In which I learn that gender empowerment is really difficult

I want you to be empowered and think for yourselves!

Apologies in advance for this meandering rant. While writing the last post on getting women onto land titles, I was thinking about how difficult it is for external actors to actually change deep-held beliefs and customs, especially with respect to gender.

I used to work at the Ministry of Finance in Malawi, which has long hallways, but choke points a the main stairwell, where only one person could comfortably pass at a time. Whenever two people approached from opposite directions, one would have to give way, and this was usually determined by seniority. Every time a secretary or messenger girl approached at the same time as soime big bwana in a suit (Malawian or ex-pat), the women would always immediately get out the way first. As I said, a lot of this had to do with seniority, but somehow seniority seemed strongly correlated with gender.

When I was a kid, I once strolled through a door at a mall without letting a woman  coming from the other side through first. My father told me off for not following the `ladies first’ rule. I like to think that I’m chivalrous by nature, but it might just be residual guilt from twenty years ago (is chivalry even politically correct nowdays?).

In either case, I often find myself reflexively getting out of way of women around doorways. This was particularly difficult in university, where I’d occasionally find myself holding the door for minutes on end as an entire sorority exited the building.

Back to Malawi – if I approached a doorway and saw a secretary/messenger girl coming the other way, I’d fling myself to the side to let her through, while the woman would think “guy in a suit” and throw herself to the side to let me through. So begins the stalemate, where each implores the other to come through the doorway first.

How does the stalemate get broken? Usually with me, the man, ordering the woman through the doorway first, to satisfy my sense of gender equality. As far as interventions go, we’re in Life of Brian territory now.

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Some thoughts for the year

I am prepared to abandon these beliefs at the first sign of trouble.

In light of a recent shift into my late twenties and the arrival of the new year, I felt it would be reasonable to write down some of the relevant things that I have to come to think I believe. These beliefs are not necessarily backed by hard, empirical evidence and I may be prepared to abandon many of them in the future. Still, it might be useful to clarify some of these thoughts, as many will seem quite obvious to frequent readers, while others will appear counter-intuitive.
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Do the MDGs influence national policy? Should they?

Duncan Greene looks over a paper by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr on how well PRSPs in developing countries reflect the priorities in the Millennium Development Goals. The results reveal mixed involvement:

The analysis found a high degree of commitment to MDGs as a whole but both PRSPs and donor statements are selective, consistently emphasising income poverty and social investments for education, health and water but not other targets concerned with empowerment and inclusion of the most vulnerable such as gender violence or women’s political representation.

Fukuda-Parr and (to a lesser extent) Greene seem to be making an implicit judgement: that further alignment between national development strategies and the MDGs is the most desirable outcome.

While the MDGs have been incredibly important for shaping how we perceive development and offer a reasonable set of indicators for tracking the progress of poor societies (which we should continue to use), I think it’s unreasonable to expect or promote broad policy harmonisation around them.

For one, the MDGs are a broad set of international goals, but they do not comprise a one-size-fits-all policy, yet we continue to treat them as comparable indicators and implicitly weight them equally (this is reinforced by the structure of the MDGs). Why should India, where less than 80 children per 1,000 die before their fifth birthday, put the same weight on halving under-five mortality as Malawi, where over 130 children suffer the same fate? What if Indonesia decides it wants to put more weight on industrial policy than agricultural policy, with the expectation that the former will do more to reduce poverty in the long run? I think policy-makers and researchers often confuse the normative aspects of the MDGs (what we want to achieve) with the operational side (by trying to directly target each of the things we want to happen).

To be fair, Fukuda-Parr isn’t suggesting that developing countries should be just copying and pasting, even if that’s what appears to be happening:

Most [PRSPs], however, appear to have applied MDG Targets somewhat
mechanistically, without adaptation.

There seems to be a preference for adaptation; taking the normative framework of the MDGs and adjusting it for the local context. Even so, why must developing countries mold their strategies around a normative framework they don’t truly own? The MDGs represent an international consensus, but it’s not clear that the goal set that results from such a negotiation will bear much resemblance to any individual country’s aspirations.

Several months ago, I suggested that the next set of MDGs to be built from the ground-up, an aggregation of the goals of multiple development strategies. Instead of the international community telling developing countries what their priorities should be, then scouring planning documents to ensure adherence, the structure should grow from the opposite direction. Governments and civil societies in poor countries need to determine their own objectives for development, after which the international community should do its best to help them achieve it.

Economic crimes against humanity

Who did more damage: his army or his economists?

Who did more damage: his army or his economists?

Mike Smith over at’s Global Health Blog, discusses the long-term damage that Robert Mugabe’s regime has inflicted on the Zimbabwean health system.

It’s a good reminder that, while we’ve often been fixated on the brutality of Mugabe’s political repression, it is the economic and social changes he has brought to his country that have done the most damage: life expectancy has collapsed, maternal and infant mortality rates have skyrocketed; the country’s ability to feed itself has vanished and any skilled worker with enough brains and cash to leave has done so (which must account for a portion of the life-expectancy drop).

Thanks to the adoption of the ill-conceived power-sharing agreement it now seems highly unlikely that Robert Mugabe will be punished for his thuggish grip on power and the multitude of human rights abuses that resulted. This is a shame, although perhaps a necessary evil. Let’s imagine that he was up for prosecution – what would be considered his greater crime: his abuse of power or public policy? Or is it the interaction of the two that made the difference?

When politicians play fair (which admittedly isn’t very often) the electoral mechanism tends to work well enough. It is far from perfect at picking the best policies, but it’s not bad at chucking out those who embrace disastrous policies. This should be an encouraging thought: functioning democracies (recall that democracies are more than just elections) will ditch ruinous policies. Those of you that are now thinking wistfully of awful decisions made by your own governments should reconsider your perspective: Mugabe effectively destroyed his own country.

Since the amazing fiasco that was the indictment of Sudanes president Omar al-Bashiri I’ve become quite skeptical of the international community’s ability to credibly police bad heads-of-state. For fun, let’s suspend our skepticism for a moment and consider adding a new crime to our list: economic crimes against humanity.

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