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Feminists in Development Organizations: important new book for anyone (including not-particularly-feminists) trying to influence their institution

May 15, 2014
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At first glance, a book called called ‘Feminists in Development Organizations’ looks like a bit of aid biz navel gazing. But if you are working in a large Feminists in Dev Orgsbureaucracy and want it to do more on just about any big issue (women’s rights, but also environmentalism, disabled rights, tertiary education, urban livelihoods), this book is worth a read.

Feminist Bureaucrats (the authors’ preferred title) is written by a network of gender specialists in aid agencies and NGOs, who have been supporting each other over the years in trying to push women’s rights higher up the agenda of their organizations.

It’s hard work, not least because ‘a feminist bureaucrat appears a contradiction in terms’, an uncomfortable insider-outsider position where you can easily be written off both as an unhelpful activist by your bosses and not-so-feminist colleagues, and as a sell-out by the more ‘outsider’ wing of the feminist movement. Even victories can be frustrating, since they are so often partial, e.g. your organization adopts the language of women’s rights but promptly instrumentalizes it into ‘girls’ education is good for growth’. Cue gnashing of teeth.

In a concluding chapter the editors, Rosalind Eyben (ex IDS) and Laura Turquet (UN Women) argue that the trick is to understand and exploit ‘the advantages of living on the edge’. Feminist bureaucrats need to be

‘Tempered radicals, seeking a succession of small wins that, accumulatively and over time, they hope may reduce inequity and promote social justice. Their tempered radicalism places them, voluntarily, on the border, the edge, or the periphery of the development agencies that employ them. Yet despite being a personal choice, the feeling of ambiguity about their location is uncomfortable.’

But working on the edge offers four advantages (though these blessings look pretty mixed to me)

  1. ‘A sense of powerlessness’ creates radicalization and a sense of solidarity both with marginalized women everywhere and with fellow sufferers in other organizations.
  2. ‘Reduced visibility’: however much feminist bureaucrats ‘crave legitimacy from the broader feminist movement’ they are often more effective when working ‘under the radar, at things management is likely to disapprove of.’
  3. ‘Critical consciousness’: Maintaining a critical independence from your organization, and relying on your personal network for support and sustenance. While you may be tempted to slag off foot-dragging bosses in public, the authors recommend guerrilla tactics, such as discreetly mobilizing outsider networks (‘you may want to read paragraph X in the draft document and send in your comments’).
  4. ‘Two way relationships’: don’t just hang out with your feminist mates, build relationships with others in the bureaucracy, swap favours etc (as true of internal advocacy as external) and be nice. As Patti O’Neill of the OECD argues ‘we need to avoid being ‘the finger-wagging gender police’.

The editors conclude with a practical checklist on how to work on the inside

  • Building external and internal alliances
  • Leveraging outside pressure
  • Creating win-win situations
  • Preparing for and seizing opportunities
  • Coping with bureaucratic resistance (eg bypassing middle management and going to the top… ‘to not bang pointlessly on a firmly closed door, but to find a side door that can be pushed open’)

In many ways, this is all about applying the advocacy tools we use to influence governments, companies etc to achieving change within our own organizations (alliances, win-wins, implementation gaps, relationships, spotting and seizing windows of opportunity etc).

Pakistani-womens-rights-a-007But the added delicacy here is that of loyalty and identification. Unless they are very odd indeed, everyone working in an institution has multiple loyalties (to their employer, their team, their wider network, their community, their family, their pets) and there are often tensions between them. Navigating these tensions with integrity is an essential part of your job.

But judging from this book, and my own experience in Oxfam, that navigation is particularly frustrating for gender specialists. Why is that? Are their beliefs uniquely rejected by their organizations? (hard to buy that in Oxfam at least). Is it because working on these issues is far more personal and immediate than identifying with some more conceptual tribe (governance advisers, bloggers)? Or that the gap between lip service and reality is particularly wide?

At this point, having lit the blue touch paper, I think I will retire and leave it to you…….


  1. No, I don’t think a book about feminism and development/aid is navel-gazing. Indeed, kind of an odd opener…

    Leaving that aside: how does the book tackle the meta of gender distribution within the aid sector itself? I’d love to see someone directly discuss the gender balance of donor agencies, NGOs, research organizations – especially at leadership levels? Off the top of my head, the World Bank is *very* under-represented, especially in the top positions. J-PAL/IPA fare better. But gender parity in development/aid decision-making and research is still pretty abysmal, as in most other fields. We should practice what we preach, etc and so on.

