24th December 2000
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Book review

Shedding light on gender,development 

From Theory to Action: Women Gender and Development by Maithree Wickremesinghe Reviewed by M.C. Figueroa Kupcu 

"Pick up the hen and you can gather all the chicks' - Ashanti proverb 

Around the world, women's contribu- tion to shaping the economic, social and cultural fabric of community life is indispensable. Yet it was only in the 1970s that this fact began to influence the development theories that were providing guidance for the modernization efforts of emerging nations. As the ideology and activism of Western feminist movements gained strength in various spheres, even international organisations and grassroots groups increasingly realized that their programmes had failed to include women's roles in the formula for successful development processes. The body of research and practice that followed was fuelled by a growing recognition that gender equity is a right, not a preference, and a condition of a modern society. 

Much debate surrounds the question of which paradigm maximizes women's participation in development. The ebb and flow of this debate has very practical implications. It guides how practitioners, donors and beneficiaries design and fund programmes. From Theory to Action: Women, Gender and Development is a beacon of clarity in this complex and politicized dispute. 

An experienced researcher and practitioner in this field, author Maithree Wickremesinghe describes the evolution of this debate and presents a thoughtful examination of each paradigm's core assumptions, advantages and limitations. The book describes the spectrum of theoretical approaches that aim to include women in the development process - from those that advocate focused interventions to those that call for holistic reforms in social institutions and norms. The author further illustrates this spectrum with a corresponding set of practical field-level experiences that show how all community projects are rooted in assumptions of global theory. Such comprehensive analysis gives practitioners and students a blueprint for understanding both the abstract and concrete implications of their programme design. 

Wickremesinghe chronicles many of the ideological currents that have shaped thinking on women, gender and development. Among them, the Women in Development (WID) and Gender and Development (GAD) paradigms provide examples of two of dominant trends. 

Fuelled by the feminist activism that swept the West in the 1960s and '70s the WID model raised global awareness of the subordination of women in the development process and lobbied for special emphasis on this previously excluded group. By focusing on women-only programmes, advocates argued that women could form enclaves where their particular needs would be supported and insulated from oppressive dominant norms. WID principles were adopted by the United Nations Organizations and its methodology shaped decades of project guidelines and funding criteria. Yet, as awareness grew of women's position as a neglected group, the WID model became increasingly criticized for failing to address the larger structural issues that prevented women's advancement in society. Issues such as political participation, economic empowerment and choice were not within the purview of the WID approach. In fact, the paradigm's very specific and targeted focus was blamed for reinforcing gender stereotypes without making the attitudinal and structural changes that would help women's long-term progress. 

In response to this critique, the Gender and Development framework emerged in the 1980s. This theory broadened its approach from a woman-only focus to one that emphasized gender differences between men and women. In this way the GAD framework moved beyond notions of women's reproductive roles, to address the variety of gender-related functions that women adopt in different societies - economic provider, educator, conservationist, religious figure, community activist. "Gender identity" encompassed not only the characteristic of being "female" but also attributes such as caste, race, class, religion and political affiliation. The GAD framework drew attention to the fact that women's ability to advance, socially and economically, was dependent on more than just her own best efforts. Patriarchal social structures and norms were often the cause of this development lag. Although more comprehensive than the WID approach, the GAD approach has also come under scrutiny since it too does not completely challenge existing structures but tries to change them from within. 

The author carefully examines each of the components of these main approaches as well as their methodological implications. Though not within the purview of this book, Wickremesinghe raises interesting questions about the future adaptations of the WID and GAD models. In particular, can models that are constrained by the current development institutions and frameworks really bring about the societal change that feminist activists believe is necessary for real gains in gender equity? 

Having provided readers with a basis for examination, the author sets about putting flesh on bones by analysing the Sri Lankan experience through the WID and GAD lenses. 

Sri Lanka has been one of the few developing countries to place significant emphasis on improving social indicators and on achieving greater gender equity. In 1998, female adult illiteracy was 12% as opposed to 63%, the average in South Asia. Maternal mortality in Sri Lanka is 16 times lower than neighbouring countries. This investment in human development has resulted in measurable economic benefits, both per capita income ($820USD) and female wages as a percentage of male's wages (55 cents to the dollar) are the highest in the region.. 

Despite this progress, however, Sri Lanka has not advanced as dramatically as other countries - including South Korea and Singapore - which, in the 1960s, had equal levels of per capita income. The principal reasons for this unfulfilled potential are the massive inefficiencies in the country's public institutions and the persistent civil war that has torn the country's social fabric apart. This latter, in particular, has affected Sri Lankan women significantly and has contributed to increasing levels of poverty in recent years. 

National poverty alleviation programmes have faced numerous design and implementation challenges, including finding the most effective way to mobilize women in the development effort. Partly as a response to this, Sri Lankan non-governmental organizations have spearheaded efforts to promote gender awareness and advocacy. As many of these civil society organizations receive external funding and assistance, it is not surprising that the range of global development theories are reflected in their local projects. Wickremesinghe offers several examples of grassroots initiatives to show that even when projects are adapted for cultural and local traditions, they can be identified with one of the main strands of WID or GAD theory. This volume also provides an interesting, if brief, discussion of how non-governmental organizations have increasingly gained leverage vis-a-vis the state because of their growing financial independence and greater public acceptance. 

This has allowed these organizations to politicize issues and mobilize constituencies in order to affect national government policies. In this way development theory that is created at the macro-level is channelled in a cycle through development and donor organizations to micro-level projects at the village level. Field lessons are then fed back through these same institutions to inform the next generation of global theory. 

One caveat: While the regional emphasis of the book is certainly valuable to Asian scholars, the lessons gleaned from the Sri Lankan experience are applicable to countries worldwide. Certainly not all elements of the Sri Lankan experience are presented as context, but the author draws the right balance between specificity and generality to garner the lessons that would be salient in similar conditions. 

Wickremesinghe's goal of linking theory and practice is further reinforced by the book's clear structure and fluid presentation. Readers must suspend their appetite for practical examples in Part I: Theory, where the focus is on abstraction. Patience is rewarded in Part II: Action where the author examines the details of a series of case studies that parallel the theoretical evolution explained earlier. This comparative approach is particularly effective since the reader can easily match WID/GAD theories with their corresponding implications at the project and programme levels. 

Although the book presupposes familiarity with development concepts, the author makes particular effort to clarify definitions and concepts that are often thrown about carelessly in the jargon of development circles. Throughout, evidence is well documented, allowing the reader to investigate particular points and critiques further. 

Experienced practitioners will find the book's concise critiques and methodological evaluations a useful reference in project planning. Students' understanding of the evolution of theory will further be deepened by the practical applications presented by the Sri Lanka case. From Theory to Action is an indispensable guide for both students and development professionals. 

Maria C. Figueroa Kupcu is currently associated with a major consulting organization in the US working on development strategies worldwide. Her previous affiliations include UNDP, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Her writings on international affairs have been widely published. 

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