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

May 15, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

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…….

May 15, 2014
Duncan Green