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At the Root of Feminist Development Discourse:What is Development and Empowerment?

Emilie S. By Emilie S. Published on February 16, 2016

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Is feminist development work understanding women, or are we under developing while we are trying to develop? My international development experience in women’s non-governmental organization (NGO) with Casa de la Mujer, located in Costa Rica, along with the authors that will be discussed, namely, Ellen Judd, Nelly Stromquist, Wendy Harcourt, Devaki Jain, and Jo Rowlands, strongly suggest that the feminist development discourse should be seen as an avenue for analyzing the complexity rather than for simplifying women’s development issues. I suggest that the feminist development discourse must shift from a neo-liberal economic model to embrace a nuanced understanding of women’s issues. It is only by listening to women’s voices at a local level and unpacking the political, economic and social background of the context surrounding women, that women can truly participate in the discourse of feminist development. By using a multifaceted approach based on women, two crucial elements will be explored: reconstructing the discourse of ‘feminist development’ and adopting a more critical concept of empowerment, all which are key tools for feminist workers to engage in real development debates.

Conceptual framework

Literature reveals that feminist development discourse should shift away from the neo-liberal framework to an open and critical platform. The constraints of neoliberalism, primarily, its inability to engage women into the global economy, but rather create more inequalities, has led to grounding the conceptual framework of this paper upon a critical theory lens. Critical theory, believes in power difference, conflict, and collective action as spheres of transformation. Jürgen Habermas, founder of critical theory, was concerned with the way people’s life experiences depend upon society’s dominant discourses and ideologies (Umrath, 2010). Feminist critical theorists later created their framework based on Habermas’ theory, but expanded it to include women into the theory and practice of democracy as well as allowing for the progress of a gender-inclusive theory (Umrath, 2010). Currently, feminist critical theorists discuss the need to challenge the social order in which society establishes justice and fights against exclusion. It is with this critical perspective that I question research on feminist development work and empowerment.


Neoliberalism as Development

Why have the countries in the global South not been able to eliminate poverty despite industrialization? Nelly Stromquist’s (2002) “The Twining of Ideas and Material Conditions: Globalization, Neoliberalism, and Postmodernism” contends that there is a strong link between globalization and neoliberalism by the way postmodernity provides neo-liberal ideas that aim to eliminate power. Defined as a model believing that the global economic market is the best method of assessing production and people’s needs, neoliberalism is seen as the model rooted in contemporary globalization and development. The theory is known as a loss of faith in the state as the responsible agent of development, and a stronger emphasis on private institutions, including commercial companies and NGOs (Rowlands, 1997). Structural adjustment policies (SAPs), first implemented in 1981, were created with the purpose to promote institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank as means to prevent debt from the global South as well as gaps between the most vulnerable. In this sense, they were intended to “develop” the economies of the global South (Stromquist, 2002). According to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, laissez-faire policies, “free market” capitalism, and SAPs were assigned to countries in the global South as solutions to ‘underdevelopment’ (Jain, 2002). During the 1990s, the main discourse led by the United Nations (UN) was to mobilize women to influence policy and to transform them into leaders (Jain, 2002).

However, although women fought to establish a critical space for themselves within the UN, specifically focusing on their exclusion in the economies and issues with inequality, poverty and conflict, women’s inequalities deepened. In fact, reports revealed that women’s inequality persisted due to structural adjustment and neo-liberal economic programs. Studies consistently demonstrate, rather than developing the underdeveloped nations, SAPs have imposed heavy burdens, especially for women in the global South, mostly affected by control of land, labor, and credit. These policies require state-run companies and services to close and, as a result, lead to significant cuts in areas related to social welfare such as health, agriculture subsidies and education. Healthcare, often associated with women, has evidently cut support and placed extra burdens in low-income households.

Costa Rica and SAPs

For example, in the case of Costa Rica, SAPs have led to terrible consequences. The structural adjustment created a new agricultural policy known as, “Agriculture of Change” designed to promote the production of a more diversified crop production (Hansen-Kuhn, 1993). This has changed the type of crops that involve more sophisticated infrastructures, such as irrigation systems. I have met multiple women farmers who were struggling and needed to find other means if income due to inability to afford these systems. Some of them told me stories about how they were no longer able to receive financial support for the traditional crops they were using, and were therefore forced to sell their lands and work for larger producers, such as Del Monte. This has led to an increase in foreign investors and local affluent families to dominate the production and export of non-traditional crops. Costa Rica’s small traditional farmers are deeply suffering. However, agriculture is not the only area affected by SAPs. Local traditional exports such as production manufactures, also known as ‘maquiladoras’, have also been forced out of business by non-traditional industrial exports. Needless to say, SAPs have only resulted to economic disparities and dramatic increase in poverty, especially among women who are suffering from the reduction of thousands of government jobs. Before 1980, the public sector provided women with better wages and overall opportunities (Hansen-Kuhn, 1993). Since the implementation of the SAPs between 1990 and 1991, 84 per cent female public-sector workers were fired (Hansen-Kuhn, 1993). Thus, the international version of development has only impoverished nations, rather than actually helping them.

