Derek Newberry

Making Globalization Work for Women: What is the Role of the Development Community?

lesotho cattleJames Ferguson’s critique of the development paradigm in The Anti-politics Machine focuses on work international agencies were doing in LeSotho to increase family incomes and create a larger cattle market. If I remember the book correctly, the scheme fails due in part to the assumption that if cattle were given to families, they would be able to sell them on the open market and improve their livelihoods.

It turned out that this well-functioning market never materialized due in part to the fact that men were holding onto their livestock indefinitely?. The reason? In this community’s culture, cattle were considered to be the sole property of the husband- if they sold them and brought back cash, their wives would have greater power in the form of disposable income which they could spend without their husband’s oversight. So many of the men simply refused to relinquish control over their household’s wealth.During my time at the Inter-American Foundation, this is a theme that came up repeatedly- how to include women in development. Christine Bowers writes a great piece for PSD Blog on the rise of female entrepreneurship; it reminded me of our research back then because we found that while most development organizations had some gender component ranging from a separate oversight department to a gender filter in screening potential projects, it was difficult to affect change at a grassroots level.

Project specialists with years of experience lamented that in many of the communities they visited, there was a strong culture of male dominance that precluded any involvement by women in deciding how or where development loans would be spent. Sometimes worse tensions would arise if we went straight to the source and gave direct funding to microbusinesses women would run out of their homes- their husbands might get suspicious, take issue with groups of women meeting together with no male presence, etc.

If entrepreneurship is on the rise in places like Chile, as Bowers writes, then all the better- it makes me wonder if any of this new participation by women in the national economy happens in those communities with a strong tradition of patriarchy and how the culture might be changing.

This also gets into a controversial debate over what right development practitioners have to meddle in the hierarchy of a small community. My natural instinct is to say that women have a universal right to total social equality that trumps local cultures- many argue that a Westerner such as myself will never understand the culture and traditions of country X. They might say that not only do I not have a right to impose my views on them, I will probably cause greater gender-based hostilities anyway. Any thoughts on this?