Questioning the ‘feminisation of development’ and the business logic

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A PARTICIPANT in A WOMEN ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT PROGRAMME IN UPPER EGYPT. Photo: HEEWOONG KIM/undp.

‘Feminisation of development’ is a fancy phrase referring to the recent trend of seeing women as both beneficiaries and agents of change in development. This has become a popular approach and many of our programmes such as micro-loans, or skills trainings for women fit into this category.

This new role is bolstered by a so-called ‘smart business’ logic. Based on this view, women’s empowerment is not only a rights or equity issue, but is also a good investment.

UNDP and other UN agencies have, to a degree, subscribed to this logic saying that empowering women leads to better health, education and development overall; and many  of our programmes proved to be quite effective in producing results. For instance, the Conditional Cash Transfers programme provided to mothers in Latin America reduced inequality by 21 percent in Brazil/Mexico and 15 percent in Chile. An initiative targeting ultra-poor female-headed households in Bangladesh raised income by 36 percent and food security by 42 percent. But despite such success, there is mounting opposition against this trend, surprisingly, from the feminist schools.

Sylvia Chant, a prominent gender and development scholar, strongly argues against this approach stating: “Women are enlisted as foot soldiers to serve in battles whose aims are not related directly to their interests.” 

According to her, women who are considered the main caretakers of families are now pressured to also become entrepreneurs, economic actors and agents of social change. But this new role is more likely to benefit others, rather than the women themselves. 

New findings in the psychology of poverty further support this position. There is growing research showing that poverty induces high levels of stress and burdens people with excessive decision-making, leading to limited mental bandwidth to make good choices.  If this is the case, poor women, who already suffer from high levels of stress and pushed to the limits of their bandwidth, could likely be overburdened with the additional responsibilities given by many women-oriented development programmes.

Can we really say these are improvements to women’s wellbeing and rights? Are they really empowering women? I don’t have definite answers to these questions. We must constantly ask them and view our interventions from the lens of the beneficiary to prevent such negative externalities. We must be wary of the unforeseen consequences as well as the psychological and societal impact that our programmes could have.