Making women work for development - again

Rosalind Eyben
29 May 2008

A generation ago, in the early 1980s, progressive staff in international-development institutions argued that women as well as men should be beneficiaries of development. Hard-nosed neo-liberal male economists interpreted this argument in ways that saw women as consumers rather than as producers of wealth. When they thought about women at all, they were seen as a category of the population that had specific needs, such as water and firewood (men apparently never going thirsty or needing to eat). Women had babies. They were wealth consumers, not producers.

Rosalind Eyben convenes a research programme on global policy within the Pathways of Women's Empowerment consortium at the Institute of Development Studies. This article is based on research undertaken with Rebecca Napier-Moore into how women's empowerment is conceptualised by international development organisations

In 1986, Britain's aid ministry (then the "overseas development administration" [ODA]) produced its first policy statement on "women in development" warning that improvements for women could only be achieved if there were greater prosperity for all. In other words, men had to make economic growth happen for consuming women to reap the benefits. Towards the end of the decade a new argument was introduced, one that seemed at the time a bold and radical shift in discourse: women were not only potential beneficiaries but also agents of development. Thus started the era of instrumentalist advocacy to persuade male decision-makers that that they should invest in women to secure faster development.

In 1989, the shift was embodied in a new policy statement on women by the ODA. To include women in development projects led to greater efficiency and effectiveness, it said. "If they themselves are healthy and knowledgeable, if they have greater access to knowledge, skills and credit, they will be more economically productive".

Then, in the early 1990s, came a further sea-change. The United Nations Conference on Human Rights made a breakthrough. It recognised that women's rights are human rights. The instrumentalist agenda moved into the shadows as the preparations for the 1995 Beijing women's conference developed a vision of global social transformation. Amartya Sen said development was freedom and women were claiming it.

The turning tide

That vision disappeared sometime in the first half of the 2000s. Gender equality entered the doldrums. International-aid commitments for supporting women's rights declined severely and grassroots organisations across the world found that nobody was interested in supporting them anymore. Multilateral organisations, aid ministries, big international NGOs - all had stopped being enthusiastic about gender equality. It was embarrassing; something needed to be done. Gender specialists in these organisations began to devise strategies for convincing their senior management that gender equality was a central issue for international-development policy. In so doing, they decided quietly to forget an idea of gender equality and women's empowerment as social transformation.

Also in openDemocracy:

Andrea Cornwall, "Pathways to women's empowerment" (27 July 2007)

Srilatha Batliwala, "Putting power back into empowerment" (30 July 2007)

Mulki Al-Sharmani, "Egypt's family courts: route to empowerment?" (7 September 2007)

Cecilia Sardenberg, "The right to abortion: briefing from Brazil" (26 October 2007)

Takwiyaa Manuh, "African women and domestic violence" (26 November 2007)

Firdous Azim, "Women and religion in Bangladesh: new paths" (19 December 2007)

Naila Kabeer, "Marriage, motherhood and masculinity in the global economy" (29 January 2008)

Emily Esplen, "Men and gender justice: old debate, new perspective" (28 February 2008)

These articles are part of a collaboration between openDemocracy and the research consortium Pathways of Women's Empowerment project at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. This explores ideas, projects and initiatives from around the world - Brazil to Egypt, Sierra Leone to Bangladesh - which aims to understand what enables women to empower themselves and sustain changes in gendered power relations In 2006 the World Bank's gender unit coined a catchy slogan: "Gender equality is smart economics". The theme was echoed by the World Bank's president Robert Zoellick in April 2008 when he said that one motivation for women's empowerment is basic fairness and decency: "Young girls should have the exact same opportunities that boys do to lead full and productive lives...the empowerment of women is smart economics...studies show that investments in women yield large social and economic returns." An accompanying promotional video presents a graph showing the positive econometric correlation between increasing a mother's income and increasing her child's height.

International-aid ministries and United Nations organisations are adopting the World Bank's argument. Koichiro Matsuura, the director-general of Unesco, in a message on International Women's Day 2008, wrote: "Gender equality is smart and just economics for many compelling reasons. It can act as a force for economic development and for improving the quality of life of society as a whole" (the last phrase, "society as a whole", should be read as meaning "it's good for men as well").

