How Aid Fails Women: A Conversation with William Easterly

This is a guest post by Jessica Mack. Jessica is a global feminist and reproductive rights advocate. She is an editor at Gender Across Borders and currently lives in Seattle, planning her next adventure.

William Easterly is Professor of Economics at New York University. He is Co-Director of the Development Research Institute and editor of the Aid Watch blog. He is author of The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. This is an abridged version of an interview conducted in NYC on 3 May 2011.

Photo by Ramon Peco

You talk about the concept of paternalism in global development. I’m curious what the concept of feminism means to you, and what relevance it has for understanding global development.

I think it has tremendous relevance in two dimensions: paternalism and equal rights. Both of these are extremely important in understanding what’s going on in development right now. Both what’s wrong with it, and what needs to be made right. Most of the time, I talk about the paternalism of rich people toward poor people. I don’t think there’s much explicit racism in aid and development, but there is still a condescending or superior attitude toward poor people, that we can fix their problems. I think there is a gender dimension as well, though I haven’t really talked about it much in my work. I think I could talk about it a lot more.

It’s not an accident that the word paternalistic is the notion of father taking care of and supporting. A lot of discourse in aid is often about helping women and children. Aid agencies offer this appealing image of innocent women and children that are helpless and need our help. But who is the “we” that is implied by that? Our help. Who is at the other end? If you go through a bunch of aid brochures online, I bet that in the vast majority of them you will not see any adult males. You will only see women and children. Even just in the sheer visual imagery we use in aid, it’s really about rich, white males indulging their own paternalistic fantasies for rescuing non-white women and children.

It seems to me that some of the most insidious examples of bad aid have to do with women and children.

There’s a very powerful incentive to use that imagery for campaigns. They’re about the victims being women and children, but we’re covering over a lot of stuff. We rich white males – speaking as a rich, white male – are trying to alleviate our own guilty conscience not only toward the poor of the world, but also toward women in our own society. There’s still a lot of sexism and discrimination in our own society. We move the gaze away from that inequality and toward another remote part of the world to indulge our paternalistic fantasies.

Yet in crises like Darfur, women really are exponentially more vulnerable. How do you portray this reality so that women aren’t tokenized?

Of course women are vulnerable to violence and rape in a way that men are not. But we should not go all the way to the stereotypes that aid and development people want to sell. Women in poor countries – and this is a big generalization – are incredibly resourceful. They’re achieving an awful lot. So, to peddle this stereotype of the helpless , pathetic woman that can’t do anything on her own – that’s really destructive and will definitely result in bad aid. Whereas if we find ways to let women tell aid givers what they need so that they can help themselves, that’s going to be much more successful.

I think there’s a sense that if you portray women in the developing world as resourceful, then people will think “they don’t need our help.”

I agree, it’s a very difficult balance. Obviously you have to reach the indifferent rich people with something that will motivate them to be involved in solutions to poverty and violence. Yet you want to motivate them in a way that doesn’t lead to a bad solution. If you portray a woman as a faceless victim, that’s incredibly demeaning and that really robs her of dignity. Are you serving your own organization’s purpose when you put out a stereotype of a faceless woman who’s a victim, and are you disrespecting the fundamental human being that’s behind that image? What’s really at the heart of development is recognizing that everyone has equal rights. I think the most fundamental thing that needs to happen in development is the recognition of equality in rights: poor, rich, male, female, every ethnic group and every religion.

What do think of some of the stories that [NYT columnist] Nicholas Kristof portrays? He’s gotten flack for “exploiting” stories of women and girls in order to evoke responses.

I respect Kristof. He’s done a lot of good with his awareness raising – much better than some of the others who raise awareness, like rock stars and movie stars. He crosses the line sometimes, but he’s on the right side of the line a lot of the time. It’s impossible for anyone, including me, to be pure in this business. It’s just so difficult and complicated.

What do you mean by “pure?”

I mean to get things exactly right in terms of motivating people to get involved, not discourage giving, and yet at the same time respect the dignity of poor people.

Right, I think it has to be an ongoing process, but a self conscious one, a very self aware one.

Self awareness is very important. One thing I’ve learned from other people is the idea of reciprocity. Any time you’re portraying a victimized woman in the Congo a certain way, turn the tables and try to think how you would feel if you were that woman and someone in a rich country far away was portraying your story. If you don’t pass that test – if you say, ‘no I would hate that,’ then you shouldn’t do it. Reciprocity is really at the heart of equality. It’s incredibly important for us to hang on to that.

