Cambridge, Mass.

The good news about the conference earlier this year titled “Driving Change, Shaping Lives: Gender in the Developing World” was that no one said, “Women hold up half the sky.” The bad news was that someone might as well have uttered this chestnut, reputed to be one of Mao Zedong’s favorite Chinese proverbs and a perennial favorite of feminists.

The subtheme of the two-day event, sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the women’s studies think tank that occupies what used to be the campus of Radcliffe College before it merged with Harvard, was how colorful, if chronically impoverished, the developing world can be, especially its women. The conference program was illustrated by photographs of developing-world people clad in ethnic costumes taken by a Harvard freshman who had been lucky enough or rich enough to take trips far abroad while still in high school: a veiled female crusher of argan nuts in Morocco (“She works at a women’s co-op,” the text read), a child beggar in India tricked out like the god Krishna, a Buddhist monk in China working a cell phone (an illustration of what the Harvard-freshman photographer called cross-cultural “hybridity”).

Most of the panelists at the conference and nearly all the audience of 150 or so was female. Indeed Asim IJaz Khwaja, a public policy professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and a rare male panelist, declared self-deprecatingly, “I take such pleasure in being a minority and being stymied by the intellectual ferment here.” Some of the women wore hijabs, saris, and towering sub-Saharan headdresses that announced their developing-world provenance​—​but most of them wore the uniform of First World women in academia: sensible slacks, puffy vests, and backpacks. All but a few of the former group were government officials, parliamentarians, and NGO activists from the countries that their ethnic dress denoted. As for the latter group, they were mostly what they looked like: professors and graduate students in such fields as politics, international relations, and, of course, women’s studies.

No sooner had we settled into our seats and listened to some opening boilerplate than came .  .  . the praise poetry. The poet, a rangy young man who leaped and chanted exuberantly down the center aisle, was Siyabulela Lethuxolo Xuza of Johannesburg. Although brightly clad in a dashiki-like overshirt and headband, Xuza was actually a Harvard engineering major who as a high school student had won a top prize in Intel Corp.’s International Science and Engineering Fair and had an asteroid named after him​—​in other words, a typical résumé for a Harvard undergraduate. Swooping and whirling, Xuza chanted his praise poem in a lilting South African language that featured numerous tongue-clicks. He never got around to translating his poem, but he did assure his audience that it was relevant to the conference: “This is about gender issues and cultural issues. I tried to use my act to entertain you on issues of gender.”

“Wow!” exclaimed Swanee Hunt, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Hunt chairs the Institute for Inclusive Security, a think tank based in Cambridge and Washington that, according to its website, promotes “the vital but often unrecognized role” women play “in averting violence and resolving conflict.” As Xuza swirled gracefully to a final round of applause, Hunt rhapsodized, “I love the energy​—​isn’t it great?”

The first speaker was Valerie M. Hudson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, leading off a panel titled “Shifting Populations.” Hudson delivered a genuine population-shift shocker: In China and India, which between them account for about 40 percent of the world’s 7 billion people, women, who in the West slightly outnumber men because they tend to live longer, are outnumbered by the male sex to the tune of 33 million in China and 28 million in India. The reason? As Hudson explained, it was the female-lethal combination of sex-selection abortion following the advent of fetal ultrasound during the 1980s and China’s longtime one-child policy, which has resulted in widespread female infanticide along with many forced abortions. As she rattled off disturbing statistics​—​120 boy babies for every 100 girl babies in China in 2005, and 121 for every 100 in India​—​Hudson pointed out that sex-selection abortion and female infanticide are illegal in both countries, but the laws on the books have failed to dent the cultural phenomenon of “son preference” in Asia, in which sons are valued because they’re expected to support elderly parents, whereas daughters often cost dowry money. “That’s 90 million missing women,” Hudson said.

In 2004 she and Andrea den Boer, a lecturer in politics and international affairs at the University of Kent, had published a book, Bare Branches, about the negative repercussions for a society, such as in China, that produces large numbers of surplus young men who cannot find wives and form families. “Those who don’t marry tend to have no skills and no education,” Hudson explained. “They are already at risk for violent behavior, since young men without stable social bonds tend to commit most violent crimes. They tend to be targets for military recruitment, and societies with surplus males tend to be marked by an aggressive foreign policy and ethnic groups pitted against each other.”

