In the early 2000s, a director of a Moldovan women’s nongovernmental organization (NGO) told me that she would never publicly associate herself with feminism. I found this statement quite curious as I had just asked her to submit an article on gender issues for the Moldovan family planning association’s website. My goal of promoting gender equality and reproductive health awareness with local voices was clearly a feminist one, wasn’t it? Not really, she explained. If she were to declare publicly that she’s a feminist, her colleagues and friends would stop shaking her hand, she told me. She would lose all credibility, and she needed credibility to run an NGO dealing with gender-based violence.

She then referred to an obscure instance of Western feminists publicly berating Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, as a reason why feminism had lost its appeal for her. They were not respectful, she argued. This scandalous event might not even have been real, but the story was influential nonetheless. It led this local leader in women’s issues to say that not only is she not a feminist, but she would be ashamed of being considered one.

Fifteen years later, Canada has adopted a feminist international assistance policy to advance gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as “the most effective way to reduce poverty and build a more inclusive, peaceful and prosperous world.”

Canada means well. The fact that women often bear the costs in development stands out: women and girls are more likely to be among the poor, the least educated and the ones experiencing violence. There clearly is a need to help women and girls.

Effective aid is locally owned

However, the first principle of effective foreign aid is that development needs to be locally owned. The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, adopted in 2005, clearly states that developing countries are supposed to set their own strategies for poverty reduction, and the donor countries are expected to align behind these objectives and to use local systems. It’s difficult to imagine that the countries with the gravest conditions for women will “own” feminism, a Western concept.

Evaluators assessing foreign aid programming for relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, impact and sustainability — the criteria set by the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — know that the projects that are implemented with low levels of local ownership are less likely to be sustainable after the donor funding is withdrawn. Feminism has to be relevant to Canada’s development partners, and it would need to be reflected in their governments’ poverty reduction strategies. Additionally, achieving outcomes that are in serious disagreement with local traditions ends up being less efficient economically than running projects that enjoy strong local ownership. Potentially low relevance, high inefficiency and low long-term sustainability mean that development interventions cannot be considered effective.

The second set of problems related to feminist development initiatives is associated with impact and attribution. In the near future, can Canada truly credibly claim that any success in the partner countries was due to our feminist development interventions, and not caused by other favourable trends beyond Canada’s control?

The truth is that social norms guiding the behaviour of men and women have evolved across centuries, following a local logic, and they relate to people’s innate mindset. They are “sticky”: outsiders’ efforts to change ways of life by rearranging power relationships are doomed to fail if they do not follow the local logic. Tinkering with gender relations is not viewed universally as bringing benefits to everyone. Some high-powered men might perceive Canada’s well-meaning efforts as threatening, and they are not likely to support feminist policies that come from abroad. And yet they are also stakeholders in development, interested in maintaining or increasing their prestige or status in their respective societies.

Sticky cultures

In his book The Secret of Our Success, Joseph Henrich of Harvard University writes that when politicians design new policies, they inevitably import their own assumptions about human nature, often rooted in Enlightenment philosophies. He points out that as we have seen from the sad experience of transplanting Western institutions to countries that have different incentives and standards for judging and punishing people, the new norms need to fit in with people’s social norms, informal institutions and cultural psychology.

People are selective social learners, Henrich warns, which means that they do not change their habits purely based on “the facts” or “education”; rather, they copy the behaviour of influential people in their social circles. People are more likely to learn from those whose prestige, success, sex, dialect and ethnicity they consider important, especially on issues related to food, sex, danger and norm violations. It seems as if the best way to alter gender relations is to work with influential local men, allowing them to lead by example. It’s true that Canada has increased its profile internationally, but its high prestige is probably not strong enough to contribute to change in distinctly different societies.

Cultures are long-lasting; they have evolved over centuries and they change slowly. That is especially true when influential religious organizations work to maintain the status quo in relations between the sexes and have strong views about sexual minorities. Change in social policies depends on the entire society. Or, as Henrich puts it, change depends on the expansion of the collective brain, which in turn depends on openness to discussing issues and ideas. Instead of artificially transplanting copies of Western institutions to other countries, Henrich recommends designing a “variation and selection system” allowing alternative institutions and organizational forms to compete. Locals then decide which form wins and will be adopted.

Win-win for all? 

Canada’s new feminist international assistance policy argues that the feminist approach to development “leads to better development results and benefits everyone, including men and boys.” How this claim works out in practice needs to be substantiated in the program monitoring phase and in evaluations. When men perceive that their traditional social status is threatened, a backlash may follow. Evaluators, therefore, need to be attuned to the unintended consequences.

Another risk of the explicitly feminist approach is that it may ignore cases where men, especially gay men, and boys are disadvantaged and vulnerable. Canadian feminist international development policy sees men and boys predominantly as a target group that should be lectured, educated and engaged but not as direct beneficiaries of assistance.

At yet, as Sean Stevens of New York University points out in an article on gender differences, boys seem to be hurt more than girls by living in deprived neighbourhoods. The cycle of poverty seems to be more persistent for the poorest boys than for girls. Even in Canada, as the Canadian economist Miles Corak found, boys born into the poorest families (the bottom 5 percent) were less likely to escape poverty than girls born into the same conditions.

An article by Diane Halpern of Claremont McKenna College and her coauthors, discussing sex differences in science and mathematics, adds that male development is more sensitive to environmental conditions, which can explain why there is more variability among males in their academic performance. It seems that in the most deprived conditions, it is boys who would benefit from additional help.

That is why a successful development policy would be an inclusive one that would engage men, women, boys and girls equally depending on their needs and within the social systems where they live. A development policy designed around Paris Declaration principles, evaluative recommendations on program effectiveness and — most important — equal opportunities for all would be more effective than an explicitly feminist one.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Maximum Exposure PR.

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Marje Aksli
Marje Aksli is an independent evaluation consultant based in Washington, DC, focusing on international development and security programming. Her interests include the impact of global governance on policy-making.

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