We’ve Moved

The mdev blog has moved! We’re joining our fellow student initiatives over at the GISA site, so you can find us here from now on: http://devblog.mygisa.ch/

Visit the new and improved development blog!

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Essentialization: Another problem with gender in development

Part 2: Essentialization: Women are strong/good/peaceful/caring/etc

Every time I see a sentence that starts with “women are….” or “men are….” I just feel exhausted. Generalizing about 3 billion people is a doomed and stupid project, and yet it continues. And continues. In Cosmo, in sitcoms, and sadly even in gender and development.

Andrea Cornwall has argues in the Guardian that gender in development continues to use and perpetuate certain gender myths:

“that women are more industrious and responsible than men, that women politicians can’t be corrupt and always represent women’s interests, that women care more for their children and the environment and that they are closer to the earth…”

And of course too often men are implied to be the opposite: the violent aggressor, the lazy husband, the selfish drunk, the disinterested father.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t study gender gaps. Gender gaps are real, and it’s useful to measure them. It’s useful to know what poor households tend to spend on men’s consumption vs women’s consumption vs children’s consumption. It’s useful to know how that balance changes depending on who controls the finances. But it’s important to keep these numbers in perspective, because

  1. Statistics have to be treated as statistics. While it’s useful to know that “men tend to spend more on personal consumption by an average of n%” it doesn’t mean that all men spend more. I know, it’s an obvious point – everybody knows that. But way too often it seems like because of a statistic it’s ok to imagine and talk about two homogenous groups of people, and that hides all the variation within groups and all the overlap between them.
  2. Statistics are only descriptive. Not asking “why” leaves the impression that a statistical difference is some kind of inherent gender difference, to be reacted to rather than examined.

By using “men” and “women” as functional categories in rhetoric and programming (this money is for women, this program is for men, etc) don’t we just further entrench the idea that men and women are different in some kind of essential, basic way? Too much programming assumes a-priori that the woman is always the caretaker, and by using that sex-based definition accepts that the woman should be the caretaker. The caretaker role (or the peacekeeper role or the self-sacrificing role, or whatever) becomes further defined as some kind of innately gendered trait.

I realize that obviously no one literally thinks that all women are nurturing and all men are irresponsible. But we all need to be more careful about the lazy generalizations that sometimes underlie our thinking, because programming based on that will perpetuate this essentialization and exclude those who don’t fit our stereotype.

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Girls as tools: one problem with gender in development

[In honor of all the gender thinking everyone has been doing this month (last night’s Vagina Monologues success, International Women’s day on March 8th) I have three posts on gender and development. Each is about one thing I don’t like in the way development tackles gender, but please don’t think I hate everything about the gender in development agenda – I don’t. And please don’t think I’m any kind of gender expert – I’m not, so please improve my opinions!]

Part 1: Girls as tools: aka “women for development” rather than “development for women”

Invest in girls and they will lift their families out of poverty!

I have two problems with this (and Aid Watch has some more):

  1. I know it sounds too obvious, but shouldn’t we invest in girls because they’re people? Doesn’t everyone, whether they are destined to reshape their community or not, deserve education and opportunity? I mean if we discovered that boys provided a greater rate of return would it be ok to abandon girls’ education?
  2. These campaigns are too quick to use the fact that women will spend more on their children (for example) without questioning why that’s true. (more on this in a second)

Similarly, consider the argument that more microcredit/cash transfers/etc should go into women’s hands because from there they are more likely to be spent on the children. It’s not that I think the statistics (women spend n% more on their children) aren’t true. I might even agree that using this fact is a good idea at least for certain projects or at least in the short term. But I think it’s a mistake to just use this fact uncritically. We should really think hard about the reasons this statistic is true: why are women more inclined to spend extra income on their children?

Banerjee and Duflo argue in their book Poor Economics that it’s exactly women’s traditional family-centered role that makes them such “useful” development tools:

“It is now, for example, widely recognized that public support programs that put money in the hands of women… may be much more effective in directing resources toward children… … At least one of us is inclined to interpret this evidence as saying that men are just a lot more selfish than women. But it may also be that this is where the norms and social expectations…kick in. Perhaps women are expected to do things for the family when they get some windfall of cash and men are not. …. Paradoxically, it may be precisely because of women’s traditional role in the family that public policy can get some mileage by empowering them.”

By uncritically using traditional expectations of women in this way, are we asking women to become the financial centers of the household as well as the domestic centers, while asking nothing of (and offering nothing to) men? Are we in fact reinforcing those expectations, or even capitalizing on them in the name of development?

