Yesterday’s post on Stefan Dercon‘s lecture got a lot of hits, but also some slaps for its perceived male bias. In response, Alice Evans (, who memorably described Stefan’s list of top development thinkers as a ‘sausagefest’) put together this corrective account of women’s scholarship on development.
Across the world, we tend to venerate men as knowledgeable authorities. These gender stereotypes are self-perpetuating: by paying more attention to their ideas and analysis, citing their work more frequently, we reinforce widespread assumptions of male expertise. We also blinker ourselves to alternative perspectives. This is self-defeating – if we’re trying to understand complex problems.
So, upon popular request (well, 3 people), here are five big problems in international development, plus female scholarship to learn from.
- Poor Governance: demotivated, despondent bureaucrats, pursuing private interests, rather than public service
In response, the international development community has championed: state cut-backs; anti-corruption initiatives (monitoring receipts); and financial incentives.
However, such measures are not always effective. The latest consensus is that state capabilities are strengthened via learning by doing, enhancing bureaucrats’ autonomy, and conveying appreciation (such as via Rwanda’s imihigo ceremonies).
But this is not new. Two decades ago, Judith Tendler analysed the drivers of improved governance. She found that public services improve when bureaucrats have autonomy and feel appreciated by managers. When the government publicly demonstrated admiration of their work, presenting prizes for good performance, workers felt valued, recognised, and sought to live up to these accolades.
It’s a pity her insights were not previously heeded. Ah, the perils of male bias…
Also superb scholars on governance include Merilee Grindle (critiquing the long list of normative requirements included in the ‘good governance’ agenda), Sue Unsworth (on the need to address the global causes of state fragility, and strengthen collective action); Tania Murray Li, and Yuen Yuen Ang (on directed improvisation).
On the governance of natural resources and collective action failures, try “Governing the Commons” by Nobel Prize winning Elinor Ostrom. [Yet apparently didn’t make the grade for yesterday’s blog..].
- Economic Growth
From 1980–98, median per capita income growth in developing countries was 0%. These lost decades reflect the failed ‘The Washington Consensus’. Ah, if only we had heeded Alice Amsden’s insights: on how state-led industrialisation (substituting imports, supporting big firms, enabling economies of scale, but also exercising discipline) can generate jobs, growth and poverty reduction. Fortunately, industrialisation and state coordination is now on the global development agenda. A little bit late, perhaps…
Incidentally, “Asia’s next giant: South Korea and late industrialization” has 9870 citations on Google Scholar, far more than anyone on Stefan Dercon’s list (save Amartya Sen). I’m surprised it was ignored…
Development economics has been further enriched by the rigorous research of Esther Duflo, Rachel Glennerster and Nancy Birdsall. Each have radically transformed how we study, think about, and work to address development problems.
- Social Inequalities
A growing body of research indicates two key drivers of women’s empowerment: paid employment outside the home (building self-esteem, forging diverse networks, and collectively questioning patriarchal norms); and social mobilisation (strengthening collective capacities to protest structural inequalities). A real pioneer here is Naila Kabeer: inspiring us all with nuanced, qualitative and quantitative analysis in London and Dhaka (transcending the usual Global North-South silos).
See also Anne MarieGoetz and Rina Sen Gupta’s powerful critique of microfinance; Esther Boserup’s landmark text on “Woman in Economic Development”; Sylvia Chant’s work, challenging assumptions of deprivation in “Women Headed Households”; Maxine Molyneux’s “Mobilisation without Emancipation”; Frances Stewart on “Horizontal Inequalities” (how inequalities between culturally formed groups lead to violence and instability); Emily Oster on “The Power of TV: Cable Television and Women’s Status in India”; Ania Loomba on Postcolonialism; Anne McClintock on gender, race, class and imperialism; Andrea Cornwall, Frances Cleaver and Sarah White on whether ‘participation’ (a erstwhile donor fad) is necessarily transformative; and Bina Agarwal on “Gender and Land Rights in South Asia”.
Additionally, for those interested in why marginalised citizens might join a violent, fascist movement, I’d strongly recommend Atreyee Sen’s “Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum”. A superb ethnography – through which you might reflect on parallels between the US and Hindu Right.
- Collective Resistance
In a time of growing authoritarianism, nativism, and inequality, we urgently need to learn about collective resistance. We need to understand the slow, incremental and often conflictual processes of social change: how marginalised people gain self-esteem; challenge hitherto unquestioned inequalities; demanding redistribution and recognition. Women’s scholarship is invaluable here.
Big hitters include Sonia Alvarez (“Engendering Democracy in Brazil”); Deborah Yashar (“Contesting Citizenship in Latin America: The Rise of Indigenous Movements”); Nancy Postero (“Now We are Citizens”); Pun Ngai (“Made in China”); Ching Kwan Lee (“Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt”).
- Decolonising Development
This must be a priority for us all: to end these normative visions of ‘good governance’; to stop pretending we (white, educated folk in the Global North) know best; and start learning from more diverse perspectives.
With 17,220 citations, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak” is the pioneering work here. See also Lila Abu-Lughod (“Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving”).
These insights have greatly enhanced my analysis. We ignore women’s scholarship at our peril.
So go on then, who’s she forgotten?