Gender Myths and Feminist Fables:
Repositioning Gender in Development Policy and Practice
Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex
2-4 July 2003
Sarah White, University of Bath
‘The 'Gender Lens': A Racial Blinder?’1
This paper comes out of two abiding concerns in my engagement with international development: a concern with gender and a concern with race. I began work on gender in development (GAD)i, while researching my PhD on women’s work and power in rural Bangladesh, 1984-88. Since then gender has occupied a central place in my consciousness, my academic life, and my practical work as (occasional) consultant for development agencies.
While this is my personal story, it also reflects my location in space and time. Born in 1960s Britain, my growing years coincided with those of the second wave feminist movement. While the heady politics of the 1970s came rather too soon for me, feminism hit academia in a major way at much the same time that I began reading seriously. In international development similarly, by the early 1980s feminist-inspired questioning was generating a whole range of innovative research and action. Since then ‘the gender issue’ in international development has gone from strength to strength. Far beyond the feminist lobby, there is now policy level agreement that gender is significant in achieving all the primary development objectives: reduced poverty; wider access to good health, education, land, technology and capital; environmental sustainability; institutional effectiveness; and democratic participation.
While gender has provided the dominant theme in my personal and professional life, there has also been a second motif, much more muted but nonetheless insistent and recurring, of race. By contrast with the high profile accorded to gender in development, there is an almost total silence on race in official publications.ii If at all it appears in coded ways, particularly under the rubric of ‘culture’. And yet racial awareness and racial struggle is also a major part of the history of the past forty years. The 1960s did not only see the rise of second wave feminism, but also of the civil rights movement in the United States, which in many ways pre-figured it. Martin Luther King became my childhood hero, while, beyond the peripheries of my vision, liberation struggles were waged or new independence won by many formerly colonised nations, offering a fundamental challenge to the dominant international and racial order.
While I had some involvement with race issues during my time as student in the UK, it was during my PhD research that this theme began to take its present form. As a white person in 1980s Bangladesh, I found myself in a position of marked racial privilege which, in typical middle class liberal fashion, made me profoundly uncomfortable, even as I benefited significantly from it. What I observed and experienced as I hovered around the margins of the aid community seemed to go far beyond individual acts of prejudice or discrimination to a whole system in which advantage and disadvantage were patterned by race.
Just as my earlier work reflected my location in time and space, so the present paper is part of a broader trend. As this workshop reflects, Gender and Development is not a unitary project, but a conflicted terrain over which a number of competing interests do battle. In development practice, high profile talk about gender is often accompanied by limited funding and on-going rumblings of resistance within donor agencies as well as recipient organisations. Activists with a background in feminist politics are perplexed by calls for 'gender training' as a purely technical intervention. Programme and project staff are frustrated with the limited results they achieve, and the gaps between the models they use and the way the women they are working with see their own lives. Amongst academics, the key terms of both 'gender' and 'development' are being hotly and creatively contested. The accepted distinction between sex and gender is questioned, as is the focus on women to the exclusion of men and masculinity and the abstraction of gender from other social relations such as race, class, age, sexuality and (dis)ability. Core assumptions of development are questioned by the dissolution of 'the West and the rest' dualisms through globalisation, and post-colonial writings which identify imperialism at the heart of modernity. The feminist and post-colonial writings come together with the more general discursive self-consciousness of post-modernism, which questions distinctions between 'self' and 'other', raises issues about the justice of moral and epistemological claims, and stresses the mutability of social identity.
While still at the margins, issues of race and identity are increasingly being raised with respect to development practice, particularly by feminists (see eg Matlanyane-Sexwale 1994; Crewe and Harrison 1998; Kothari 1997). ‘The whiteness of faces and Britishness of passports’ is now being found an ‘embarrassment’ in some UK development circles, when formerly it would have passed without notice (Moore 1998). The openly racist expatriate bar-talk of the past is no longer countenanced. Informal discussions reveal that many more of those working in development experience its racial divisions as a conscious and problematic contradiction. By far most critically, international politics since September 11 2001 has raised urgent questions concerning the links between 'development' and a particular Western geo-political and military project. The present paper is a small contribution to this wider context of questioning and review.
