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Harvest Time: Gleaning feminist knowledge for alternative development paths

29 Jun 2012



We are in a period of seemingly intractable global crises, characterized by the collapse of the reign of the market and a lack economic democracy. As the globalization juggernaut slows, political leaders fail to deliver on promises and socioeconomic inequalities are amplified, space for realigning social forces has emerged. This is the time, argue Devaki Jain and Diane Elson in a recent volume, Harvesting Feminist Knowledge for Public Policy: Rebuilding Progress, to harvest feminist knowledge to lay alternative paths for human progress and development.

UNRISD hosted the launch of this volume at the UN’s offices in Geneva, in collaboration with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the South Centre. As the panelists for the launch explained, the time is ripe for creative shifts in the thinking and framing of contemporary women’s movements.



More than a book launch, the seminar, “Multiple Global Crises and Gender: Rethinking Alternative Paths for Development”, brought together a number of powerful feminist voices. Speaking on themes that emerged from the volume, the panelists argued for political, economic and social changes to promote more inclusive alternative development paths.

Devaki Jain, co-editor of the volume and founding member of the Institute of Social Studies Trust (New Delhi, India) and DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era), spoke about the need for economic democracy and social and economic transformation that “bubbles up” rather than “trickles down”. She argued that combating poverty can itself be an engine of growth - driven by empowering women at the poorest level by guaranteeing employment - in turn powering production, leading growth and moving the economy in a broad-based, socially equitable direction.

“We have to make the choice that the needs of the poor come first. Then we can transform the economy,” Jain contended.

She warned, though, that feminists have “ghettoed” themselves, and that feminist knowledge has not been able to cross the barriers into mainstream economic thought. How, then, can we transform feminist knowledge into feminist policy? The challenge is, in the words of Amartya Sen, for women to be viewed as “agents of change” rather than “patient recipients of well-being”.

Mariama Williams, Senior Fellow at the South Centre, drew parallels between contemporary austerity plans and the structural adjustment policies of the past. She argued that states continue to reach into the “old toolbox of macroeconomic policy and come out with the same tools, which are not going to be useful to solve this, or any, economic crisis.”

Williams suggested that the transformational leadership of women, galvanized by heightened levels of motivation and morality in public economic and social decision making, can turn feminist knowledge into policy making. She also highlighted the need to move the feminist agenda beyond the familiar topics of domestic violence and reproductive health, and instead to tackle the core of the problem: gender-inequitable macroeconomic policies.

“We cannot,” Williams argued, “eradicate domestic violence and food security without addressing macroeconomic issues".

Naoko Otobe, Senior Employment Specialist and Gender and Employment Coordinator at the ILO, helped to contextualize the environment in which women are (and are not) becoming agents of change. Otobe highlighted, for example, that tight monetary policies to control inflation, a mantra for many states, have disproportionately negative effects on women in the labour market. Similarly, while crises hit both men and women hard, in post-crisis situations women find the return to the labour market more difficult than men. Given this context, there is a need for concerted efforts to link decent work with social protection and policy reforms. In relation to this, she discussed proposals for poverty alleviation under the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda, and the potential for targeted interventions to promote gender-equitable labour outcomes.

According to the panelists, there are a number of public policy alternatives. Possibilities include rethinking mainstream economics to include unpaid work, just and democratic public finance, socially responsible markets and embedding economic and social rights within macroeconomic policies. “Sustainable development”, the overarching goal of UN agencies and local communities alike, argued Devaki Jain, is that which the poor – especially women – can sustain.

You can find the audio recording of the seminar on the right hand side of this page, or download it from the iTunes podcast directory.



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