Maybe it was because abortion makes women’s studies people skittish, but Hudson’s ominous statistics​—​and indeed her entire presentation​—​were promptly forgotten, submerged in what might be called the Battle of the Filipina Hostesses. The combatants were Hudson’s two fellow panelists, Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and self-described former Filipina hostess, and Amy O’Neill Richard, a senior adviser in the State Department’s Office of Trafficking in Persons, a priority project of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. During the 1980s and 1990s tens of thousands of young women were imported into Japan by labor contractors from the chronically impoverished Philippines to sing, dance, flirt with, and coax drink purchases from stressed-out salarymen in bars and nightclubs​—​until a 2005 crackdown by the Japanese government reduced the hostesses’ numbers by 90 percent, from 80,000 in 2004 to 8,000 in 2006. Few of the Filipinas, it seemed, had any training as the professional entertainers that their visas said they were. The Japanese government maintained that most of them were actually prostitutes or near-prostitutes, pushed into long hours of dubious servitude by the contractors and the clubs, many of which had ties to yakuza mobsters. A spate of brutal murders of hostesses​—​along with some murders committed by hostesses of their pimps​—​fueled the drive to clamp down on the hostess business and send most of the women back to the Philippines.

Taking the podium after Hudson, Parreñas went on the warpath. She announced that she had no intention of abiding by the 10-minute presentation limit for panelists and then proceeded to read a fiery 20-minute paper that she titled “Migration as Indentured Mobility: The Moral Regulation of Migrant Women.” The paper blasted the hostess crackdown as part of “a U.S.-backed war” against “sex work” fueled by “moral imperialism and conservative values” (the U.S. government funds anti-trafficking programs in about 70 countries). In the crackdown the hostesses were “stripped of their livelihood,” Parreñas lamented. “They go to Japan of their own volition​—​they’re not drugged or forced to go. They find it empowering to be a hostess.” Parreñas’s theory was that “there are multiple moralities in society,” and that some Filipinas’ moral codes happened to permit “paid sex with the men they call their boyfriends.” The problem, as Parreñas saw it, was that many Japanese clubs tended to have a different “moral culture” from that of the hostesses who worked there, but the hostesses couldn’t quit until their indentures were up. Nonetheless, Parreñas insisted, “most of them resent the United States, and they resent being rescued” from the hostess life by being kicked out of Japan. Her solution to the hostess problem: open immigration in the West for developing-world sex workers so they could get jobs in, say, the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal.

Parreñas proved to be a tough act to follow. Richard, the human-trafficking expert from the State Department, seemed dumbfounded. “I think America is a wonderful country,” she said. She rattled off some information about the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000, along with some alarming-sounding numbers: 70 percent of the estimated 12 to 27 million human-trafficking victims in the world these days are women and girls, most of whom end up in bondage, often sexual bondage, in East Asia and the Middle East. Parreñas was having none of that. “It’s quite tricky to lump all trafficked people together,” she sniffed. “Most migrant workers are domestic workers, and many countries, including the United States, don’t even count domestic work as an occupation.” Nor did Parreñas have any positive words for Hudson and her bare-branches research. “Did you interview any of those single men you describe as psychopathic and poor?” Parreñas demanded of Hudson. “Did they see themselves as unmarriageable?”

The rest of the conference went more or less like that. There were more ethnic entertainments by Harvard undergrads featuring dancing, singing, strumming exotic stringed instruments, and beating on drums. Joyce Banda, longtime gender activist and vice president of Malawi since 2009 (although she is under a political cloud right now, having abandoned her socialist-leaning political party and started her own even more socialist-leaning political party in the middle of her term), said, “Gender and development are where my heart belongs.” Banda, who was costumed dramatically in a multicolored dress and turban, larded her speech with such phrases as “change agents,” “mobilized communities,” and “taking ownership.” She extolled a program she had started in which local chiefs pressure women in their villages to have their babies at medical clinics instead of at home as tradition demands. (So far the brand-new program has yet to make a dent: Malawi has one of the highest maternal death rates in the world, with 1,800 out of every 100,000 pregnant women dying during their infants’ gestation or birth, compared with just 11 women out of 100,000 in this country.)

Another panelist was Mirai Chatterjee, an official with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India, a 1.3 million-member “holistic” organization that seemed to be a combination of women’s collective, NGO, and lobbying headquarters on such issues as full employment and government-subsidized day care. Chatterjee showed many PowerPoint slides of SEWA activities: women in saris handing pamphlets to other women in saris and more women in saris holding meetings. “We are pushing forward for universal health care​—​in that respect we are ahead of the United States,” said Chatterjee as the audience clapped in agreement. At the same time Chatterjee put in a pitch for Ayurvedic herb-based medicine, another SEWA activity. “We are reclaiming our tradition,” she said.