(Coming tomorrow and the next day: essentialization, and men in development)

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Japan 3.11 Earthquake and Tsunami One Year On

One year ago, Japan had a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and Tsunami, which took 15854 lives and caused radioactive leakage at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. 3155 people are still not found and over 340,000 moved out from original housing voluntary or involuntary.

First, I would like to express my sympathy to those who lost their lives and who still suffers, and my deepest appreciation to the condolences, messages and support from all over the world. Over 1 billion dollar donation, thousands of messages sent under #prayforjapan, immediate rescue assistance from many countries and the other forms of support — those activities definitely helped Japanese people both physically and mentally.

I was in Geneva on the day, so I came to know the disaster by the phone call from my family. Every news and videos showed the tragic situation and it made me feel so powerless and guilty to be away from Japan and just sitting in front of the computer screen.

During this one year, Japan has experienced many stages and events as time passed by; the solidarity expressed from overseas, and within Japan including ‘Jishuku’ movement, which everyone refrain from consumption of non-essential goods, and the countermovement in order to re-boost the economy, malfunction and distrust toward the cabinet and the change of Prime Minister, import restrictions on ‘made-in-Japan’ and electricity shortage due to the stop of nuclear plant.

Majority of Japanese people outside Tohoku area has already re-gained their ordinary life, but we still need time for the reconstruction. “3.11” was an extremely painful and complex event, but the learning from this recovery process would be an asset, not only for Japan, but also for all the countries.

I wish you would remember the day until the sun rises again.

Here are some links:

Photos: Disaster survivors express their wishes for 2012 (Mainichi Newspaper)

Photos: Situation in Tohoku just after the catastrophe (New York Times)

WHO’s view in answer to nuclear concerns

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KONY 2012… raising what exactly?

As everyone is now aware, Invisible Children released their 11th video on Joseph Kony and the LRA a couple of days ago:

and the controversy over Invisible Children and their movies has multiplied. Several sources (for example) have noted that almost 70% of IC’s funding goes towards staff salaries, travel, and film production, leaving only about 30% for services, and that Charity Navigator gives them only two stars for transparency and accountability.

As a lot of people have pointed out though, the criticism of 70% “overhead” doesn’t really make sense since IC’s main goal is awareness-raising rather than service provision. The cost of movies and other marketing at least should probably not count as overhead. And as you can probably tell from your facebook or twitter feed, they’ve been extremely successful at the awareness-raising and advocacy game. But this raises the more important criticisms: what exactly have they been successfully marketing?

  • The KONY 2012 film claims that the problem is that Kony “isn’t famous enough”, but as Justice in Conflict points out, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. As the film itself notes, Kony is already officially “wanted” by the ICC and the LRA is one of the most well-known armed groups in the world. This suggests that the problem isn’t unknown, just difficult to solve.
  • But IC, apparently believing that this is an “easy but ignored” problem, logically advocates for the “easy” solution: kill the bad guy. Unfortunately as Visible Children argues  this solution isn’t so simple for several reasons. First, because the Ugandan army, which IC thinks should be supported in order to facilitate the capture, is accused of various crimes including rape and looting (and never mind the fact that Kony hasn’t been in Uganda since 2006). And second, because the US Africa Command has in fact sent several missions after Kony, but they have been extremely complicated both because he uses children as bodyguards and because each failed attempt has provoked retaliative killings.
  • And finally, even if Kony were killed, what then? IC seems to think this is a one-man problem but the reality will be much messier. Foreign Affairs argues that the LRA is “as much a symptom as a cause” of the violence that has plagued the region since the mid 1990s, and that even without Kony LRA fighters would likely morph into another group. And of course as many of the perpetrators are also victims  (child soldiers) it will be hard to find black-and-white justice for anyone.
A lot of sources have also criticized not just what IC advocates but how. In particular that the films (like IC’s board of directors) lack any Ugandan or even African voices (with the exception of the victim Jacob), present Africans as defenseless and passive, present Americans as saviours, and generally focus much more on the greatness of IC’s founder Jason Russell than on the issues. Elliot Ross at Africa is a Country has written a particularly cutting piece on this, arguing that this “awareness raising” is doing more harm than good:
To ask people to climb down from the soaring heights of “Kony 2012” (remember how we fall down into Uganda from the heavenly realms of Jason Russell’s Facebook page?), a place where they get to feel both sanctified and superior, and truly descend into the mire of history and confusion is simply too big an ask. It would be boring and difficult and it would not be about Facebook or Angelina Jolie or coloured wristbands or me. When the euphoria evaporates and the Twittersphere has dried its tears (probably by the end of this week), all that remains will be yet another powerful myth of  African degradation beneath Western power–and Jason Russell will be famous and rich.
The question of the day comes from Joshua Keating: “what are the consequences of unleashing so many exuberant activists armed with so few facts?”
But then again, maybe that’s selling everyone a bit short… the film may be misleading but if people are critical enough to go out and actually find out about the LRA after reading it, then maybe it’s all for the best. Or is that wishful thinking?