In focusing on GAD I do not, by any means, intend to question the basic legitimacy of the need for gender analysis. Indeed, in some ways GAD is a relatively soft target in that it includes some of the best of development - it has at least aimed to pose questions of power. At one level GAD may appear at the cultural vanguard of the development offensive, and certainly it has received far more opposition on the grounds of cultural imperialism than any other part of the development project. This fact can, however, be read another way, as signalling GAD's relative marginality and ambiguous status within the development project as a whole. In the real-politik of power and resistance it is rare that the centres of domination are the main objects of attack. Nevertheless, there is a danger that GAD implies that 'West is best' as it decries gender inequalities in Third World societies. There is a tendency to transfer uncritically Western analytical models to other contexts. There is a sense in which trying to bring about change in gender relations constitutes a cultural offensive. The challenge is to see these facts as points of entry into further questioning. How does an emancipatory project maintain or lose its radical agenda? To what extent do 'gender myths' challenge or reproduce the dominant 'development myths'? What is it in the formation of GAD and the development industry that determines this?
This paper takes the notion of a 'gender lens' as a way of exploring the myths of GAD. It begins by considering the 'gender lens' itself, and the new forms of awareness it engendered. It then goes on to explore the distortion of this 'lens' in its neglect of Black feminism - a critical lack, which not only indicates its partiality, but also vitally restricts its view. The paper closes by considering the way forward beyond the constitution of 'gender myths', to build on the achievements of GAD and its potential for development critique, to broaden and deepen both the understanding of power and the vision of emancipation.
A Note on Race
In considering the significance of race within GAD, I do not intend to essentialise race. I do not believe that racial difference exists in any absolute sense, rather it serves as one means by which inequities in the allocation of power, resources and cultural space are organised. In many ways, ‘race’ in this paper serves as a shorthand for the differences in power between ‘north’ and ‘south’, ‘first’ and ‘third’ world. With globalisation the mapping of race onto these distinctions - and perhaps the distinctions themselves - become increasingly problematic. As Winant (1994:19) notes: 'the geography of race is becoming more complex.' If 'expertise' constitutes the 'class-marker' for the development machine, the key signifier of difference lies in the contrast between 'international' and 'local'. This can serve as a proxy for race, but does not always do so. As with gender, the meanings that race bears differ radically by context. Believing as I do that gender analysis has been hampered by its association with a dichotomous schema of sexual difference, the last thing I wish is to replace this with a dualistic understanding of race. Rather, I believe that exploring the silences on race in development may serve as a key to unlocking the power relations inscribed within it, that operate through race but are no means contained by it. My ultimate aim is to argue the need for a more inclusive approach to social justice in development, which comprehends and transcends all the various ways in which differences are established and inequities secured.
The 'Gender Lens'
The most celebrated achievement of WID/GAD is to bring ‘women’ in to development. This took place at two distinct levels. First, and receiving most attention, this meant that poor women in the south who had been by-passed by development were now newly included amongst its ‘beneficiaries’. Second, it also involved the expansion of middle class women as the agents of development, engaged in development planning and outreach. In both cases this new incorporation of ‘women’ involved two linked processes. First, ‘bringing women in’ signalled a quantitative increase in the numbers of women engaged in development. But just as significantly, it also entailed a new awareness of women, through the constitution of ‘women’ as a distinct group, a group which was marked by its gender. As several GAD critics pointed out, women had always participated in development, they had just not been recognised as such. The new gender awareness thus did not create women’s involvement in development, but rather re-figured it, first by labelling women as a group and second by incorporating them more directly within the apparatus of intervention. Thus while women were already involved in farming or small business, they were now more likely to be targeted directly by agricultural extension workers or credit providers. Within the agencies similarly, the adoption of WID/GAD was due to the agitation of a broader women’s movement, combined with pressure exerted by (mainly) women already employed within them. In many cases, it was these existing employees who then became the ‘new’ women’s officers (see eg Williams, 1999). Where they had formerly been simply employees, they were now marked as women, by virtue of occupying ‘gender posts.’ As the WID/GAD tide rose, of course, this provided a further impulse for agencies to increase the number of women employees, many of whom had GAD-related responsibilities. A reverse process of labelling then became evident. WID/GAD came to be labelled ‘women’s work’ with all the negative associations for status that this carried. In some cases this was compounded by the employment of wives of staff members to those posts, which was seen further to compromise their professional status (Jahan 1995,41). More generally, appointments were made at a junior level, and outside the regular departmental structures, giving them the status of outsiders within.