Cecilia María Vélez, former education minister of Colombia (and a visiting professor at Harvard’s education school), lauded her country’s educational progress under her watch. According to Vélez, primary and secondary education in Colombia now revolves around “enhancing citizens’ competencies,” as well as “changing attitudes” about such issues as sex education, “gender equity,” “how to identify and accept differences, and how to communicate feelings.” “Violence comes from not accepting differences,” Vélez declared. On the same panel as Vélez was Thuwayba Al Barwani, dean of the college of education at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman. If Vélez made Colombia sound like an educational paradise in gender-equity terms, Al Barwani made Oman sound like the third heaven. She praised her boss, Qaboos bin Said al Said, who assumed the reins of Oman in 1970, after ousting his father, the previous sultan, in a palace coup (or, as Al Barwani put it, “he took over from his father”). “The country has journeyed for 40 years away from the economic stagnation of that time,” Al Barwani said. “Now, women wear the veil, but it is a matter of choice for them. In 2009 the sultan said that women should participate more in higher education in Oman, so now women outperform men. The university is now 50 percent women, so now Qaboos has agreed on rules to make it easier for boys to succeed in the educational system.”

Ironically, even as Al Barwani was speaking, Omanis were demonstrating in the streets of the Gulf state’s capital, Muscat, and other major cities against the 70-year-old Qaboos, who, progressive though he may be, rules as an absolute monarch. Humaira Awais Shahid, a parliamentarian in the Punjab Assembly in Pakistan (and former fellow at the Radcliffe Institute), argued that “true Islam” encouraged women’s rights and tolerance of minorities​—​just a few days after Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet member, was assassinated, apparently for criticizing his country’s anti-blasphemy laws.

When the panelists weren’t congratulating themselves and their home countries for advanced gender-directed thinking, they were promoting ideas for improving the lives of developing-world women, ideas that invariably involved prominent roles for professors, politicians, government officials, and NGO operatives​—​that is, people like the people on the panels. Microfinance was a favorite, touted by Banda for Malawi (where Banda had set up a microfinance unit), Chatterjee for India, and Shahid for Pakistan (Shahid had authored a 2007 law that mandates “Islamic” microlending​—​that is, interest-free loans). None of the three seemed aware of recent critiques of microfinance​—​tiny loans typically made to poor women in order to help them start businesses​—​which was so much the darling of development agencies just a few years ago that the U.N. designated 2005 as the “International Year of Microcredit,” and Muhammad Yunus, whose Grameen Bank in Bangladesh fired off a microloan explosion, won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.

Recently, though, scholarly studies have criticized microfinance for poor management by NGO-microlenders operating on donor startup capital, high default rates that have necessitated frequent recapitalizations, strong-arm collection tactics by the local “partners” who service the loans, and the general failure of microfinance to alleviate poverty. Many microborrowers, it seems, use their loan proceeds not for business ventures but to fund consumer goods and dowries, or, just as often, to pay off other microloans gone into arrears. Some economists have suggested that poor people in the Third World would be better off setting up microsavings accounts instead. Yunus himself was recently forced into retirement from Grameen amid never-proven charges of corruption. Still, it was all microfinance cheerleading at the Radcliffe Institute: “Microfinance empowers women,” declared Banda.

Esther Duflo, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology poverty-alleviation professor, MacArthur “genius grant” winner, and celebrity on the developmental-economics circuit (she was always surrounded by a retinue of admirers) argued, as part of a “politics” panel, for expanding mandatory gender quotas in elections. The quotas, already in place in India and Rwanda, would require a fixed percentage of legislative seats to be “reserved” for women, presumably so as to advance such “women’s issues” as access to drinking water and improved roads.

On a technology panel, blonde, smartly dressed Kristine Pearson, CEO of Lifeline Energy, an NGO that distributes solar-powered radios in sub-Saharan African villages, made a pitch for “empowering women through power.” She showed slides of sub-Saharan men tuning in avidly to world news and gospel music on their own battery-powered radios​—​nearly their sole connection to the outside world in the large African areas that lack grid electricity​—​to which their womenfolk, not having cash earnings or status in the household, lack access.

