All entries for March 2017

March 27, 2017

Questioning inequality at the 2017 International Development symposium

Text by Maria Olsen and Anni Piiroinen, photos by Sailja Jain

collage emma daisycollage maria crowd

This year’s MA students of International Development in the University of Warwick organised the annual development symposium on Wednesday 15 March 2017, titled ‘Questioning Inequality’. The day started off with a key note lecture by Professor Emma Crewe from SOAS, which discussed hierarchies in connection to knowledge, especially in the realm of development work. With examples from her own experiences of working in the field, Professor Crewe pointed to the problematic nature of many development projects and relationships between Western expatriate development workers and their local colleagues. The lecture was not only fascinating but also deeply necessary for a group of students, many of whom may consider working in development NGOs.

The day continued with three panels, which examined different forms of inequality. The first panel focused on gender inequality, including presentations from Opeyemi Adesanya, Sailja Jain, Anastasia Balandina and Madiha Shekhani. The presentations touched on diverse issues, such as sexual violence, the gender pay gap, fighting gender inequality through business-supported education programmes and intersectionality.

After a tasty buffet lunch, the symposium continued with the second panel, which looked at economic inequalities. The presentations were given by Aistė Jotautytė, Anni Piiroinen and Zeeshan Hanif. Together these presentations discussed the importance of inequality in reproducing poverty, the impacts of capitalism on inequality and the contributions that global value chain analysis can make to understandings of inequality.

collage aiste anni

The final panel discussed inequality in Asia. The three panelists were Edouard Leonet, Maria Elena Olsen and Thomas Grafton. Edouard gave an interesting presentation about microfinance and how it could be used to tackle inequality in East Asia. Maria talked about how the persistence of poverty can be explained by inequality within the Philippines, while Thomas’s presentation looked at the connection of inequalities to political transformations in Thailand.

The day finished off with closing remarks from Professor Shirin Rai. This marked the end of this year’s International Development module. The breadth of topics discussed in the symposium were a testament to the diverse topics examined during the module, and to the curiosity and critical outlook of students. None of it would have been possible without the support and encouragement of Professor Rai, who has pushed her students to question not only inequality but other aspects of international development too.


March 10, 2017

Horizons of development in global value chains: an interview with Stephanie Barrientos

Interview by Sailja Jain and Anni Piiroinen

Professor Stephanie Barrientos has been a true pioneer in research on global value chains. Researching and teaching at the Global Development Institute in the University of Manchester, she has examined questions of gender, employment, global production and ethical trade. She coordinated Capturing the Gains, a research programme looking at the possibilities of upgrading within value chains, together with Professor Gary Gereffi in 2008-13 ( She has worked as an advisor for several companies, NGOs and international organisations, including ActionAid, Oxfam, Body Shop, Cadbury, International Labour Organisation and the World Bank. During her recent visit to the University of Warwick as part of a conference, 'Gendered Work in the Global Food Chain', Think Development had the wonderful opportunity to interview her about the role of global value chains in development.

Anni: What are global value chains and how can they contribute to our understanding of development?

Barrientos: Trade used to happen traditionally through free markets with price movements as the main determinants of exchange. Trade took place between countries, and different intermediaries didn’t necessarily know each other. But in a value chain, big, modern, international companies know their entire supply chain. They’ve tracked their supply chain, they know who the suppliers are, and they co-ordinate those supply chains instead of just leaving it to the free market.

Big companies will pre-program and coordinate production through a number of private standards that they operate to control the quality of production. For instance in food production, the co-ordination goes all the way back to the point of growing, determining what pesticides are put on, etc. Production still operates broadly within a global free market but within that you have quite large companies that play a dominant role in their supply chains. For suppliers and producers, the supply chains overlap with each other, and they could be supplying a number of those companies.

Developing countries have been very affected by globalisation and the growth of global value chains because the key component of it has been the outsourcing of production traditionally done in Europe and North-America. A lot of that production is now done in developing countries. Through outsourcing by multinational companies, many developing countries that in the past only produced primary goods have become more and more integrated into different aspects of industrial manufacturing, processing, or commercial agriculture. The reality is that global value chains have had quite an important role in shaping the way in which development has taken place in countries that are engaged in value chains.

Sailja: A lot of your work is focused on the idea of upgrading, including Capturing the Gains. Could you explain how upgrading can be used to pursue development?

Barrientos: Obviously multinational companies don’t promote upgrading in their chains in order to promote development in sourcing countries. That is not their motivation. What they want is better quality products at competitive prices. In order to get the better quality products, companies will help build the capabilities of some suppliers, or the suppliers themselves build their capabilities. In some countries, governments help suppliers build their capabilities. It varies a lot by country.

Some suppliers are able to move to higher value activities and there are clear examples where that’s happened. Samsung was a supplier to Apple, then acquired the necessary technology and knowledge, and started to produce its own products, and is now also a major competitor to Apple. That is a very clear example of a company that started as a supplier and upgraded, but there are also many suppliers, especially smaller ones, who really struggle. They struggle to meet the quality standards that are required by the lead firms in global value chains, and those that can’t meet the standards often get squeezed out of the supply chain.