Let’s go back to that concept of equal rights, and how you see the concept of feminism reflecting that in global development.

Equal rights is this long, never-ending struggle that’s basically about trying to fight double standards. Rights have always been characterized by some double standard, and progress tries to erode. The battle in American history, which is also a story of development – development is not just about Africa – has been the battle to correct the double standard. Men are not superior to women; white people don’t have one set of rights, and black people another. We white males would prefer to forget that this was very recent in our own society, and this is why we’re so happy to transfer our gaze to some far away society that has some more extreme problem.

Confronting that history honestly makes us realize that this is the fight: to keep eroding, eroding, and eroding that double standard. We’re still a long way from equal rights for women in the US. Recognition of that also helps us appreciate that when we talk about women’s rights in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, we come in with our own skeletons in the closet. That should make should make us more aware of how hard these problems are to make progress on and we should not paper them over with all these development buzzwords, which is unfortunately what’s happening. There’s this horrible lexicon we use to signify some awareness of women being oppressed in poor countries, but it stops a long way short of confronting the full injustice of who is responsible, and the power relationships that lie behind it. They talk as if correcting oppression against women is just a matter of awareness raising and education. If you just write lots of report with words like “mainstreaming gender” and “empowerment” the problem will go away. Create a new UN agency for women, and that will solve the problem. But rights are about power.

I think one of the most poignant examples of this lack of power – for women in this country and around the world – is in reproductive health and rights. I’m thinking about the global gag rule, for instance.

Yes – the worst kind of paternalism is the notion that you have superior morals, and you impose them on someone else. Especially when that’s based on a religion that’s different from the people you’re helping, it’s just incredibly arrogant. If we’re going to be serious about respecting the rights of women in poor countries, we have to let them play by their rules. That’s why these conditions on aid are incredibly patronizing and coercive. Everyone should have the right to make their own choices, not have someone else make choices for them, like we don’t allow you to use condoms because we’re hung up about birth control, or we don’t allow you to access abortion because we’re hung up on our own religious views.

Have you seen the issue of abortion increasingly become a global development issue? It seems like the elephant in the room that no one wants to touch.

It’s one of these really divisive issues that aid and development people are really afraid of. One thing that’s in very short supply in aid and development is courage. Nobody has the courage to step up and deal with controversial issues. If you want to give them a little bit of credit, you could say they’re scared of offending their funders. But in the end, and I’ll try to be as generous as possible, depending on your funders is not a good excuse to do something so fundamentally disrespectful and unequal.

What’s an example of a great aid project you’ve seen that benefits women?

Cash transfers is the first thing that comes to mind. The best women-centered programs are not necessarily women-centered programs. Cash transfers are for families, and in practice it often works out that they strengthen the power of women within the family. I also do not embrace some of the stereotypes of men in poor countries – that they’ll automatically spend the money on alcohol. It’s such an insulting stereotype. Yes there’s some truth to it, in poor and rich countries, but if we demonize men that’s not helping. Let’s just be practical about that. It’s about a power relationship that foreigners can’t to do much about, but we can try to find programs that relatively strengthen the power of women within the family. Cash transfers do seem like they do that, certainly more than microcredit.

Microcredit is the really fashionable flavor du jour, although it’s gotten a bit tarnished now. We’re imprisoned in these stereotypes. We want this heroic image of the female entrepreneur boosted out of poverty by a microloan, going from making $1 a day to owning her own factory. That just doesn’t happen, and it was completely unrealistic from the beginning.

Right, it’s telling a story that we want to hear but doesn’t really have any bearing on the lives of poor people. I think we saw this with the Greg Mortenson “Three Cups of Tea” situation.

The way the Mortenson story fell apart just showed how much he was trying to fulfill peoples’ expectations about heroic stereotypes. It’s a very paternalistic story: this rich white man stumbles accidentally onto a village, and then rescues all the girls in the village.

How many disillusionments do we need before we stop trying to create that false story?

Can’t we just be honest with ourselves, that life does not conform to Hollywood storylines, in any area? Aid is no different. Aid is just as messy and complicated as any other area of our lives. Once you accept that, then you don’t get so discouraged. There are lots of good things that can be done: medicines, education, cash grants. In the end, there is a lot of historical and contemporary evidence that development helps women. Development helps women gain greater power over their lives, to make their own choices and to stand up to male oppressors.

