Degrading women and development

In: Uncategorized

23 Aug 2009

Anyone who is interested in the redefinition of development should read today’s special issue of the New York Times magazine on “Why women’s rights are the cause of our time”. On a naïve reading such an initiative might appear welcome: the importance of development and women’s rights is being recognised. But a closer inspection shows that the meaning of both is being redefined in an exceedingly narrow way.

The centrepiece of the issue is a feature on “The women’s crusade” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, respectively a New New York Times op-ed columnist and a former Times writer who now works in philanthropy. Their article is based on turn on Half the Sky, their book on the global position of women which is due to be published next month. The book is endorsed by some of the biggest names in international development including Angelina Jolie, George Clooney and Melinda Gates.

Kristof and WuDunn clearly end up blaming men in the poorer countries for global poverty:

“Our interviews and perusal of the data available suggest that the poorest families in the world spend approximately 10 times as much (20 percent of their incomes on average) on a combination of alcohol, prostitution, candy, sugary drinks and lavish feasts as they do on educating their children (2 percent). If poor families spent only as much on educating their children as they do on beer and prostitutes, there would be a breakthrough in the prospects of poor countries. Girls, since they are the ones kept home from school now, would be the biggest beneficiaries.”

It is incredible that the two authors should be prepared to make such a massive generalisation, applying to billions of people, based on a “perusal of the data”. Surely, at the very least, the data should be examined in close detail.
The authors also, among other things, place enormous emphasis on microfinance as a way of tackling poverty. But the idea that development in an economic sense is desirable is marginalised.

Accompanying the main article are several other articles including an interview with Hillary Clinton. The American secretary of state says that the Obama administration is: “having as a signature issue the fact that women and girls are a core factor in our foreign policy.” She also emphasises the importance of microlending.

The overall consequence of this outlook is to:

– Minimise the importance of economic growth in relation to development. The best that is seen as realistic is to curb the worst excesses of poverty.

– Poverty essentially becomes the fault of feckless men and venal third world governments. Western intervention, including by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international institutions, becomes key to the solution. Microfinance also has a role.

– Women’s rights become redefined as a series of basic entitlements such as access to basic healthcare, access to minimal amounts of credit and a basic education. The broader struggle for social liberation is minimised and it is external institutions, such as NGOs which are responsible for “empowering” women rather than being a grassroots movement.