Denmark's aid minister Ulla Tornaes, in launching a campaign in March 2008 to reinvigorate efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on gender equality, said: "Women's opportunities to contribute to the development of societies need to be improved significantly. Otherwise, economic growth in developing countries will be constrained and the ability to care for the environment in these countries reduced."

The seeming triumph of the 1990s had been that social justice was seen as a sufficient reason for efforts to be made to secure gender equality. Women's and girls' well-being was an end in itself. Today, although the argument for equality based on justice and fairness is not entirely neglected, the last few years have seen a strong shift back to the arguments of the early 1980s. This trend is indicative of a wider movement in development policies away from the visions of global social justice articulated at the great United Nations conferences of the 1990s towards a revival of the idea of the centrality of market-led growth as the engine of development.

Thus the World Bank's framework for women's economic empowerment is about "making markets work for women" and "empowering women to compete in markets". Women are expected to increase a country's GNP while development-policy actors largely ignore the fundamental gender inequalities associated with the unpaid work of household maintenance and care on which the market economy depends. What is driving this change of focus?

The Paris declaration on aid effectiveness agreed in March 2005, and all the processes accompanying it, is already proving to be successful in its first and most important principle - recipient-country ownership (at least if that principle is determined in terms of government ownership). OECD countries are responding to the views of recipient government leaders, particularly those in highly aid-dependent sub-Saharan Africa who may be less interested in the Millennium Development Goals and more in developing economic infrastructure, expanding the private sector and encouraging foreign direct investment (FDI). A strong driver for the revival of the growth agenda is China's arrival in aid-dependent countries as a significant donor, providing aid for economic investment as part of trade deals without any strings attached relating to equity or human-rights issues.

The missing link

The growth trend has both permitted and resulted from a resurgence of language traditionally at the discursive heart of international aid economists' positivist thinking. It underlies results-based management, another element of the Paris declaration which encourages cross-county regression analysis to support instrumentalist arguments showing how investing in women delivers results for whatever development outcome is desired. In 2007, Britain's department for international development (DfID) published a new policy on gender equality. It noted that tackling gender inequality in access to services and resources is proven to increase women's productivity, and reduce poverty and hunger. Women who are empowered economically play a more active role in household decision-making, and have greater bargaining power to increase spending on education and health. Educated girls and women have better opportunities for entrepreneurship and to earn higher wages, thus lifting themselves and their families out of poverty.

The DfID document goes on to comment that missing the MDG target on gender equality "could lower a country's annual per capita growth rates by 0.1 - 0.3 percentage points". So far, there is little evidence that these instrumentalist arguments are making much headway in the wider global-policy world. For example, the World Bank's gender-action plan emphasises the importance of women's access to land - but the overview of the World Bank's latest World Development Report (on agriculture) contains not the least mention of women's inequitable access to land.

Moreover, it is notable that many current government statements and speeches make little or no reference to the link between growth and gender equality. In her two policy speeches in 2007 on the centrality of growth for development, the DfID minister Shriti Vadera gave the women-gender theme just one mention; a long speech by Ghana's finance minister Kwadwo Baah-Wiredu in Frankfurt in December 2007, which set out all the development challenges facing his country, had no mention of it; two recent speeches delivered by presidents of sub-Saharan African countries to northern audiences also neglected it. The danger here is of a double-bind: that the social-transformation agenda is being discarded while the instrumentalist strategy is failing to deliver anything for women.

The growth/gender link that harks back to the 1970s and 1980s may well prove to be a pathway to nowhere for those seeking to reinvigorate policy action for women's rights. It is political pressure not technical arguments that brings policy change, even when such arguments are couched as a catchy slogan. That investing in women creates more wealth is hardly a rallying-call for civil-society action. International NGOs have been criticised for becoming co-opted into an international-aid system through signing up to the Millennium Development Goals. As these fade into the background, so there may emerge a sharper discursive distinction between official aid agencies and those non-governmental organisations. Here is a possibility for reviving a more transformative vision for international development.

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