Sex Matters


This post is about sex. Or, to be more accurate, it is about gender issues  but that doesn’t sound nearly as interesting as “SEX”.  Gender equity is one of those nifty goals that the development set is now striving to apply to any development activity.  In this post I briefly describe three experiences I have had in dealing with this issue. While I am very sympathetic to the cause, I can also see how an over-emphasis on this or any other single aspect of a program can be detrimental to overall success. Most of you will also have had your own experiences with this concept. Some will perhaps share my perspective on the issue. Others may write me off as a chauvinist fossil.  Either way, please share your opinions and experiences in the comments box at the end of this post and contribute to a constructive conversation on the subject.  

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Sex Matters

Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about gender — and how it affects the planning and implementation of rural and enterprise development programs. I have always considered myself something of an old school feminist. There are undoubtedly some among my colleagues who would be surprised by that statement since I have often found myself in the position of resisting the inclusion of so-called gender components in the design of agriculture and enterprise development projects where I felt they were not constructive.

As background to this discussion, allow me to put on the table of few of the principles that I believe are important with regard to gender issues in development.

  1. First of all, I believe that we, as development professionals, have an obligation to do no harm. We must be sure that the activities we promote or support do not re-enforce destructive gender or role stereotypes among the people with whom we are working.
  2. Second, I believe that affirmative action is required to ensure that all members of society have equal access to the support our programs provide.
  3. Third, I believe that we should always be looking for opportunities to provide extra support and encouragement to people who have been less economically powerful in traditional culture.
  4. Fourth, I believe that traditional culture is important. We should avoid attacking what we may identify as negative aspects of that culture without first closely examining both the reasons behind those things we might want to change and how they affect the social, economic and political life of the community.
  5. Fifth, I believe that effective economic development does in fact “lift all of the boats.” All are not lifted equally high or at the same pace but there should be a positive effect throughout the community as production increases, jobs are created and markets are developed.
  6. Finally, I believe that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Change is an iterative process more likely to involve very many tiny steps forward than one great leap. Ensuring that each step is in a positive direction may be more important than the size of those steps or the rate at which they are accomplished.

I generally consider the terms “entrepreneur” and “farmer” to be gender-free concepts. That can put me on very shaky ground with colleagues of a more activist nature. Where gender-specific economic roles have evolved in local culture I believe that the development set needs to think twice (and then again) before deciding that there is something “wrong” with those role assignments. I have found more often than not that there is an economic and/or social rationale for those role assignments that we should try to understand before deciding either that social justice requires that those roles be changed or that it is our role to be the agents of that change.

This examination might well leave us even more convinced that great social and economic injustice is being perpetrated on a disenfranchised part of society and that this should be changed. Even then we must realize that people (economies and societies) change for their own reasons and that our efforts to hasten that change might meet with some resistance and not least from those we identify as being most oppressed. I understand that many Saudi women strongly defend the social practices that western culture identifies as most repressive.

In the economic development context I think we often err in thinking any single factor must be a key element of any program. That factor may be environmental protection or youth employment or anti-corruption or any number of others including gender equity. All of these factors are important but they are not equally important in all cases and cannot always be programmed explicitly into a development activity.

I will offer three brief examples from my own experience to illustrate my point. The first illustrates one “right” (or at least effective) way to promote gender equity in an enterprise development program. The second illustrates what I consider to have been a destructive attempt to force a major gender component into a project where it really had no place. The third is a case where gender just didn’t seem very relevant to the success of the activity and we were able to treat it as such.

Women Entrepreneurs in Armenia:

The program I managed in Armenia in the early years of the new century (the current one) was aimed at developing small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to increase the processing and export (not production) of agriculture products. We worked with a wide range of  agriculture value chains ranging from trout farming to fruit processing to cheese making and many others. One of the many mandates put on our team by the donor was that the project must include a strong component supporting the growth of women in business.

One of the first activities of the project team, before I even arrived on the scene, was to do an assessment of the participation of women in agribusiness and conduct a survey to identify female agribusiness operators. They came up with a total of nine such women – in all of Armenia. Women were not active participants in the agribusiness sector, at least not on the entrepreneurial/managerial side of such activities. There was a strong cultural resistance to women playing leadership roles in this sector and it became very clear very quickly that the project was not going to meet its results targets (increases jobs, sales, exports) if it was going to focus on those few enterprises that were owned or managed by women, most of which were very small in any case.

The implementation team came up with a strategy to provide a mix of training, technical/strategic advice, market linkage assistance and grants to agribusiness SMEs with a viable business plan regardless of the gender of their owner/operators. At the same time we devoted some extra effort to finding and encouraging more women-owned and operated enterprises, providing them with specially targeted training and advisory help and linking them into a network of women in agribusiness to support each other. Some of the criteria for participation in certain activities were relaxed and special training sessions and women-only retreats were held to encourage those we knew and encourage others to join. By the time the project ended several years later the group had grown from the original nine to more than 110 women with several more participating at times. Several very successful enterprises were developed and others were strengthened. Some men were beginning to ask to take part in the special women’s programs because they felt they were missing something.