The new marking of ‘women’ as a distinct group required the creation of new thinking, which came to be labelled ‘gender awareness’ and new programmes of ‘gender training’ to instil this.iii These programmes offer an important site for the play of 'gender myths'. Usually undertaken in a participatory style, gender training involves both the ‘unlearning’ of folk knowledge about women, and the absorption of new understandings. This may be tackled at a number of levels, social, individual and institutional. Techniques borrowed from consciousness raising unearth the ‘wisdoms’ or myths of popular culture, in proverbs and common sayings or imagery about men and women, boys and girls. They also challenge individuals' gendered assumptions about ‘proper’ behaviour or stereotyping of 'masculine' or 'feminine' characteristics.
The major part of most gender training, however, concentrates on application to development programmes, utilising a range of frameworks for analysing sexual divisions of labour and power. The primary concern is to move women out of the ‘women and children’ (social welfare) category and into the development category of ‘productive workers.’ Against the ‘myths’ such as ‘farmers are men’ or ‘women don’t work’ are substituted the ‘facts’ of women’s global overwork (2/3 of all) and under-reward (10% of income, 1% of property). As this workshop demonstrates, ironically these so-called facts have themselves acquired a mythic quality. They have been endlessly repeated, mantra-like, in diverse contexts, despite their questionable empirical basis (Baden and Goetz 1998:23). They have also conjured up larger than life figures, (female) victims and heroes doing battle with (male) villains, with development agencies playing the part of fairy godmother (or father?), whose wisdom and esoteric powers promise a magical transformation of fortunes.
The description now popular within some GAD circles of gender analysis as a ‘gender lens’, expresses clearly what this process of inculcating ‘gender awareness’ involves. It offers, as it were, a new set of spectacles, a way of seeing the world, in which gender (for which read sexual difference) is magnified and constituted as the primary power relation. There is a clear dilemma here. Just as 'gender-blind' frameworks distort the analysis of a given context, so the use of a 'gender lens' may inappropriately 'read in' gender difference, and/or block the exploration of other power relations. Within the overwhelmingly economistic and politics-shy context of development agencies, it was relatively easy for gender to become the justice issue; women the 'minority' whose interests should be considered; so that social development, in many agencies, was largely commandeered by gender specialists. At its worst, the common GAD phrase, 'using a gender lens' could therefore take on a malign meaning: that gender dimensions of difference were magnified, while all others were screened out.
GAD and the Neglect of Black Feminism
On beginning to explore the issue of race in GAD literature, the silence becomes deafening. Both a marker and a determinant of this is the absence of Black feminism within GAD frameworks. My own work is as guilty of this as any one else's. It was not until I began working specifically on issues of race, that I came to see this. Having written an outline of the problems in GAD before looking in detail at Black feminist writers, I was doubly shocked: first at the extent to which my own reference points were white; and second at how accurately the Black feminist critique identifies the present problems with gender and development.
Since this is so much the norm, so much the way that things have been done that it goes without saying, it is worth just reflecting a little on how strange this is. First, the major challenge to 1970s feminism was mounted by Black and working class women on just this point: that its white middle class leadership had whitewashed class and race dynamics in assuming as universal their own priorities and view of feminist struggle. The power of this critique means that no feminist activist or academic would now deny that gender and other forms of social difference are fundamentally related. Second, a major part of development involves international and inter-racial encounter. You would think that development, with this context and its remit for social change would be at the forefront of theorising and practising anti-racism. Third, GAD - or a part of it - is the key place in development which explicitly addresses power relations. How can it, then, have been so blind to the exercise of power by race?
Black feminism is clearly diverse, with many points of internal contestation and difference. However, the basic approach rests on a number of points in common. While these are well known, their silencing in the context of development means that it is worth briefly stating them here. Critically, Black feminists assert that gender relations are fundamentally linked with those of race and class, and that to abstract gender from this context is both analytically flawed and socially exclusive. This foregrounds the diversity amongst women and the contradictory relations in and between them.