Reconstructing ‘development’

Development theory emerged out of the 1980s and 1990s, a neo-liberal ideology which supported major international economic institutions. The ideology was defined by a loss of faith in the state in helping the development process and by a stronger emphasis on private institutions and non-government organizations.

Although NGOs are created with the purpose to help, they too are faced with obstacles. For example, feminists in NGOs are not always welcome in the eye of the developing country, especially when they impose their Western models of feminism and development. Even when developing countries allow the NGOs into their organization, they only do so for the possibility of growth through greater funding, and as a result, compromise their local needs by following the NGOs’ agenda at the cost of their own.

Critical to understanding development is to be aware of its various meanings. In what ways can development be reconstructed? Feminist development studies demonstrate how the discourse of development is complex because of the multitude of challenges on different levels they are exposed to. One challenge involves having to measure an organization’s success when the dominant, mainstream, development discourse is based on qualities, indicators and measurements. Success then becomes measured by technical measures, rather than by the quality of programs being implemented in helping individuals and communities. How can value, participation and empowerment be quantified when programs are required to outline the quantity, indicators and measurement?

Moreover, NGO workers are also faced with the challenge of being considered experts. Working for Casa de la Mujer, an organization founded in the 1980s to help girls and women recover from domestic and violent abuse from their spouses or family members. This experience exposed me to the meaning of local versus international knowledge. Upon my arrival in Perez Zeledon, I was perceived as a knowledgeable Western expert who came to help the organization with all of its problems. At that moment, I was expected to apply my knowledge of Political Science and Human Rights to their community. My experience teaching a human rights workshop allowed me to reconsider the notion of knowledge in the development context. When I prepared my lesson plan and asked one of my colleagues, the psychologist who oversaw all programs in the organization, to revise it, she looked at me perplexed. She suggested the girls and women might feel uncomfortable using words such as globalization and convention. Before the girls and women needed to learn about international human rights, they had to learn their own. Knowing whom to contact when their boyfriends or husbands abused them and where to seek legal advice seemed to be a priority. Access to the resources in their own community should precede the knowledge of international human rights. My perceptions of their needs changed radically. How culturally sensitive are other development workers when dealing with the delicate situations of the lives of women? I had only hoped the lessons I learned had been discovered by other feminists in development organizations as well.

Wendy Harcourt’s “Development as if Gender Matters” emphasizes the idea of finding places where power is centralized by involving gender rights activists into the conversation. The goal is to promote alternatives out of the traditional box strategies and new ideas for the future to create accountable and dynamic institutions. Harcourt questions the idea of replacing the current neo-liberal model with development institutions. Ellen Judd’s “Afterword: Opening spaces for Transformative Practice” challenges ‘bottom-up’ with a notion she refers to as ‘studying up’. This process is defined as research done by or with women affected by development organizations and by the process of the political economy. However, the notion of feminist vision of development is what matters most in development work. Judd (1999) argues the feminist perspective on development is one where local women are empowered through decentering processes of creating and realizing local strategies for change.

In the case of the Casa de la Mujer, the board of directors emphasized the need for shifting the power from the men to the women. Machismo, a common issue between Costa Rica and most Latin society, refers to the idea that men are the primary workers while women are solely responsible for domestic work. According to the board members, development involved empowering women from within. Some women, who had successfully completed the program, participated in the organization as mentors and members on the board of committee, and guided other girls and women to positively change their lives. The transformation on these women was fundamental. Not only did they participate as committee members to make decisions within the organization, but they participated in the public discourse of gender inequalities in their community. Therefore, development is being achieved through local women helping themselves first by using local practices.

What is empowerment?

The politics of development are impossible to understand without questioning the power struggle involved. Critical to empowerment is the rhetoric alluding to the notion that beside every powerful woman is a less powerful one. Empowerment is important, however it must be used in a context that respects women’s agency within the discourse of development. Viviene Taylor’s (2010) “Emancipation and its Failures” challenges the notion of empowerment in pointing out that simply questioning women’s empowerment mean they are currently living in conditions that stop them from fully participating in their society. Empowerment did not simply happen to women, but rather, women are securing collective critical spaces and using these spaces to assert their rights. Most of all, empowerment must be critical to deconstruct power to understand who has influence over whom and in which areas. It means women working with grassroots organizations and raising local issues to parliaments. Unfortunately, this process of empowerment is not so common yet. In fact, in many cases, Western feminist development workers use their own definition of women’s role in development and poverty reduction as tools to achieve their own agenda. Thus, it is only when international organizations shift their perspective of empowerment to understand gender equity from the bottom-up, that empowerment can begin to exist.

