Apparently Women are ‘at the Heart of Development’. But Feminism is nowhere to be seen.

We’re told in the UK that ‘women are at the heart of development’. Peel away the rhetoric and a more troubling picture emerges. Warning bells started to sound for me when an influential insider sharply warned us against using the language of human rights – talk about women, fine, but don’t talk to us of rights. More troubling still, the interest in women is underpinned by a concern with what the International Development Secretary formerly termed ‘population stabilisation’. The language has since been softened and made more palatable. Now we hear about improving women’s control of their reproductive lives, but the approach remains instrumental and technical – give girls “family planning” and they will stop getting pregnant.

We all know this is too simplistic. Improving women’s control of their reproductive lives requires challenging the barriers that prevent them from making choices about their bodies and sexuality, and the most entrenched of these barriers are structural – systemic violence against women and girls, gender discrimination in accessing services, inequalities in sexual relationships as well as in public life, the low status of women in society. Safeguarding women’s bodily integrity and autonomy is thus a profoundly political endeavour to do with changing unequal power relations and structures. It is also fundamentally about human rights – the right to be able to control what happens to your own body.

As women’s rights advocates, we are thus faced with a complex terrain to navigate. Our cause is being championed but not in the way we intended; it has been sapped of political intent and reduced to a technocratic problem. DFID’s ‘unrelenting focus on results’ – as proudly proclaimed by the UK International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell – incentivises and intensifies this technocratic, de-political approach to women’s empowerment, and to development more broadly. As scrutiny of DFID’s spending intensifies in light of public disquiet about the safeguarding of the aid budget at a time of deep cuts elsewhere, ‘results-based aid’ and ‘value for money’ have ascended to ‘the very top of the UK’s development agenda’. Of course, we all want UK aid to have the greatest possible impact on the lives of the poorest women and men. But there is a real risk that resources channelled towards catalysing less tangible, more qualitative, and longer-term changes in people’s lives will evaporate under this pressure – for example, those relating to shifts in women’s control over their bodies, their sense of agency and self-worth, perceptions of personal security, or shifting attitudes about women’s roles in society.

Mitchell declares this not to be the case.  But why are the indicators in DFID’s new Business Plan so concerned with counting – ‘numbers of bed nets distributed’, ‘numbers of toilets built’, ‘length of roads built’ – rather than also seeking to capture the social and structural changes needed to end poverty and make the world a fairer place? Despite the rhetoric, there is only one indicator on women: ‘number of births delivered with the help of nurses, midwives or doctors’. This doesn’t seem a very ambitious reflection of the promise to put women at the heart of development.

The ‘unrelenting focus on results’ is likely to close off vital spaces for honest reflection on what hasn’t worked, as CSOs anxious about securing resources in a fragile funding environment will have too much to lose from highlighting failures. Particularly for women’s rights work, where changes to the status quo often lead to backlash, results-based aid is especially problematic, because reversals can be indicative of an approach that is working.

I hope DFID and other donors will seriously engage in the difficult process of developing indicators capable of meaningfully capturing shifts in the power relations that mediate women’s access to resources and rights, security and autonomy. I hope this will be done in consultation with the people who are best placed to articulate what ’success’ would look like – and that is not middle-aged white men in London. And I hope UK civil society will become more ambitious in the changes we advocate for – not merely asking repeatedly that women be ‘added’ but demanding fundamental changes in the discourse so that development becomes about seeking the transformational changes needed to create a fairer world.

Emily Esplen
(written in an independent capacity)

Related: What is happening to Donor Support for Women’s Rights?

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