Following on from this, Black feminists have differed from white in four main areas. First, Black feminists have consistently resisted a simple identification of 'men as the enemy' and instead assert that their struggle must involve alliances with men. Second, they question the identification of paid work with women's empowerment, and emphasise instead how employment may be a key site of contradiction for women, and for the reproduction of difference by class, gender and race. Third, Black feminists have rejected the emphasis on the family as a primary location of oppression. Instead they have analysed the family as a site of resistance and/or seen the oppression within it as the expression of relations which have their source elsewhere. Finally, Black women have infused the feminist slogan 'the personal is political' with a particular power. More strongly than their white colleagues they have maintained the primacy of the personal as the place from which theory is made sense, resisting the academic tendency to slip back into distance and abstraction.
As white feminism is similarly diverse, and has changed over time in response to such critiques, it would be misleading to identify all of these points with Black feminists exclusively. The fact that all of these problems are still evident within GAD, however, suggests how effectively the voice of Black feminism has been silenced in development circles. This is partly a matter of ignorance. Black feminist writers and activists were simply not amongst the default reference points of the people who forged the GAD project. Those Black women who have voiced an alternative within GAD have largely been feminists from the South (eg Sen and Grown, 1987). Here the ambivalence of racial marking is evident: while feminists of the South may speak on a global stage, their legitimacy is nonetheless at least partially invested in their 'localised' status. While in one way this enhances their voice, in another it also renders it marginal, with respect to the 'unmarked' voices of the North. Bunie Matlanyane-Sexwale (1994) relates a gross example of how these contradictions were played out within a training workshop for international gender experts. When asked to split into regional groups the women from Africa, Latin America and Asia divided up without difficulty. The women from the North, however, resisted their designation as European. They insisted instead on a different designation, as 'the global group.'
While much of the neglect of Black feminism is due to ignorance, it is also something that has been actively achieved. The opposition between global and local is one of the key markers of difference in development. When Black voices of dissent 'from the belly of the beast' do penetrate the fog, they are quickly silenced with the claim that 'they are [usually] Americans!' whose sense of their African roots is not shared by 'real' Africans themselves. The implicit claim here, of course, is that they are 'no better than us', or in fact, probably 'worse than us', since they are a particular interest group while 'we' lay claim to the objectivity of (unmarked white) universalism.
This is shocking stuff. It is clearly true that there is no essential quality of 'Blackness' which ensures automatic unity. Thus Black African women professionals certainly express resentment at the appropriation of their voice by Black Americans, and assert that their common Blackness does not overcome their difference as African and American. The key point, however, is that 'Black' and 'white' become meaningful in context, not as integral characteristics. As power relations - and so categories derived from them - change with circumstances, it makes perfect sense that Black Americans and Black Africans will sometimes be on the same and sometimes different 'sides'. If the issue is the limitations of a middle class white starting point, then it seems perfectly possible that Black American feminists, who have had the best opportunity to observe this most closely, might speak for others in the third world - and poorer women in the North - on this point. The pertinence of their critique for GAD suggests that this is so. But even if it were not, what possible justification could there be for silencing their voices on the grounds of nationality, while for white women being of the North appears no handicap?
The Primacy of Production
As I have written elsewhere on the neglect of men and masculinities within Gender and Development, I shall not go into this here.iv Instead, I focus in this paper on two aspects of the Black feminist critique, the identification of productive work with emancipation; and the importance of theorising from experience.
In line with the development preoccupations of the time, the early women studies focused on two major areas, agrarian change and industrialisation. Within these attention concentrated on work and households, divisions of labour and divisions in power. These two were seen as importantly related. Women’s work, and particularly the extent to which it could be seen as ‘productive’, was seen as the crucial factor determining women’s ‘status’, which was in turn indexed by their input into decisionmaking. While of course studies varied, a large majority of them thus circled around three key concerns: Who does what? - the division of labour; Who owns what? - access to and control over resources; and Who determines what? - decisionmaking power. As time went on, and the focus on ‘status’ was criticised, these same questions were used to assess progress towards a new objective: women’s 'empowerment'. Practical women's programmes reflected these same concerns. A primary concern of WID initiatives was to demonstrate how women were involved in 'productive labour', and to promote their fuller involvement in the market. Underlying both research and practice was the clear assumption that people’s entitlements - to social status, to welfare, to development inputs - derived from their position as workers.