**Update** An excellent video response to the KONY campaign from a Ugandan blogger and reporter. Really worth six minutes:
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Call for Links

Worldly IHEID-ers, who are your favorite development bloggers? Or to expand it a little, your favorite independent related-to-development writers and sites?

Following this year’s round of the awkwardly named Aid Blogger’s Best Awards (ABBAs) there has been a bit of back-and-forth about the fact that the popularly-elected “best blogs” are mostly written by white male western academics. The gender divide is puzzling considering the number of women in development (witness IHEID’s own gender divide).

I don’t really want to wade into the “why” debate, but I would like to diversify at least our own blogroll (on the right hand side there), so nominate away! Let’s put our ridiculous geographic diversity to work! Any region, any language, any (development-ish) focus. You can even list another male western academic if you like.


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A reflection on alternative medicine

Over the past few weeks, one of my best friends and I have been having bitter arguments over the use and validity of alternative medicine. These arguments have been mostly theoretical in nature, and I was engaging in them partly out of a desire to exercise my debating skills and partly out of frustration over the fact that my friend believed that eating more vegetables and employing ‘magical thinking’ could cure cancer.

That is, until I stumbled (thanks to Marisa) across this chapter: http://www.badscience.net/2009/04/matthias-rath-steal-this-chapter/ . In case you don’t feel like reading it, it is mainly about Matthias Rath, doctor, businessman and ‘vitamin entrepreneur.’ Rath sells natural supplements, claiming that they can treat and/or cure a vast array of completely pathologically unrelated diseases like cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and AIDS.

Now, everything would have been fine and dandy if Mr. Rath had kept his natural supplement sales on the local market in Palo Alto, California where he worked. Unfortunately, in the early 2000s he decided to expand his business to South Africa, and therein Rath incurred the wrath (pun intended) of almost every health-related NGO and IO (including the UN). This wrath was triggered by the fact that Matthias Rath actively campaigned in the South African press against anti-retroviral drugs, with headlines such as “Why should South Africans continue to be poisoned with AZT? There is a natural answer to AIDS.” As it turns out, he had taken his business to the right place. Then-South African president Thabo Mbeki was a well know AIDS dissident, having banned the use of anti-retrovirals in state hospitals and rejected the idea that AIDS is caused by HIV. Rath thus received government support and protection for his vitamin treatments, while encouraging patients to shun conventional AIDS medicine. The details of the estimated impact of the Mbeki government policies and Rath’s actions can be found in the linked article, but they are nonetheless unnecessarily high. Rath’s trials and treatments have been denounced by both the South African and international medical communities and have been declared illegal by the South African courts.

Promoting vitamin treatments even at the expense of conventional medicine is one thing if you do it in the bio-crazed region of Northern California. At least the vast majority of people living in NorCal have access to plenty of information and can make their own educated choices on which treatment they wish to pick. Inundating the poorest regions of South Africa with propaganda against life-saving medicine to amass more wealth at the expense of patient welfare and suing anyone who speaks out against you is, on the other hand, completely unacceptable in my eyes. Were international law better defined, Rath could potentially be accused of crimes against humanity. Regardless, as development students we should be informed of such cases as Rath’s, which, in a sense, work in the exact opposite direction of the stated intentions of human and social development. Certainly the chapter I have linked contains a lot more information and my short response does not do it justice, but I invite all readers to give their two cents on this matter. As a conclusion I will leave you off with a quote from the author, which explains why Matthias Rath’s case also serves as a commentary on the alternative medicine community as a whole:

“Despite the extremes of this case, not one single alternative therapist or nutritionist, anywhere in the world, has stood up to criticize any single aspect of the activities of Matthias Rath and his colleagues. In fact, far from it: he continues to be fêted to this day. I have sat in true astonishment and watched leading figures of the UK’s alternative therapy movement applaud Matthias Rath at a public lecture (I have it on video, just in case there’s any doubt). Natural health organisations continue to defend Rath. Homeopaths’ mailouts continue to promote his work. […] Not one person will step forward and dissent.
The alternative therapy movement as a whole has demonstrated itself to be so dangerously, systemically incapable of critical self-appraisal that it cannot step up even in a case like that of Rath: in that count I include tens of thousands of practitioners, writers, administrators and more. This is how ideas go badly wrong. In the conclusion to this book, written before I was able to include this chapter, I will argue that the biggest dangers posed by the material we have covered are cultural and intellectual.”

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