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«ASPJ Africa & Francophonie - 2nd Quarter 2015 Feminism and the Politics of Empowerment in International Development Carole Biewener, PhD* ...»

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ASPJ Africa & Francophonie - 2nd Quarter 2015

Feminism and the Politics of

Empowerment in International


Carole Biewener, PhD*

Marie-hélène BaCqué, PhD


y the end of the twentieth century, the term empowerment had entered the

mainstream of international development discourse. Yet, its origins in this arena

derive in large part from feminists working in nongovernmental organizations

(NGO) throughout the global South in the 1970s and 1980s, many of whom

were interested in fostering alternative forms of development along with “women’s liberation.”1 Considerable work has addressed the mainstreaming of empowerment, with critical commentary on how this action has brought significant shifts in its meaning and use.2 In contrast to those who argue that international development institutions “have taken the power out of empowerment,” we contend that mainstream initiatives envision and further significant forms of power—forms that enable particular types of subjectivity and agency that lead to a “depoliticization” along the lines of what Wendy Brown has addressed in her work on neoliberalism and de-democratization.3 We also argue that, although the mainstreaming of empowerment discourse has brought a normalization and domestication along liberal lines, significant differences are at play within the mainstream that need to be acknowledged. In this article, we trace the emergence of empowerment discourse within the World Bank (WB), identifying a neoliberal orientation in which Carole Biewener is a professor of economics and women’s and gender studies at Simmons College in * Boston, Massachusetts. Her research and publications have addressed the French Socialist government’s financial policies in the 1980s, community development and social economy projects in the United States and Canada, and debates at the intersection of poststructuralist feminism and postmodern Marxism. She has also undertaken a long-term joint research project with her coauthor, Marie-Hélène Bacqué, on the genealogy of the term empowerment in the fields of gender and development, urban politics, and social work, culminating in several journal articles and a book, L’Empowerment, une pratique émancipatrice (La Découverte, 2013). Dr.

Biewener’s current research addresses gender and the political economy of food.

Marie-Hélène Bacqué is a professor of urban studies at the University of Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense. She is affiliated with UMR LOUEST (CNRS), an interdisciplinary urban studies research center, and served as the director of the Mosaïques-LAVUE research laboratory from 2009 to 2014. She has conducted research and published widely on forms of urban democracy in French and North American cities, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. More recently, Dr. Bacqué has researched the origins of participatory approaches, coediting two books in this area: La démocratie participative inachevée: genèse, adaptations et diffusion (Editions Yves Michel, 2010) and La démocratie participative: histoire et généalogie (La Découverte, 2011).


empowerment is connected to individual rational choice, efficiency, investment, free markets, entrepreneurship, and, more recently, a social-liberal framing that locates empowerment in relation to governance, poverty alleviation, equal opportunity, capabilities, and “effective asset-based choice.”4 We contrast these two liberal empowerment projects with the left feminist approach that developed from community-based activism in South Asia.

We then conclude by considering some of the key challenges facing feminists, given the tensions inherent in a radical empowerment project, arguing that in light of the current context in which powerful liberal conceptualizations have taken center stage, it is especially important for feminists to pursue a “postcapitalist politics” that connects empowerment to alternative, noncapitalist visions of the economy.5 Since its inception in the midnineteenth century, the word empowerment has been used in two different ways. On the one hand, reflecting its early origins, it has meant that power has been “given,” “invested,” or “authorized” by a higher authority (such as the state or a religious institution). On the other hand, reflecting its contemporary usage dating from the mid-1970s, it may designate a process by which individuals come to develop the capacity to act and to acquire power. As such, it is seen as something that individuals develop themselves. Understood in this latter manner, the term came of age in a period when global/local synergies and tensions became prominent (i.e., the 1970s and 1980s).

Its embrace across the political spectrum reflects a widely shared recognition of local and/ or individual instances of power as crucial elements in the realization of any social project.

It also reflects a common reaction against the authority of large-scale, hierarchical, and bureaucratic institutions, and a turn toward emancipatory projects based upon some vision of self-actualization and/or self-determination. Thus, empowerment as the embodiment of a “grassroots” or “bottom-up” vision of social change also came of age in a period when questions related to agency, subjectivity, and identity exploded onto the social and political landscape. By looking at the emergence of the left feminist, neoliberal, and social-liberal empowerment perspectives, we are able to appreciate the alternative politics at play in these different projects, along with the different conceptualizations of agency, subjectivity, and power.

From the “Grassroots”:

Empowerment as an Alternative Feminist Approach to Development The term empowerment began to be used among feminists working in South Asian community groups and NGOs in the mid-1970s.6 As Narayan Banerjee notes, in India “the concept of ‘empowerment’ of women is the product of [the] post 1975 women’s movement.”7 By the mid-1980s, the Indian government had embraced “grassroot organizational empowerment” as part of its planning agenda for rural development. Concurrently, a distinctive feminist “empowerment approach” to development emerged on the international scene in the mid-1980s through the work of one of the first transnational feminist networks—the Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) project.