While social and political concerns have received more attention within GAD than in many areas of development, they have always been vulnerable to hijack by the overall privileging of economic issues. Even 'empowerment', an apparently collective and political term, has thus been re-defined in many micro-credit studies as referring to individuals' increased levels of economic production. Not only does the dominant approach privilege the economic over all other dimensions of society, it also privileges a particular reading of the economic, that of Western capitalist modernity, over other alternative views. Further, in and through this, it introduces by stealth a particular understanding of human being, and the nature of human society, which assumes the priority of individuals, and of agonistic over common interests.
The selection of issues within gender analysis is not random, but reflects the congruence of diverse interests. First, the feminist theorising which inspired work on gender in development identified women’s ‘domesticity’ as at the root of their subordination, and placed a high premium on women’s capacity to earn outside the household (see eg Friedan 1963; Oakley 1974). Second, this reflects the priorities of the Western capitalist societies in which these frameworks developed, where economic productivity constitutes the primary index of value. This made it the ‘natural’ focus of concerns to establish the case for women’s inclusion in development programming, both for liberal feminists working within a capitalist paradigm, and for the development professionals and institutions who were the targets of their advocacy. This approach is also supported by the dominant tradition on ‘the women issue’ within socialist thought, dating back to the analysis of Engels. His major work on gender, The Origins of Family, Private Property and the State, identified the ‘world historical defeat of the female sex’ with the emergence of private property, and held that women’s entry into the wage labour market was a vital precondition for the end of their subordination. The economic thus becomes not only the primary index of social value, but also the dominant reference point within modes of explanation - if you give an economic explanation for something, that is taken as sufficient, if you offer another kind of reasoning, a further explanation is sought.
At the same time, a strong practical argument for engaging with women more directly was advanced by the population lobby. Having had limited success with direct attempts to control fertility through family planning programmes, they sought some reinforcements. Again linking women’s work and status, numerous studies claimed that women’s education and/or employment was a powerful means to limit fertility. Echoing the efficiency rationale noted above, this meant that investment in women’s projects would pay back many dividends. Finally, all this of course chimed with concerns to promote market oriented development. On the one hand women were shown to be significant economic actors, so it made sense to invest in them to expand their productivity. On the other hand, bringing women more directly into the labour market was good for the economy and any increased income they realised would expand the market for consumption.
The stress in GAD analyses on the sexual division of labour has been heavily criticised by women writing as Third World Feminists.v Chandra Mohanty (1991) for example rejects the notion that there is ‘a sexual division of labour’, as though this concept could be generalised across all times and places. Used monolithically, such a concept can lead to equating the utterly unlike - such as saying that purdah is equal to rape (Mohanty, 1991:66). But Mohanty’s critique raises serious questions even when the ‘sexual division of labour’ is used in a more restricted way. Not only does it point out the obvious, that the division of tasks between categories of people will differ from place to place. It also highlights the theoretical baggage carried by prioritising labour at all. This comes as a powerful reminder of how deeply embedded are our analytical frameworks in particular assumptions. While I would argue that there are some universal imperatives of human society - such as work, food, love, sex, childcare, shelter - these are met and managed in vastly different ways, and none can be assumed a priori to occupy the central place in social organisation.
