Feminism in international development

22 October 2014

A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to sit down with a few fabulous ladies who work in international development, to ask them about their experiences as feminists within their sector, and also their opinions on the role of feminism within global development.

The recording of the discussion we had aired last night on Berlin Community Radio (with a short introduction from Kate and I, and some gorgeous tunes from Naomi Wachira), and you can listen to the show below. I also wanted to quickly highlight here a few key points that stood out for me throughout the discussion.

Generally, we agreed upon the need to make thinking about ‘gender inequality’ a key component of not just positions or projects with “Gender” or “Women’s Empowerment” in the title, but of all projects and programmes in international development. However, it became clear that just thinking about these issues clearly isn’t enough to make transformative change actually happen; the examples that Crystal gave towards about halfway through the discussion of how projects aimed at providing sanitary products to girls had failed terribly, are a good example of why.

I thought the example Maliha mentioned at the beginning of global development practitioners giving the excuse of wanting to “respect” local context as a reason not to address gender imbalances, extremely pertinent. I’ve been (and still am, in many ways) an active advocate of respecting local contexts and cultures - but obviously, there need to be exceptions. The example that came to my mind while listening back was of projects that address Female Genital Mutilation, even when it has formed part of local traditions for a long time; clearly, here, the fact that it is ‘tradition’ should not discourage anyone from working to end it.

I also hadn’t thought so clearly about the ultimate goal of global development; it’s easy to think of it as ‘ending poverty’ or an equally vague statement, but the aim of making activities on the international development agenda become national priorities, or simply regular activities, is much clearer.  

It’s also easy to forget, sometimes, that the change we’re all working for is naturally happening slowly. Among those changes will hopefully be the people working in the sector, as well as the impact of development in poor countries

Concretely: I’ve commented before on the prevalence of middle-aged white men within the international development sector (for example, at the Open Development Camp which I attended last week, the first 5 speakers on the Friday were all white men, from rich countries) and it frustrates me greatly. Admittedly, lots have spent a lot of time living in poor countries, or working in certain areas, but the fact remains that their perspective on the world, especially if their cultural roots lie solely in rich countries, is a universe away from the people they are trying to help. I wonder how things will look in the future, when hopefully leadership positions among major INGOs and NGOs will change to more accurately reflect the people they are working with.

And within all this social good that we’re trying to achieve in the world, the fact remains that microaggressions of discrimination are rife within the international development sector itself; another thing that, I imagine, white men working in the sector will be largely unaware of. It really is all too easy to use a critical lens on people affected by a project we’re working on, and fail entirely to turn the same critical eye upon ourselves; I know I’m guilty of this in some cases, and need to improve.

All in all, my biggest takeaway from our discussion was that for us, the main priority of development when conducted through a feminist lens would be focusing on girls’ education; not just providing schools, but actually the quality of education, and making sure they can attend without any external pressures stopping them. It was a fascinating discussion, and I’m keen to follow up and keep reading and learning about the topic!

Big thanks so much to the special guests for taking their time to discuss the topic: it was much appreciated!


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