Empowerment, a term that is now part of the vocabulary for the mainstream development thinker, is complex to define. Although often being used, it ought to be explained. Who has power over which women and what kinds of women need to be empowered? According to the discourse generated by the economic world leaders, women are weak, underdeveloped, and need to be rescued. However, when comparing the differences between women in rural Honduras with the mainstream development definition of empowerment, Stromquist (2002) assesses there exist multiple perspectives to empowerment. Does empowerment mean the same to women in rural Honduras as it does in the “developed” world? For the rural women in Honduras, empowerment refers to finding their own solutions: engaging in common discourse with other women, addressing injustices related to basic needs such as water, light, education, access to land, and employment opportunities. The governments have allowed private institutions to take over the control of basic needs and services in the development of communities. In fact, empowerment is a term that has been used in various debates: theoretical, local experiences of women, NGOs, and international economic institutions. Thus, how can it be that all people, organizations, and institutions use the term with the same perspective?

According to the board members of the Casa de la Mujer, empowerment is central in making a difference to the lives of women in the community. Psychologists have implemented a three-step program consisting of individual therapy, followed with group therapy, and consequently a reintegration course helping women to participate into their community. This course involves resources in the community, goal-setting and motivational strategies for women to overcome their fears. In addition, the organization offers literacy, sewing, culinary, and entrepreneurship courses. The organization receives funding from few wealthy female committee board members and external sources, the government providing very little support. Yet, Casa de la Mujer still has a long way to go. If real changes ought to occur, any development organization must be committed to alleviate the immediate needs of the local community rather than imposing their notions of development.

Development discourse shifts back and forth from local to international strategies. At the core of the debate, no change can be made without the work of grassroots organizations. Towards the end of my work in Costa Rica, a Canadian development worker living in Perez Zeledon asked, “who can help me create networks of community-building organizations for women?” After working for various local organizations, she had realized many of them were focusing on issues related to gender equity, however, none of these organizations knew about one another. This experience emphasizes how feminist development discourse involves women participating in building solidarities grounded on critical consciousness and building a culture of human rights protecting all levels of society.

At the core of the feminist development discourse lies two elements: reconstructing the discourse and adopting a more critical concept of empowerment, all which are key tools for feminist workers to engage in real debates. As a feminist development worker in Costa Rica, the concept of development lies close to my heart. This research led me to understand that development work is a contested topic needing to be explored critically by other feminist development thinkers. Neoliberalism has painted a distorted portrait of women. While some are benefitting from more opportunities within economic, educational, and political spheres, others are faced with the basic necessity of participating in the discourse of development. As a result, feminization of poverty continues to live. This is seen with SAPs contributing to wider gender poverty in Costa Rica.

In this research, the widespread lack of sensitivity to the nuances related to feminist development work is critical. The feminist development discourse means supporting grassroots organizations that address women’s local issues. It is by critiquing the mainstream notion of empowerment and encouraging women to engage in a shared discourse that women can be empowered. As a feminist development worker, I also expect other feminists to be analytical with this essay by finding ideas that I have stated to reinforce a misconstrued notion of the conversations that should be taking place between the women in global North and the global South. Only through practicing, criticizing, and challenging our work as feminist development workers, can we engage in decentered feminist development discourses, for women and by women.


Jain, D. (2002). Development as if women mattered 1986-1995. In Women development and the UN: A sixty-year quest for equality and justice. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press. Pp. 102-134.

Judd, E. (1999). Afterword: Opening spaces for transformative practice: In M. Porter and E. Judd (Eds.) Feminists doing development: A Practical Critique. London & New York: Zed Books. Pp.218-226.

Harcourt, W. (2010). Development as if gender matters. Development, Vol. 53, No2, Pp.210-214.

Rai, S. (2002). Gender and development: Theoretical perspectives. In S. Rai, Gender and the political economy: From nationalism to globalization. Cambridge, UK: Polity. Pp. 44-83.

Rowlands, J. (1997). Introduction. In Questioning empowerment: Working with women in Honduras. UK; Ireland. Oxfam Chapter1 Pp. 1-7.

Rowlands, J. (1997). Power and empowerment. In Questioning empowerment: Working with women in Honduras. UK; Ireland. Oxfam Chapter 2. Pp. 9-27.

Rowlands, J. (1997). Using the model: empowerment, gender, and development. In Questioning empowerment: Working with women in Honduras. UK; Ireland. Oxfam Chapter 7, Pp. 129-141.

Stromquist, N. (2002). Gender within globalized education. Education in a globalized world: The connectivity of economic power, technology and knowledge. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Inc: New York Oxford. Chapter 7, pp. 133-155.

Stromquist, N. (2002). The twinning of ideas and material conditions: Globalization, neoliberalism, and postmodernism. Education in a globalized world: The connectivity of economic power, technology and knowledge. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Inc: New York Oxford. Chapter 2, pp. 19-35.

Other sources:

Hansen-Kuhn, K. (1993). Structural adjustment in Central America: The case of Costa Rica. Retrieved from http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/47/033.html.

Umrath, B. (2010, December). Feminist critical theory in the tradition of the early Frankfurt School: The significance of Regina Becker-Schmidt. The Interdisciplinary Journal of the New School for Social Research. Retrieved from http://canononline.org/archives/spring-2010/feminist-critical-theory/.

As a community development researcher, Emilie is fascinated by creative educational initiatives with social development purposes.

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