Is there a need for more women in global development, or perhaps more feminists?

What’s really needed is a lot more straight talk in our conversations about what’s going on, that there’s still is a lot of oppression of women going on in poor and rich countries. We need to acknowledge that fact and not hide it behind buzzwords. Honesty makes it easier to find the things that will change power relationships. We have to also recognize the unintended power of development to strengthen women’s positions. Economists talk about development increasing the demand for brains relative to brawn. As economies get richer, the demand for brains goes up and that strengthens the position of women because they have the brains, and now a lot more bargaining power.

It’s funny to me that honesty turns one into a dissident in global development.

I know, it’s strange.

That’s where I see the role of feminism, and in global development too: continually questioning the institution, an appreciation for the process, and a whole lot of self-awareness. The more dissidents the better.

I agree!

This piece originally appeared at Gender Across Borders.

21 comments for “How Aid Fails Women: A Conversation with William Easterly

  1. rox
    May 6, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    This was wonderful. Thank you for sharing. I hope that reproductive justice will be explored in femenism as well. Often it’s fought for passionately for women to have access to resources to control fertility, however access to resources that make healthy parenting a choice to women in poverty is something to consider as well. I think in the West we have this idea that poor people should simply stop breeding in order to solve poverty; that birth control and abortion are the solution to poverty. I don’t entirely agree. Not everyone can get a college degree or high paying job and I really don’t agree with the mentality that only the elite should be permitted to breed, though I understand the desire for this to be so.

    I’m not sure that all poor people want to stop breeding, though I believe EVERY person deserves access to controlling their fertility. Not sure if I’m making sense.

    The pressumption that one or two children is best is sort of something we are trying to push, and while I certainly see why, I think we need to be careful in our judgements of poor people’s reproductive choices. If you are poor and you are happy to be alive, you probably won’t think that giving birth to a child in poverty is a cruelty to them, but will still see it as a gift. There are so many differing perspectives on reproductive rights and I think we all need to be aware that no matter what, if we are from the west, our perspective lacks an understanding of growing up in the country and culture the person making the choices grew up in. (The same, those of us in the west all have a huge variety of backgrounds and experiences as well).

    It’s difficult stuff and I am delighted so many people care to talk about it and are willing to talk about the controversial stuff within these issues.

    Again, really loved this piece!

  2. Glenna
    May 6, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    This is neat; thanks!

    I might’ve appreciated some interrogation into Western white women taking on a paternalistic role with respect to (on topic) foreign aid that’s denied in many other areas (international adoption much?)…but maybe the whole point is that conversation needs to focus less on the Westerners involved?

  3. May 6, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    What do we refer to as that force that keeps us from falling prey to paternalistic impulses? Some call it basic morality. This article alludes to the idea of self-awareness. I myself would refer to it as God, particularly in that so long as I give credit to that force which is really in control, I won’t be tempted to appease my own grandiose fantasies.

    And regardless of what we call it, what does it take for others to understand and apply these truths to their own lives?

  4. Cate
    May 6, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Great, insightful interview! I have been thinking about this issue a lot, as I move into a career in nonprofit work. Specifically, grappling with the issue of which types of aid are truly empowering to those in need, and which types are demeaning. The discussion of reciprocity was insightful. Thank you.

  5. Dank
    May 6, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    Aid is often motivated by paternalism. Therefore aid can be bad. Am I the only one who sees that as a non sequitur? Why can’t the same instincts which cause paternalism be leveraged to induce people to be more generous?

  6. Jess
    May 6, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    Dank:
    Why can’t the same instincts which cause paternalism be leveraged to induce people to be more generous?

    Because all too often, aid which is given with paternalistic notions in mind comes with strings attached. When the people giving the aid have the power to dictate how it is delivered, they often don’t deliver it in ways that actually help the population they’re supposed to be aiding.

  7. William
    May 6, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    Aid is often motivated by paternalism. Therefore aid can be bad. Am I the only one who sees that as a non sequitur? Why can’t the same instincts which cause paternalism be leveraged to induce people to be more generous?