“We call sisterhood the alternative grid,” said Pearson. She showed off one of the Lifeline radios to the conference audience: a royal blue, lunchbucket-size plastic contraption that on the minus side looked ugly as sin but on the plus side looked indestructible (and it was). Yet it turned out that the 215,000 radios that Lifeline has distributed since 2003 in Rwanda and elsewhere, paid for by Lifeline donors, don’t go directly to individual women. Indeed, the Lifeline website explicitly warns that the royal blue radios “are not for individual purchase.”

“They’re made for group settings,” Pearson explained to me in a telephone interview a few days after the conference when I expressed puzzlement over Pearson’s claim that a mere 215,000 radios had “reached 10 million people.” (The radios’ bulky dimensions correlate to their capacity for delivering high volume.) Pearson continued: “We work with partner-organizations who identify the beneficiaries”​—​typically other organizations and community leaders who in turn feed villagers educational programming from the radios. It seems that if sub-Saharan women want to empower themselves with Lifeline radios, they have no choice but to do it as part of a group.

The solar-powered (and in case of bad weather, hand-crank-powered) Lifeline radios are also twofers​—​that is, they serve an additional environmental goal (to quote the Lifeline website) as “appropriate” technology. Pearson, during her presentation, criticized solar’s chief competition in rural Africa, “cheap Chinese batteries,” for generating toxic waste. During a break I visited an exhibition connected to the conference titled “New Ideas, Old Challenges: Innovation and the Developing World.” There, Harvard students, postdocs, faculty members, and conference participants (including Pearson’s Lifeline) displayed their ideas for improving life in the Third World. They were a visually unappealing collection of carbon-phobic inventions that it was hard to imagine getting very far in the First World. There was a soccer ball called the “sOccket” that was supposed to generate enough electricity to power an LED light if children kicked it around enough during play. There were “microbial fuel cells” that promised to generate electricity out of the bacteria in dirt. There were insecticide-treated bed nets, the green way of dealing with mosquito-borne malaria now that DDT is under a cloud.

There was also the “Appropriate Rondavel Chimney,” one of countless cookstove designs that Western tinkerers have spent almost four decades trying to persuade rural Third Worlders to use instead of the pollution-generating open fires and braziers on which they have traditionally prepared their meals. Cookstoves are iconic “appropriate” technology. The cookstove movement​—​the effort to build cheap, fuel-efficient stoves for the developing world​—​got going in the West during the 1970s when deforestation from cutting down trees for fuel was a worldwide environmental issue. But now, with climate change trumping tree conservation, the emphasis is on limiting the carbon produced by soot. The problem is that cooks in the developing world have never much taken to the improved stoves that well-meaning engineers and artisans have proffered them. In 1983 the Indian government distributed 35 million free stoves throughout the country, most of which were junked by their owners shortly after their acquisition. Still, the cookstove movement remains very much alive, partly because of its honored place in the global-warming constellation and partly because the lung diseases linked to smoke inhalation during cooking (chimney flues are unknown in much of the Third World) have given cleaner stoves a gender angle as well as a climate-change angle. The “cap and trade” climate-change bill that the House of Representatives passed in 2009 contained a directive, slipped into the bill’s 1,400-odd pages, for the Environmental Protection Agency to identify ways to provide clean stoves to 20 million households worldwide. The bill died in the Senate, but last September Secretary of State Clinton announced a pledge of $50 million to a U.N.-supported global cookstove coalition.

It all seemed depressing, this array of dreary goods designed for impoverished people that few impoverished people seemed willing to buy on their own or use when given to them. The distribution model contemplated by the products’ designers was to pick a dirt-poor country, usually in Africa​—​Rwanda, Sudan, Lesotho, Sierra Leone​—​and then persuade a government agency or an NGO to hand out the bed nets, the environmentally correct stoves, and the electricity-generating soccer balls for nothing. Indeed, the bed net display included a discussion of the freeloader problem: recipients hiding the nets they already owned or pretending to have more children than they actually had so as to qualify for extra nets that they could sell or use for their domestic animals. Some of the products also seemed relatively expensive if one compared their prices with those of similar products available in the profit-oriented First World. For example, according to Kristine Pearson’s website, a single Lifeline radio costs $100 to manufacture and distribute​—​even though commercially manufactured solar-powered radios can be bought retail for as little as $15 on Amazon (more sophisticated solar models sell for up to $150​—​but they are also infinitely sleeker and more versatile than the Lifeline). Nobody at the conference seemed to have asked, much less tried to answer, Freud’s famous question, “What do women want?” Real flesh-and-blood Third World women, that is, not the politicians and NGOs who claimed to represent their interests.