The writings of Black and working class feminists offer a strong tradition of scepticism regarding the potential of outside employment to ‘liberate’ women. As bell hooks (1983:97) succinctly puts it, for poorer Americans freedom equals not employment, but the ability to quit work. The critique has been mounted on three lines. First, they point out that there is nothing new in women’s employment, the ideology of domesticity was a reality only for women of the white middle class. Second, they contest the identification of the family as the primary site of oppression. While not denying sexism in the home, they see it also as a place of resistance, and the labour there as humanising and affirming of the humanity often denied in workplace experience, especially within slavery (Davis, 1981). Third, they argue that it is the character of work, not simply whether or not it receives wages, that makes a difference. Thus Hill Collins (1990:48) argues that abusive, alienated labour may take place either in the market or in the family, while exploitative wages that women can use for their own benefit or unpaid work done out of love for one’s family can be empowering and/or creative. Research on Black women’s entry into the wage labour market, and the racial and gender segmentation that they encounter, similarly cautions against the notion that paid work in itself offers a means of overcoming gender oppression. Studies of Black women domestic workers offer a particularly poignant example of the way that work does not necessarily erase racial and gender identities, but may on the contrary serve to reconstitute and even intensify the subordination they bear (Hill Collins 1990: 55-7; Mura 1992). Within GAD, similar points are made particularly in the industrialisation literature (eg Elson and Pearson, 1984). Taken together, this writings suggest an important corrective to the implicit view that prioritises the economic over the social, as if the economy existed somehow outside of, and prior to, society. Instead, 'productive work' is organised in and through gender and racial hierarchies, which critically affect the extent to which it can offer 'liberation'. Also, it is not what is done ('skilled'/'unskilled'; 'productive'/'domestic') but who does it and the relations in which it is done that determines the meaning it carries.
Theorising Differences in Incorporating 'Women'
The second aspect of Black feminism that I want to explore is the importance of experience as the place from which theory is made sense. Through the slogan 'the personal is political' this is of course a theme common to feminism as a whole. However, there is nonetheless a distinctive tone in Black feminist voices which reflects their grounding in experience, which challenges GAD to re-consider how the absence of theorising some aspects of writers' own experiences may reflect critical limitations to their analyses.
As noted above, one of the aspects of the 'gender lens' was to mark a new category, 'women', for explicit incorporation in development. Under the guise of this apparently simple and unified category, women of very different kinds were assigned very different places in the development machinery, as 'targets' or 'beneficiaries' on the one hand, planners and 'experts' on the other. For the women professionals involved, the dynamics of this incorporation involved a play of sameness and difference, of moving in and out of differently gendered, classed, and racialised identities. This potentially offered rich understanding of the diversity and flexibility of subjectivity, and of the need to move beyond a monolithic identification of gender with sexual difference.
At one level both the women planners and target group were united by gender. They were the same sex, and both lived within patriarchy in their own societies and the way development was conceived and practised. These similarities should not be discounted. Sex is a big thing, which combined with similarities in patriarchy across different societies mean that many women do have 'fellow feeling' with other women - and men with men - despite and across huge social divides. The influence of ideals of international sisterhood from the women's liberation movement and the struggle to locate themselves as professional women in what was hitherto a man's world, without doubt made the young white middle class women who entered aid bureaucracies in the 1970s more sensitive than their male peers to the exclusion or distortion of third world women's experience.
At other moments, however, unity by gender dissolved in differences by race, class, and professional location. It is a common experience for white women professionals to be treated as an 'honorary man' in 'the field', to have the normal 'gender rules' suspended in deference to their race, class and official status. The refraction of gender through other aspects of social identity is tangible every time a 'Madam' asks a 'maid' to lay the table; every time a 'professional' receives a pay slip giving her in a month what a 'village woman' would see as more than a fortune; every time a 'gender expert' slams the door in her jeep while 'local women' sit and wait for an overcrowded bus; every time she takes a mouthful, cooked by a low-paid catering worker at an international conference dedicated to the advancement of 'the poorest of the poor'.
Theorising such experiences shows in the first place how gender identities are transformed not simply through the elaboration of national, educational and cultural differences, but also by the changing contexts through which individuals move. They also point, however, to critical aspects of the development project itself. In the first place, it is development which both constructs a unity between women based on sexual difference, and also establishes a radical distance between them.vi At one level, the incorporation of a 'sectional' interest group challenges the basic myth of development, that it is a technical, politically neutral project, external to the society in which it operates (Ferguson,1990). At another level, however, both the singularity and the refraction of gender difference serve to reinforce key elements of the development machine. Chatterjee (1993:207) describes a 'necessary self-deception' at the foundation of planning. Planners must constitute their objects as external to themselves, about which they gather information. But this leaves 'beyond' an 'underestimated residue' in which the planners are themselves bearers of particular social identities, the object of the agency and politics of those within the state and civil society.