    Because aid that comes from paternalism is about the giver rather than the receiver. That means that its packaged for the giver. That leads to things like the narrative of the naked, starving African and White Christians who feel guilty about being overweight and are horrified by nakedness sending huge amounts of grain and clothes to Africa. That sounds like a good deal except…Africa is a continent and a lot of parts of it don’t have food or textile shortages so all that aid has the effect of tanking local economies and bankrupting farmers, merchants, people who make clothes, etc by making their goods effectively worthless because of a huge influx of free things. A few years of that and suddenly you don’t have farmers farming or people making textiles, you don’t have infrastructure, you don’t have local business, you have a patchwork of NGOs (chock full of rich white people earning brownie points on aid vacations) and severely distorted markets that disincentivize the kinds of sustainable local development that leads to communities becoming self sufficient and actually developing. Paternalistic aid keeps people dependent, because if they could fend for themselves not only would they not be there to assuage rich people’s guilt, they might actually someday compete.

  8. Tony
    May 6, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    Great subject. I did not necessarily like William Easterly at first as I do not feel that crusading against aid is the answer to Africa’s problems either. But the subject matter is worthwhile. And I feel that it is much easier now to come to terms with the insufficiency of aid alone as the solution because Africa appears to be making other ways for itself to grow, as hinted in Dambisa Moyo’s book, Dead Aid and How There is a Better Way for Africa which I assume you are familiar with. To me, the “aid fails” narrative would be far less compelling– even conservative, without the alternative and more hopeful suggestions being put out there by people like Moyo. For example, it’s interesting that growth in Africa is finally taking off for the first time since the 1970s for various factors. First the end of the so called ‘African World War’ in the Congo basin has stabilized the central part of the continent for now. You cannot have development without peace. Second the AIDS epidemic seems to have peaked. When you have huge fractions of your population dying or physically incapacitated, you cannot grow. Third, the global commodities boom and Chinese investment. Aggregate demand is rising around the world and this will give Africa a chance to participate, this time as independent nations and not colonial appendages as in the last great era of globalization at the end of the 19th century. So this is really leaving the aid debate in the dust. In 10-20 years you will see some big sustainable and cost justified infrastructure projects in Africa. For example, the so called ‘Grand Inga Dam’ along the Congo could be one of the last ‘mega’ hydroelectric dams constructed around the world.

  9. May 6, 2011 at 11:01 pm

    Excellent interview.

  10. Esti
    May 7, 2011 at 12:46 am

    This is a really interesting interview, and I think the questions being asked and the issues being raised are really important ones. There’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance when charities are aimed at empowering local people but are run by, and reflect the views and values of, Westerners. I think the aid industry as a whole is still struggling to find a functional balance between wanting to support projects they deem worthwhile (and to have appropriate levels of oversight in how money is spent) and not wanting to fall into the trap of dictating solutions, which is both disempowering and ineffective.

    I do question some of the assumptions that underlie Easterly’s work, though. Specifically, in this interview, that the use of women and children in aid materials is something that is targeted at or particularly responded to by men for paternalistic reasons. I’d say it’s actually the opposite — that a lot of those materials are designed to “appeal” to women (and often specifically to mothers). Although men and women have similar levels of charitable contributions, studies show that women give more to both international causes and to those focused on children and families. In my (obviously very limited) anecdotal experience, men are more likely to completely overlook the need to target aid to women than they are to overemphasize it.

  11. tree
    May 7, 2011 at 2:30 am

    “Reciprocity is really at the heart of equality. It’s incredibly important for us to hang on to that.”

    a small but important point, i think.

  12. Medea
    May 7, 2011 at 2:58 am

    Thanks for the interview.

  13. sophonisba
    May 7, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    Of course women are vulnerable to violence and rape in a way that men are not.

    “Vulnerable to” is a really interesting way to say “targeted for.”

  14. tinfoil hattie
    May 8, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Great point, sophonisba.

  15. May 8, 2011 at 10:22 am

    We rich white males – speaking as a rich, white male – are trying to alleviate our own guilty conscience not only toward the poor of the world, but also toward women in our own society. There’s still a lot of sexism and discrimination in our own society. We move the gaze away from that inequality and toward another remote part of the world to indulge our paternalistic fantasies.

    I never thought of this.

  16. Yonmei
    May 8, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    William: White Christians who feel guilty about being overweight and are horrified by nakedness sending huge amounts of grain and clothes to Africa.

    Actually, the US is the only nation that sends overseas aid in this way – with material “gifts” of grain (I didn’t know about clothes, but I am not surprised) and its doing so seems to be pretty much about the US government seeing it as a convenient way to dispose of grain surplussage from the US – aid as benefit package to American food production.

