Feminist Development Policy - An Impossible Feat or the Way Forward?

Her Campus at University of Helsinki was honored to co-host a workshop concentrating on feminist development policy. The idea for the workshop sprang from a discussion between a few active members of the Development Cooperation Committee of the Student Union and the feminist Kollektiivi (a feminist group within the faculty of Social Sciences). What is feminist development policy? Is it already being done? Could it be done better? There was only way to find out: organizing a workshop!

The idea

The idea was to get enthusiastic people together and to come up with fresh ideas about what feminist development policy could look like. We had all had some experience in development issues either through studies or Committee work and we all shared an interest in and passion for feminism. None of us, however, are experts in the field, which is why we decided to focus on providing a platform for collective learning and brainstorming in a safe and encouraging environment. What could feminist development policy look like? What are some of the issues that plague the inclusion of a gender-sensitive viewpoint in development cooperation? What could be done to improve the situation?

The speakers

We managed to get two interesting speakers to share their experiences about the topic. Batulo Essak, the Executive Director of African Care, an NGO that was established by African women here in Helsinki, and that does development cooperation in Somalia as well multicultural activities in Finland, talked about a project called Haweenka – Somali Women in Decision Making. The project provides training and assistance to women in Somalia in the fields of politics and peace promotion. It relies heavily on local women who are seen as central to bringing about lasting change. Marjaana Jauhola, Docent, researcher and activist at the University of Helsinki also shared her thoughts on what it’s like being an openly feminist researcher in Finland. The reality, despite the perceived gender-equality of our country, is not as rosy as one might expect. Feminists need to struggle to get their voices heard in public discourse, even on topics that specifically concern women. She also mentioned a research project that she undertook some years ago with Saara Särmä in which they explored the sexism and outright sexual harassment that many feminist International Relations scholars face in their job. Jauhola also talked about the ethnographic research she has been conducting in Aceh, Indonesia, where she has studied the gendered effects of the conflict, as well as the Aceh peace process.

The workshop

The two glimpses into the everyday work of two experts gave us food for thought and provided a good foundation for brainstorming about feminist development policy. Even though there have been efforts in recent decades to pay special attention to women in the Global South and the often gendered problems that they face, many development cooperation agencies still seem to be struggling with how best to include women in their work and advocacy. Many of the problems that women in developing countries face, such as poverty, access to clean water and lack of civil rights and education, are further made worse by their gender. For instance, in a poor family, girls are less likely to attend school than their male siblings. Some poor families might also choose to prioritize their sons when it comes to food: if a family has little food, the girl might get less because of her gender.

In light of this, it seems obvious that feminism ought to be given a more prominent place in development cooperation. When embarking upon this quest, however, we soon encounter many issues, one of the biggest of which is the question asked by many third-wave feminists: can white middle-class women be included in a conversation about women’s rights in the context of development? Can we, privileged western students, even be having this conversation? To tackle this question, and the glaring disparities that exist between the primarily wealthy North and the poorer South, we chose the topic of intersectionality for one of the discussions in our workshop. (Intersectionality, broadly defined, points to the intersecting forms of oppression that people may face, such as ethnicity, gender, sexual identity and class, which cannot be studied separately from one another.) How best to ensure that women in the North don’t monopolize the conversation but instead let their black and brown counterparts speak for themselves? Many of the participants emphasized the need to truly listen to local people and their worries rather than imposing ‘our’ view of the world on them. Agencies and people involved in development cooperation need to be aware of their own privileges and the ways in which these might affect the way they see the countries and people that they are trying to help. Good intentions do not always translate into good results.

We also wanted to take a better look at an actual development cooperation program. Finland prides itself in being one of the most egalitarian countries in the world. Improving the lives of women and children has for long been the cornerstone of Finnish development cooperation. Notwithstanding, upon closer inspection, the official development cooperation program contains some aspects that were seen as problematic by the participants. For one thing, the program doesn’t escape the binary view on genders or recognize the full spectrum of gender identities. The implicit assumption that we here in Finland don’t have any gender-related problems also seemed problematic. Furthermore, many voiced the concern that other policies might not be compatible with the aim of improving women’s lives, such as the gendered effects of promoting Finnish exports to countries in the Global South. More coherence in all policy directions is needed. Not all policies that involve women and girls are by default feminist. 

Development Policy 2.0?

Drawing on the ideas put forward, what could a new kind of development policy look like? The structure of international organizations and the workings of the international community were central to this discussion. In many international organizations, such as the UN, big and influential countries often get their way and can impose their interests on others while the less-affluent countries of the South find it difficult to forge mutually-beneficial alliances. An overhaul of the international system has been in the making for long, with little concrete results so far, but it seems ever more crucial if we are to guarantee a stronger voice to developing countries on issues that directly affect them.

The role of hierarchies was also discussed. They are present in development policy not only in the almost inevitably hierarchical donor-recipient relations but also in terms of which goals are set for development work and what kind of development is seen as worthy of attaining. Many feminist groups, on the other hand, would like to work towards the ideal of organizing themselves without strict hierarchies. Could development policy be done without them, though? We didn’t find a clear answer, but the participants emphasized the need to reconsider and critically evaluate taken-for-granted values and explicit and implicit goals of development policy, such as the aforementioned definition of development itself. Moreover, the group drew attention to the subjects and objects of development policy, and the ways in which these different roles may hamper the inclusion of recipient countries’ viewpoints. All in all, deeper and more meaningful North-South and South-South cooperation was called for.  

The future of development and feminism?

We might not have solved all the problems – nor was this even the purpose, not even in our wildest dreams – but we were able to discern a few central questions that we believe should be paid more attention to in the future. Whose voice gets heard? Who sets the agenda? Is it the donor countries or the recipients of development aid? Who gets to define what feminism is? What is the role of economic development vis-à-vis political and social issues? These are difficult questions but despite the thorniness of the issues, many of us felt empowered and slightly more hopeful about the future after the workshop. If a group of students can come together and talk openly about development and their ideas, then surely someone with more political clout can do the same?

I’d like to conclude by drawing attention to something that Marjaana Jauhola said in her inspiring speech. She spoke about the loneliness of being a feminist researcher, but also about the simmering hope for the future that she feels, despite all odds. The current situation in Finland and the world –  with asylum seekers being forcibly sent back to Afghanistan and the sexism and hate speech that many outspoken women face on a daily basis – may seem bleak but it might also inspire fresh resistance and activism. Dark times may indeed give birth to bright ideas. It’s up to us to ride this wave and make sure that the future looks brighter than the past. It’s never a bad time to work for something that you believe in.


Thank you to everyone who participated!

For more information: 

African Care: http://www.africancare.fi/en/

Marjaana Jauhola's homepage: https://marjaanajauhola.wordpress.com

The Development Cooperation Committee of the Student Union: http://blogs.helsinki.fi/kehy-valiokunta/

Kollektiivi Facebook group: www.facebook.com/fkollektiivi

Photos by Riikka Ilmonen and Mari Isomäki.