'This residue, as the irreducible, negative, and ever-present "beyond" of planning, is what we may call, in its most general sense, politics.' (208).
The constitutive fiction of planning, and development more broadly, turns on its own erasure. On the one hand this means an elision of the interests of planners and planned for, such as is achieved in this case by the categorisation of both gender planners and 'beneficiaries' with the single term 'women'.vii On the other hand, however, the development industry looks outward - and downward - at an external object, rather than considering itself as a part of the same picture. This renders the ‘development problem’ ‘out there’, and obscures the ways in which it may be intimately related to, or even in part constituted by, those who seek to solve it (Mitchell, 1995). This externalising of development ‘problems’ is a key element in the attribution of difference in development, evident both at the micro-level of particular interventions, and at the macro level of 'grand theory', which is built on the contrast between those who are and those who are not 'developed', between those who plan and those who are planned for. In its refusal to identify gender issues only with 'the field' and its insistence that they must be considered also 'back home' in the office, GAD has been better than many aspects of development in resisting this. Asserting experience as the place from which theory is made sense offers a way to consolidate this further, by mounting a radical challenge to these conventions, insisting on the complexity of the relationships which development assumes and constructs, and the contradictory configuration of identity and difference within them.
Beyond a Mythic Approach to Gender Inequality
These broader political perspectives expose a key contradiction within many gender and development approaches. This is, that a large part of the GAD critique concerns the bias within the development apparatus, and yet GAD protagonists then have to rely on precisely those same flawed institutions to implement sound gender policies. Putting all one’s faith in planning therefore depends on a willed forgetfulness of where the initial problems lay, or at least a liberal diagnosis of gender bias as a kind of mistake within otherwise equitable institutions. This is, of course, the classic liberal feminist conundrum (see eg Pringle and Watson 1992). Furthermore, identifying gender as the key form of social inequality, and nonetheless asserting that development interventions have the capacity to overcome this, shows a remarkable instance of the fatal flaw of development hubris.
Two fundamental problems that have beset GAD and played a significant part in the generation of gender myths: the confusion of question and answer; and the confusion of analysis and objective. These relate to the more obvious confusion about gender as women and gender as sexual difference. Siltanen (1994), in her discussion of gender and employment in the UK post office, addresses the first of these problems. The need, she says, is to show how gender becomes meaningful, and when it is not, not to assume it meaningful and that its meaning will take a pre-specified form (ibid:9). Gender and Development myths assume gender to be essentially meaningful, as if (third world) persons were somehow ascribed gender (and racial) identities prior to their entry into society (Mohanty, 1988). This renders men and women into fixed and oppositional categories, which obscures the remarkable fluidity and contextuality of social identity, and the unpredictability this means for forms of alliance (Jordan, 1989). Furthermore, the propagation of gender myths relies on fixing the meaning of gender: as subordination; as comparative developmental advantage; or sometimes both. This imposes a false uniformity on remarkably diverse contexts. Be it the green revolution in South Asia, structural adjustment in Africa, or export processing in East Asia, women always lose out.viii Be it credit in Bangladesh, rural household food provision in Africa, or community housing projects in Latin America, women are less selfish, more responsible and more developmental than men. The analytic opportunism of GAD, which Baden and Goetz (1998) point out, is very evident here. While subordination is seen as socially constructed and programmes designed to overcome it, the generosity of women's natures is apparently essentially given, and will survive their 'empowerment.'
A critical feature in the constitution of myths is their preoccupation with morality. Not only is the meaning of gender fixed, therefore, but also the categorical dualism also lends itself to moral elaboration, in what I have called elsewhere the 'good girl bad boy' syndrome (White, 1997).ix This is very problematic. Not only does it obscure the virtues of men (!) but it also blocks the ethical analysis of particular situations, as West (1993) has argued with respect to moral dualisms on race in the United States. It directs attention away from what is being said or done to the category of person saying or doing, and either validates or voids it accordingly. This suppresses not only the voice of people from the 'opposing' category, but also those of others within the same group. Ethics can attach to structures and systems, or to individual actions, but not to social categories or identities. In gender myths, therefore, what needs to be discovered, in terms of social identity, the meaning of gender, and moral entitlements is instead assumed: the question already entails the answer.x In summary, to return to Janet Siltanen, and substituting 'development' for her 'employment':
'The reconsideration of theories of [development] required is one that aims to explain aggregate patterns in terms that address the variety in disaggregated experience.'