  17. FashionablyEvil
    May 8, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    I think it’s pretty common that people don’t know what to give and end up giving the wrong things. For example, when the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened people thought that lots of towels were needed to help clean the animals that were covered in oil. The environmental organizations ended up with shipping containers full of used linens that they couldn’t do anything with.

    Alternatively, you have foreign aid used as to support the donor country’s business interests, e.g., “We’ll give you money, but you have to use it to buy X from an American company.”

  18. rkel
    May 8, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    FashionablyEvil:
    I think it’s pretty common that people don’t know what to give and end up giving the wrong things.For example, when the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened people thought that lots of towels were needed to help clean the animals that were covered in oil. The environmental organizations ended up with shipping containers full of used linens that they couldn’t do anything with.

    Alternatively, you have foreign aid used as to support the donor country’s business interests, e.g., “We’ll give you money, but you have to use it to buy X from an American company.”

    Its actually a pity that DOESN’T happen more.

    If you think about what cripples improvement of the life situations in so many peoples’ lives around the developing world, a lack of infrastructure to aid in making business actually work. Plenty of countries are completely unable to exploit many of their natural resources in a manner that benefits THEM and not just foreign business. By giving donations to be spent on (big important point) the equipment and expertise to actually do this, even if it DOES mean agreements to purchase xyz from country ABC they might actually be able to do something with it.

    I’m sure governments could get creative with this kind of stuff. Instead of allowing State-owned Chinese firms or global corporations to come in and ravage the land in a manner that barely aids the local population (See: what China has done in setting up many mineral mines in SEA whereby they effectively gain near total shares of the profits and give a basic lump sum to the local govt. who will agree because they would have never been able to exploit the resources themselves anyway) this type of aid could actually help.

    Probably never going to happen; aid agencies would never privately raise that kind of capital and Western governments realistically cannot help themselves from screwing this up.

  19. William
    May 9, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Probably never going to happen; aid agencies would never privately raise that kind of capital and Western governments realistically cannot help themselves from screwing this up.

    It might not be as difficult as one would think if you’re willing to play the long game. Being able to exploit a natural resource requires a certain amount of wealth up front, but there isn’t a reason that wealth has to come from donations. By supporting less expensive infrastructure programs with aid (schools, sanitation, drilling wells for clean water, developing roads) and using as much local labor and expertise as is possible to do it (thus not only putting cash in the economy but helping communities develop skilled tradespeople) you can begin to build the kinds of communities with sustainable, expandable wealth that would eventually be able to afford the means of exploiting local resources. Something Western governments can do to help this along is to engage in diplomacy to keep local governments stable. Every collapse like Congo or Darfur or Zimbabwe not only interrupts communities, displaces people, and causes incredible trauma, but makes Africa a less attractive place to do business. That means less foreign investment, more money necessary to get aid where its going, more aid dollars spent on triage, and fewer people in Africa capable of buying things from one another. Giving a hungry person a fish is great if they’re starving, but you might as well teach them how to catch one themselves once they’re full if you want to do anything more than staving off the inevitable.

  20. FashionablyEvil
    May 9, 2011 at 10:25 am

    By giving donations to be spent on (big important point) the equipment and expertise to actually do this, even if it DOES mean agreements to purchase xyz from country ABC they might actually be able to do something with it.

    Well, that also means not allowing the residents of the country choose how to spend the money. For example, what if the US wants them to buy military equipment, but the government would rather spend the money on drilling new wells or increasing vaccination coverage? No dice. Similarly, what if they want to buy the specified product from another country at a lower cost and use the rest of the money for something else? Also no dice.

    The idea of “I’ll give you money, but I get to decide how you spend it” is pretty paternalistic. As Easterly notes, the most effective form of aid is direct cash transfers, but donors don’t like that.

  21. Avida Quesada
    May 9, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    sophonisba:
    Of course women are vulnerable to violence and rape in a way that men are not.
    “Vulnerable to” is a really interesting way to say “targeted for.”

    Great point, and I will remove violence, since in a bunch of wars men are the ones target for extermination. If my memory is not failing it was on blogher where Rwanda was been celebrated as a country with more women in congress than men. It it’s because masive killing of men (they were not celebrating this). So Yes Targeted for sexual abuse. Children too. But less

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