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What Third World Women Want

According to first world feminists

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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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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