The confusion between analysis and objective derives from the first as it translates into development practice. The identification of gender analysis with the advancement of women, and more recently with 'promoting gender equality' can result in only programmes which admit these objectives being thought relevant for gender analysis. But gender analysis is always relevant, even if there are no women present in the programme. This is partly because gender is an issue for men too, but more broadly, because gender is essentially articulated with other social relations such as race and class. There is no substitute for a gender-informed analysis: without gender, any class, or race, or poverty analysis is simply incomplete. On the other hand, challenging gender relations per se is not necessarily a primary objective in all projects. Analysis needs to be contextual, and other issues may be a higher priority at particular times. It is vital, therefore, to distinguish between gender analysis and gender as objective in programmes. While the one is a pre-requisite, the scope for the other must be determined by careful, contextual analysis.
Drawing on these points, as well as broader reflections from feminist and anti-racist scholarship, I offer a number of suggestions for liberating gender analysis from its entanglement with gender myths:
Analysis should be morally and epistemologically open-ended. It should not itself contain the answers it claims to seek.
Analysis should focus on how social identities make a difference in relationship, not assume them as fundamental attributes of individuals.
Analysis needs to recognise the shifting articulations between dimensions of social difference, and be sufficiently elastic to admit the specificity of each of these.
Analysis needs to be able to admit both the resilience and the flexibility of these as power relations.
Analysis needs to be self-reflexive, theorising in and through experience. On the one hand this means being open to questioning its own assumptions. On the other hand it means recognising its own location with the development process, and questioning the connections/disruptions between different levels of the development machine and the contexts in which it works.
Analysis needs to be modest, admitting its own limitations and partiality. In political action it should thus lend itself to forging coalitions with other feminist and anti-racist struggles, while recognising the particularity of each.
On a lighter note, there is a final aspect to this self-critique of the 'gender myths.' It is a positive one, even though (or because?) it makes people like me look silly. This is, that notwithstanding the fact that the published texts may fail to ground gender within other social relations, especially race, in practice development workers throughout the world are correcting this as they customise the frameworks for their own use. They know there is a problem, so they get on and fix it, leaving the academics like me to bring up the rear.
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i. Some writers draw a sharp distinction between Women in Development (WID), Women and Development (WAD) and Gender and Development (GAD), relating these to historical phases, politics, and/or ways of understanding gender. In practice the differences are rather difficult to maintain, both because the use of labels partly reflects the micro-politics of different institutions and because the approaches using any one label are themselves highly diverse and often mixed together. For simplicity, therefore, I use the currently most popular label, Gender and Development (GAD), as an umbrella term for all of these approaches.
ii For a broader discussion of this, and consideration of how one might start thinking about race in development, see White (2002).
iii. See, for example, the training manuals Williams (ed) 1994 or Canadian Council for International o-operation; MATCH International Centre; and Association quebecoise des organismes de cooperation internationale, 1991.
iv See eg White (1997); White (2000).
v. Women who identify themselves as Third World Feminists are not necessarily located physically in the South - one of the best known in GAD circles, for example, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, in fact lives in the United States.
vi. A similar argument could be made along class - and sometimes ethnic - lines
, with respect to 'women' nationals of the same country, who comprise 'developers' and their 'target groups.'
vii It is now more common for men to take responsibility for gender issues within development agencies, however this is still relatively rare, and usually involves an explicit extension of gender concerns to include men and masculinities also.
viii. More recent work in Gender and Development offers a corrective to this simple narrative, both in recognising differences between categories of women and in admitting that some may gain some advantages - see eg Lim's (1990) critique of Elson and Pearson (1984) and Pearson's (1992) incorporation of this.
ix. Featherstone and Trinder (1997) make similar points in the very different context of social policy discussions of violence within the family in the UK.
x. Similar problems are raised by Lawrence Grossberg (1996) with respect to the centrality of 'identity' in cultural studies.