  2. One aspect at the very heart of this issue is power, personal power and it’s use or abuse of it. Addressing power dynamics within an organisation is a tricky business especially when seeking value based changed when not all agree with the values, or worse appear to agree and secretly disagree. Becoming self aware on the acquisition and use of power and being willing to share and give power away is one of the issues that need to be openly discussed and addressed. This requires a level of openness, vulnerability and self awareness that organisations don’t necessarily foster in the target driven, competitive environment.

  3. Why is the heat SO strong around gender and not so much around race or disability or other such issues (at least in the parts of the world I’m most familiar with)? My take is that gender, as well as being an issue that affects everyone, is an issue doesn’t just affect everyone, but it affects ALL of us right into the centre of our private, social and family lives, not just in the workplace, or in public spaces. So the power inequalities, and the changes that it would take to really achieve equality, affect everyone at the level of individual identity – and when you feel challenged there, you can get very self-protective and defensive. It’s not a topic any of us can walk away from.

    For whatever reason, at least where I am, the norms around race, and to some extent disability, have made it into public acceptance – to be accused of racism, for example, increasingly requires serious action – resignations etc – but to be accused of sexism still elicits laughter derision and disbelief. There’s a way to go yet!

  4. It seems rather depressing that the only way feminists can be heard is to try to be as subtle as possible. While the word feminism may strike fear in certain people – I can’t imagine that many (or at least many that work in development) would strongly advocate against better equality for women, so why do we have to slip it in while pretending we’re talking about something else?

    By trying to avoid being ‘the finger-wagging gender police’ (which is a terrible phrase) all that is likely happens is people won’t take your convictions seriously. In the end, do people who sit on the fence trying not to make a fuss ever make that much difference?

    Oh and if you are unsure if you are a feminist, it might be worth taking this quiz:

  5. Sorry, I still don’t get it!

    “‘girls’ education is good for growth’. Cue gnashing of teeth.” Surely this depends on the aims of the organisation?

    If the organisation exists to promote growth then why the gnashing of teeth? If the aim is prevention of malaria then the organisation should check if the education of girls is relevant to its mission.

    My opinion is that girls’ education is good for very many reasons – and listing those reasons without exaggeration is also a very good thing to do.

    1. Fair enough, but if you regard women’s rights as intrinsic and worthwhile in themselves, it grates when they are constantly justified in terms of something else!

      1. But then why do people feel the need to justify them in other terms? When you start to unravel it, the question it not a whether women’s rights are important, but why actively fighting for them is seen as a bad thing?

        (I can’t work out a way this won’t sound antagonistic, but commenting on the only obvious male on here rather drives home the point).

  6. Many things have intrinsic value, but charities in the UK have defined aims that they are legally bound to follow. I expect DFID and other players also have a defined mission. People promoting a single issue such as feminism, biodiversity, freedom from torture, whatever… they have to convince the leaders of their INGO that tackling their cause is a good way of fulfilling the charitable aims and a good use of the money that people have given to that charity.

    Emily: Is actively fighting for feminist issues seen as a bad thing? I have found the opposite. People (probably sceptical men) can be persuaded by a rational argument backed up with good data, the problem comes either when bad data is used or when the feminist conclusion is assumed to both be right and unquestionable.

  7. Thanks very much for the review, Duncan, and for the comments all. A few responses and reactions. Mandy, you’re absolutely right that discussions about power in big institutions require some difficult conversations and willingness to be open. We found in the process of bringing feminists together to create this collection that there is a real cautiousness about telling these stories and being honest about the challenges, and there was at least one chapter which we couldn’t include because the author’s organization would not authorize it. Emily, the authors of the chapters found the need to temper their radicalism a real challenge. Many have previously worked in feminist organizations and have grappled with the decision to become an ‘insider’. But ultimately these big organizations have a lot of power and money. As one said ‘we must occupy these spaces’ and make them work for women’s rights, which was of course the whole idea behind gender mainstreaming. If you are very vociferous and activist in these organizations, you quickly become very marginalized and unable to affect any change at all, which is why we tend to use more subtle approaches and tactics, often against our instincts. These are often most effective when used in partnership with more radical ‘outsiders’ and their more activist strategies. And Pete, yes many feminist bureaucrats reluctantly use instrumental arguments for women’s rights. Aside from the fact that it pains us to have to go beyond the intrinsic value of women’s rights, the problem with these arguments is that sometimes gender equality doesn’t lead to higher growth etc. In South Korea, for example, highly gender unequal wages actually fueled that country’s industrialization and economic growth. If you sacrifice the argument for the intrinsic value of women’s rights, you are pulling the rug from under yourself.

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