Gender (inequality) and (under)Development

Severe criticism of the Washington consensus ushered the development of the post-Washington consensus. Despite being narrated as a paradigm shift in development policy, the post-Washington consensus, whilst claiming to support social issues (unlike its predecessor), merely tinkers with existing policy, failing to modify or even contest the foundations of the global political economy (GPE).

Some even argue that the post-Washington consensus is designed, not to emancipate, but rather to create a healthier, more productive workforce and a stronger capitalist hegemony: the emancipation of capital, not labour Here, Jake Flavell examines the current Gender and Development (GAD) policy consensus, a pillar of the post-Washington consensus and discusses whether GAD is something new, or merely the same old development consensus with gender ‘added on’.

The ‘Girl Effect’, launched at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2008 and backed by the Nike Foundation, is symptomatic of current development policy’s failure to think beyond the one-dimensional western capitalist model of development. The proposal of how to solve the problem of gender inequality and underdevelopment in general, is presented as obvious: draw women into the formal capitalist GPE either as educated (therefore more productive) workers or ‘good’ mothers.

As the video shows, the ‘Girl Effect’s’ framing of the issue is vastly oversimplified and importantly depoliticised which does more to reproduce existing conditions that, if not cause, at least structure the very nature of the problem. It is not only assumed that all women act in the same way, are blighted by the same problems, but that by ‘investing’ in women  we can solve underdevelopment in one fell swoop. However it proposes more of the same, mainly pushing an entrepreneurial subjectivity but also through increased financialisation in the day-to-day lives of subaltern women.

Thus what we find is that GAD is still firmly situated within the foundations of neoliberal political economy, attempting to solve the problems emerging from the context of neoliberal policy, with more neoliberal economic policy! The focus on social issues like gender hasn’t damaged or sufficiently changed the neoliberal consensus, but has been absorbed within it.

Implicitly connected to the ‘Girl Effect’ is the darling of GAD policy; microcredit. This policy seeks to provide poor people (mainly women) with financial services they previously couldn’t access. Again what we find is what appears innocent, is far from it. The way out of poverty and to female empowerment is not a fundamental shift in the foundations of the current development consensus, but an extension of the financialisation and marketization so associated with neoliberalism!

©World Bank Photo Collection/Creative Commons License


Not only does this further entrench indebtedness, a severe obstacle to development, but it also reproduces a particular neoliberal subjectivity. As individuals are addressed as investors and entrepreneurs, their way of subjectivising the world falls within the remits of the neoliberal worldview thus reproducing the ideological conditions for the continuation of the neoliberal project.

The limited emancipation that the ‘Girl Effect’ and microcredit offer is compounded by how they both essentialise what it is to be a woman. In the first case, the Girl Effect assumes that women will make the same decisions and have the same quality of life all over the developing world. If we invest in women, they will make sound, responsible economic decisions.

Similarly, in the latter case, microcredit is often applied on a gendered basis due to the assumption that women are naturally better investments. In one sense this further reproduces the neoliberal subjectivity as women’s emancipation is presented not just a good in itself, but as a good investment. In another sense simply by theorising some immutable universal characteristics of women it gives credence to other naturalisations of female characteristics that have led to women being pigeonholed into particular roles. This is supposedly what the ‘Girl Effect’ and microcredit aim to remedy!

Thus what we find is a deeply contradictory enterprise: they ‘want’ to allow subaltern women autonomy in their lives by prescribing a particular life choice. Emancipating them from patriarchal tradition that assume women’s inferiority by further assuming more natural characteristics that conveniently make them the perfect neoliberal subjects.

Further, bear in mind the ‘Girl Effect’ was not shown to villagers in rural India, it was unveiled at the WEF to those who currently play the biggest roles in the running of the GPE. Thus, in their calls for people to act (particularly how and who should act) it creates definite binaries between the enlightened, liberated, western woman and the subaltern woman bound by tradition.

Through this binary of ‘us and them’, it supports definite power relations between the powerful capitalist West and subaltern ‘Other’ whom are deemed powerlessand need to be saved, thus perfectly encapsulating what Spivak called ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’

©World Bank Photo Collection/Creative Commons License

©World Bank Photo Collection/Creative Commons License

If subaltern women are going to be emancipated like women supposedly are in the West they need to become more western and follow the West’s singular, one-dimensional model of development. Further, not only are the ‘underdeveloped’ not allowed to decide the direction of their ‘development’ but they can’t do it on their own! They need the good people at organisations such as the WEF to kickstart and guide their journey to be as ‘developed’ as we supposedly are in the West.

Despite attempting to solve a very real problem, the ‘Girl Effect’, microcredit and GAD policy in general is constitutive of and contributes to the reproduction of the very real power relations that have caused or at least structured the nature of this problem in the first place.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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