There was one exception. Panelist Robert Jensen, an associate professor of public policy at UCLA’s School of Public Affairs, said that his research in India had revealed that two off-the-grid developments that have had nothing to do with official or collectivist policies​—​access to cable television and “new employment” at call centers and computer-focused document-management operations​—​seem to do a better job of improving the health, educational prospects, and economic value of young women to their families than governmental and nonprofit interventions.

“Even the poor in India have cable TV,” noted Jensen, showing a slide of a sari-clad household fixated on a Bolly-wood soap opera. “When they see women making decisions on television shows, even when those women are presented negatively, as they often are, it correlates with women starting to make household decisions on their own,” said Jensen. “Diodes are a girl’s best friend,” he quipped.

Jensen’s observation about the private sector had corroboration from an unlikely quarter: the conference’s cookstove expert, Kirk R. Smith, professor of global environmental health and director of the Global Health and Environment Program at UC-Berkeley. In a telephone interview a few days after the conference, Smith told me that the most successful low-polluting stoves in terms of actual day-to-day use seem to be those that are commercially manufactured, such as the Oorja stove in India, where only 65 percent of households, mostly in cities, are wired to a grid. The Oorja runs on crop residues processed into pellets and sells for about $25. “I use one for barbecuing at my house,” said Smith. “It’s got a little blower, and you’re cooking in fifteen seconds.”

About a half-million of the stoves, developed, manufactured, and extensively pre-tested on rural consumers by BP, have sold since the stove was introduced in 2007. Part of the Oorja’s success is its visual appeal (it has a shiny stainless-steel façade). “You have to convince the women to use a stove, because they’re the ones who cook,” said Smith. “If you’re used to not paying for something​—​some of these people make stoves out of mud for $2 or they use three rocks for a pot and an open fire​—​it’s a change in thinking to have to pay for something. You can convince women by emphasizing that it’s attractive​—​you appeal to their desire for time-saving and modernity. A lot of the stove people don’t try to design their products to look good.” He added, “Of course, every household ought to have electricity.”

Emily Chamlee-Wright, an economics professor at Beloit College who was not at the Radcliffe Institute conference, has studied informal economic arrangements among women in West Africa. Voluntary credit associations formed by women, for example, have been around in Africa since the 1920s, far longer than microfinance and with built-in cultural norms that discourage abuse, Chamlee-Wright pointed out in a phone interview. Vegetable sellers at the open-air markets in Ghana tend to be “females feeding their families. They’re very well organized. They allot areas for sellers of certain kinds of things, like tomatoes. They have structures for conflict resolution where the dispute goes up to the market queen. I don’t want to disparage NGOs, but they tend to focus on intentional, directed beneficiaries. When trying to figure out how do we generate widespread prosperity, we look for ways to spread unintended as well as intentional benefits: new technologies and inventions, people working together. How do you trigger cascading effects? Something as simple as a cell phone can make a huge difference. Say you’re a farmer, and you’ve got a truckload of tomatoes. You’d have to take a chance on where to sell them and maybe not get the best price. With a cell phone you can call your nephew in the city and have him check the prices for the best market for you. The problem is that most NGOs are still focused on top-down ways to benefit people.”

What women in the developing world need, at least in West Africa, said Chamlee-Wright, are “formal property rights. Lack of clear property rights in rural areas is a huge problem. Those market women think of themselves as owning their stall, but they don’t. The stalls belong to the municipality, which typically sees trading as a problem to be managed. They might tolerate selling on the street, but sometimes they’ll confiscate your goods. And if you don’t own your spot, it makes no sense to invest in your business and grow larger so you can hire other people and give them jobs.”

As Chamlee-Wright pointed out, cash in the hands of developing-world women can buy them autonomy and the improved health care that they crave. But at the Radcliffe Institute it was all, well, praise poetry, sisterhood, and government programs. During a break I chatted with two professors in the audience: Barbara Thomas-Slayter, a research professor specializing in African, gender, and peasant studies at Clark University, and her friend Joanna Hopkins, a retired Russian professor at Yale. “Women are more caring and involved with other people than men,” said Thomas-Slayter. “They’re more interested in peace and less interested in violence, less interested in the total waste of resources.” I asked the pair what they thought would be the most effective way to improve the lot of women in the developing world. “More state support for parents,” Hopkins shot back. Oh, dear.

Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s Minding the Campus website. She wrote about the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in our March 14 issue.

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