information and Communication Technology to promote their organisations or find grants online. Such women may therefore request the assistance of their Global North counterparts to represent them to secure funding or gain recognition in the international community as acts of solidarity. However, when important decision-making and discussion takes place in donor/non-governmental headquarters or Global North spaces with development-speak inaccessible to partner organisations and/or communities, the structures of inequality are reinforced rather than challenged. When the development practitioner figures as the primary actor cast in the role of “helper”, there is the danger that the privileges of the “First World” go unchecked. Power, in his article ‘Anti-racism, deconstruction and ‘overdevelopment’’, shows that ideas of development are often seen in terms of the lack of the Global South, removed and unrelated to the ‘excessive consumption of the affluent’. He suggests that a useful way to conceive of underdevelopment is to consider its relationship with ‘overdevelopment’ to contest the structures that marginalise women everywhere, and to consider an account of complicity in those structures.

As Audre Lorde stated in 1984 in Sister Outsider, ‘If white american feminist theory need not deal with the differences between us, and the resulting difference in our oppressions, then how do you deal with the fact that the women who clean your houses and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part, poor women and women of colour? What is the theory behind racist feminism?’ Her sentiments are echoed by indigenous women such as Moreton-Robinson and women of colour today, and pertain to the gender and development framework which scholar Sarah White claims, in her work ‘The ‘gender lens’: a racial blinder?’, does not engage with the works of black, indigenous and other people of colour as reference points. As Chandra  Mohanty pointed out in 2003 in her book Feminism without borders, if our starting point is the lives and experiences of women who are ‘disenfranchised’, we are more capable of imagining and working towards a world that treats everyone fairly: ‘Conversely, if we begin our analysis from, and limit it to, the space of privileged communities, our visions of justice are more likely to be exclusionary because privilege nurtures blindness to those without the same privileges’.

Development practitioners are faced with contradictions of funding requirements and bureaucratic demands as much as they are by the values for which they stand. However, there is also the challenge and importance of interrupting the script of the ‘perpetual present’ in efforts of solidarity. The 2007 publication Feminisms in Development: contradictions, contestations and challenges is one example of this interruption although it is surprising that there are not more. I look forward to a time where a framework such as DAWN’s, which includes diverse women, feminisms and communities, is no longer surprising.



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