60 ASPJ AFRICA & FRANCOPHONIE Throughout South Asia in the 1970s, feminists reacted against the government’s top-down welfare approach to women in development and worked to break women’s “shackles of the mind.”8 In India, feminists sought to transform the meaning of the word empowerment to that of a woman needing to be “given self-hood and self-strength” or “to be strengthened to be herself ” rather than being a “beneficiary” who needed to be “dealt out cards—welfare and money—to make her feel better.”9 Similar to what was happening concurrently in the battered women’s movement in the United States, as feminists in South Asia organized against domestic violence, rape, dowry, and sati—and for reproductive rights—they recognized that empowerment necessitates an internal, subjective dimension that addresses a woman’s positioning of herself relative to the world.10 To them, “it was a process, that of acquiring a sense of identity that is couched in terms of selfworth and equality.... Until women recognize themselves as worthy of rights they are not going to get empowered.”11 Thus, throughout South Asia, feminist understandings of empowerment emphasized the importance of recognizing and developing a woman’s sense of identity and agency through a process of consciousness raising or “conscientization.”12 This feminist activism contributed to the Indian government’s embrace of “an induced organizational approach” to rural women’s development that shifted the government’s understanding of empowerment toward more of a grassroots orientation.13 By the mid-1980s, a new meaning of empowerment had emerged within the Indian government’s planning arenas—one oriented toward “grassroot empowerment” for poor, largely rural women via collective reflection, participation, and group self-organization.14 By the mid-1980s the term empowerment also had gained broader international political and economic recognition when at the NGO forum at the United Nations’ 1985 second World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya, the nascent DAWN project of “Third World women social scientists” circulated a platform document outlining an alternative development approach.15 This widely discussed “manifesto” provided a critique of mainstream development programs and offered a vision of an alternative feminist “paradigm” in which women’s empowerment figured prominently. It was subsequently published in 1987 as what has become a well-known book—Development, Crises, and Alternative Visions: Third World Women’s Perspectives.16 DAWN itself became institutionalized as “a network of activists, researchers and policymakers” from the “Third World,” engaging in what Mary Hawkesworth has characterized as an “information politics.”17 This above-mentioned book, dedicated to “a process of ongoing empowerment of women,” is notable in several respects:18

• Written by feminist activists, academics, and policy makers from the global South, it connected the grassroots-level work that many of the women were familiar with or engaged in, to a macroeconomic analysis and critique that showed how neoliberal development practices had aggravated women’s circumstances throughout the world, resulting in a food crisis in Africa, the Latin American debt crisis, a crisis of poverty in South Asia, and militarism in the Pacific Islands.


• It put forth an alternative left feminist vision of “autonomous and equitable development” oriented toward satisfying people’s basic needs. As such, it criticized the “integrationist” approach of the liberal “Women in Development” perspective that implicitly assumed that “women’s main problem in the Third World is insufficient participation in an otherwise benevolent process of growth and development.”19 Furthermore, it called for structural and systemic change so that “inequality based on class, gender and race is absent from every country, and from the relationships among countries.”20

• The book argued that only by taking the standpoint of poor Third World women might one come to a proper understanding of development and be able to fashion effective alternatives.

• It posed empowerment and the self-organization of women as necessary for realizing such alternative development.21 Subsequently, DAWN’s alternative “empowerment approach” gained substantial recognition in more mainstream development arenas with the 1989 publication of an influential article by Caroline Moser, a social anthropologist, in the highly respected journal, World Development.22 By the 1990s, one could find references to empowerment in international development literature that spanned the globe.

Given the local, grassroots nature of people working to “empower women” and the considerable diversity of regions and contexts, differences exist in how women’s empowerment has been described and undertaken.23 Yet, generally, feminist empowerment has been viewed as a process involving the self-organization of women in a manner that enables them to mobilize to effect transformative social changes in “structures of subordination” so as to free them from subjugation. As such, feminist empowerment necessitates work at the individual level as well as at organizational and social levels. Indeed, it involves an articulation of at least three different dimensions: (1) an internal, psychological, or subjective level of empowerment in which a person’s “power within” and individual-level “power to” are developed; (2) an interpersonal and organizational level whereby a “power with” and a “power over” are cultivated; and (3) a political or social level where institutional and/or structural change is made possible via collective action.24 As Srilatha Batliwala, an Indian social worker and feminist activist, has written, Radical transformations in society... cannot be achieved through the struggles of village or neighbourhood women’s collectives.... In the final analysis, to transform society, women’s empowerment must become a political force, that is, an organized mass movement that challenges and transforms existing power structures. Empowerment should ultimately lead to the formation of mass organizations of poor women, at the regional, national and international levels.25 Thus, feminist empowerment has been understood fundamentally as a multifaceted process that explicitly addresses social power and inequality and that enables social transformation on the basis of women’s self-organization. Further, as a reaction against topASPJ AFRICA & FRANCOPHONIE down welfare and neoliberal approaches to women and development, this transnational feminist project of social change has been connected to a vision of alternative, noncapitalist development.

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