There were three keys to this success:

First: We we didn’t do very much that was special for the women. The women’s program was 99% the same as the one that was open to anyone. In fact many of the women were participating in all aspects of the general program by the time it was over. We just made sure that there was a positive attempt to include women in the programs and provided a few “extra” activities for their specific benefit.  Perhaps “less” really is “more” in this case.

Second: The program was informal. No one was required to join an association, satisfy any limiting eligibility criteria or do anything at all in particular other than work with us, and each other, openly for the benefit of themselves and others.

Third:  The Armenian woman who led that aspect of the program was (is) an altogether extraordinary person. With no particular background or training in business but enormous energy, empathy and creative intuition she was able to both attract women to the program and advocate for their individual and collective participation in everything we did. Development programs need a “soul” and she was ours. Among other things, in the final year of the project she put together a very successful “women only” trade show that presented more than 70 woman- owned and managed businesses to the public.  New participants were still coming in to ask her advice and link with the program as we were winding down in the final weeks.

Women in Agriculture (how not to make it happen):

Another, less positive, experience occurred more recently in another small corner of the former Soviet Union. A major international donor insisted that various gender-related indicators be included in the monitoring and evaluation program for the agriculture project I was working on. The focus on farms and agribusinesses owned and operated by women, of which there were very few, actually detracted from our efforts with true “family farms” involving husbands, wives, children and whoever else might play a part. The donor even refused to allow us to include these family farms in the counting when the wives clearly shared responsibility with their husbands.

Much like the program in Armenia just described, our assistance activities (mostly training, planning and marketing assistance) were available to all farmers but with special attention being given to insuring that female farmers had at least equal access to our assistance.  Some special activities aimed at encouraging their development were added. These included encouraging the development of a nation-wide “women in agriculture” network to encourage and support women in the field and represent their special issues. This still seems to me like a more effective way of strengthening the rural economy through increased agriculture production without further demolishing village culture than focusing on a single part of that economy.

This was only one of several serious evaluation-related issues encountered with this project. There was an acknowledged priority on designing and operating the program to fit  evaluation requirements rather than the other way round. The power recently gained by the “randomistas,” whether or not their preferred evaluation methodology makes any sense in a given situation, does little to help improve the general “practice” of development program evaluation when applied too broadly. There will be more (perhaps a general rant) about evaluation issues in another post to come.

Guinea Bissau: Credit Groups (Where sex turned out not to be important):

The case, presented in an earlier blog post, The Conversation is Key, about small farmer group credits in Guinea Bissau is interesting in that gender really proved to be much less of an issue than we had expected. Realizing that we were working in a very poor and traditional Muslim culture we had deployed all our antenna to be sure we found effective mechanisms for involving women in the program. Our basic criterion for participating in the program was that farmers organize themselves into village-based groups in a way that made sense to them and provided responsible and representative leadership. Our worry was that the groups would be dominated by men who would be the primary beneficiaries with their wives largely missing from the picture. In retrospect, our expectations might say more about us than about the farmers but then even development economists aren’t always perfect.

What actually happened was that some of the groups (with 10-15 members each, as I recall) were all men, a few were all women, and the greatest number were mixed with women playing a strong role in the leadership at least on a par with that of the men. Fortunately, we did not “over-manage” the process and the whole thing worked out pretty well – probably better than if it had been mandated as a “women’s project,” which could well have caused friction in the communities and the families involved.

I think the lesson of this case is that sometimes the smartest thing we can do is avoid being overly prescriptive. We can, in fact, often let nature take its course and permit culture to operate in the way it operates without taking our eye off the need to ensure that project benefits are not directed solely to a relatively more privileged sub-group — in this case, men. We need to be more concerned about ensuring equal access than equal outcomes, which are beyond our management control in any case.

I have clearly only scratched the surface of this important topic in the paragraphs above. If I have managed to either pique your interest or provoke your ire in this post, please go to the comments box below to share your thinking. I would really like to learn about the experience the rest of you have had with respect to this important question. And, don’t forget to scroll back to the top and sign up to receive future posts in your email box automatically. I promise there won’t be too many and I will try to make them pertinent, interesting, at least mildly entertaining and perhaps a touch provocative.



2 thoughts on “Sex Matters

  1. I think you take on gender is pretty spot- on, and confirms what I have found that you do want to consider gender, that gender neutrality does not work. Obvious example – SME loan package is available to anyone who can post real property collateral. Of course, in many places this excludes women, who may not be able to own real property – but also excludes a lot of men who might be worthy borrowers but who also do not own property. A broader look at the constraints on one group may suggest constraints on other groups as well.

  2. Could you explain what you mean by “randomnista”? Great word, but I don’t want to repeat it wrongly!

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