I don’t think it’s a linear process. Some will survive and do well. The more orders they get, the more they’re able to build those capabilities, the more they’re able to meet the standards and the more they’re able to supply. But there’s also the threat of a downward spiral. In most sectors and most countries you’ll find a combination of both.

Capturing the Gains was a big research programme that I led with Gary Gereffi, with 40 researchers in 20 countries across a number of sectors, including agri-food, apparel, tourism and mobile phones. It was looking at whether the upgrading of suppliers would automatically lead to improvements for workers. I think that a fairly definitive answer is that when suppliers upgrade and move to higher value activities that can lead to improvements for workers but it does not necessarily do so. We define social upgrading as what we call ‘measurable standards’, including a better wage, better conditions of work, but also as what we call ‘enabling rights’, meaning freedom of association, no gender discrimination, the ability of workers to organise and to be empowered.

When companies upgrade sometimes that leads to improvements for workers but often it doesn’t. One of the triggers for the improvement of conditions for workers is a shortage of the supply of labour, forcing companies to improve conditions, or when workers organise into trade unions or when NGOs run big campaigns. But the piece that we think is needed is a more proactive role by governments in the supply countries. Without government support you’re not going to have long-term sustainable upgrading of workers, which would be the real development win.

If you think of the value chain in its fully extended form, it’s not only about the workers that are staying in the factory. It’s also about the smaller scale suppliers that will supply the inputs that will go into that factory. Moreover, there’s a sort of ripple effect affecting the street sellers outside the factory in local markets and local shops, since the wages that are earned in the factories then gets spent in those places. Where you have economic upgrading leading to social upgrading, you can see wider repercussions. There’s a lot of evidence that if women earn more money, they’re more likely than men to spend that money on their children’s education and health that has long-term development implications. Social upgrading of workers done correctly, with the right government policies in place to support it (because you’ve also got to have schools and clinics available), is not just the wages on its own, but you can get positive development outcomes.

A key point that Capturing the Gains and other research that I’ve been involved in has shown, is that this is not going to happen automatically. There has to be policies in place that ensure the positive outcomes and help to reduce negative ones. Governments have a critical role to play in terms of providing protection for workers who are casualised or in insecure work. The living wage, for instance, is a major campaign now among workers in both agriculture and in manufacturing production in many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In the end if these campaigns are not protected by governments and enforced through regulation, it’s very hard for workers to organise on their own in these very footloose value chains.

Sailja: What is the position of women in global value chains? Do global value chains promote emancipation or exploitation of women?

Barrientos: Waged labour is exploitative. We’re all exploited, everyone who works for a wage. I think the big difference in employment of women in global value chains is that they are seen to be skilled for social reasons. They’ve been trained over many generations to do a lot of labour-intensive fine work and they’re perceived to be cheap labour. In that sense their employment in global value chains is exploitative of those skills.

But at the same time employment in global value chains is allowing women to come out of the home, where they’ve often done that work unpaid. Some women would’ve been in supportive households, but others in very exploitative and sometimes violent households. It’s creating opportunities for women to choose, which they didn’t have before because, as Amartya Sen argued many years ago, it depends on your fall-back position. If you have a limited fall-back position, limited alternatives, no source of independent income, you can’t make those choices. If you’ve got an income of your own, you can make choices. You might not choose to make them, you might decide to stay in the situation you’re in, but you’ve got options that you didn’t have before. To that extent I think it is empowering to women.

Women workers also have greater ability to organise. So for example in the living wage campaigns in Asia, women are very involved and they’re organising together. That wouldn’t have been possible if they were all isolated in their separate homes. Overall it’s empowering in the sense that it opens up their freedom to make choices, whether or not that empowerment can be realised in terms of significant improvements, in terms of their working conditions and incomes. That remains to be seen.

Anni: Global value chain analysis originally developed from world-systems theory. Do you think global value chains analysis is still connected to world-systems theory or has it developed in a different direction? Do you view this as a positive or negative shift?

Barrientos: The reason why I use the value chain analysis is because a lot of the earlier theories, both the more conventional theories and some of the more radical theories, such as world systems approaches, are essentially based on economic and political relations between countries. World-systems theory is focused on uneven relations between North versus South, where it’s Northern/imperialist countries exploiting poor/developing countries (different people use different terms). The core countries are exploiting the peripheral countries. In my view, a value chains approach breaks down the country analysis and the analysis is now between firms. The supply networks that feed into firms can cross borders multiple times. It’s much more about transnational economic relations, rather than trade between countries.

The big shift now, which we have to analyse and be able to explain - which is why a core-periphery, North-South analysis isn’t sufficient for me analytically - is the rise of lead firms within developing countries. Many of the expanding lead firms are within Africa, Asia and Latin America. In global value chain analysis for many years it was global firms in the Global North sourcing from developing countries in the Global South. What we’re seeing now, particularly since the crisis in 2008, is the rise of regional value chains, where lead firms in Africa, Asia and Latin America play coordinating roles.

It’s a much more complex situation and it’s challenging many of the large northern lead firms because they now have to compete against firms that are regional lead players. It’s also affecting supplier relations because ten years ago, if you were a supplier and you were going to sell into a value chain, you had no option but to sell to a European or a North American retailer. Now you’ve got options. You could sell to a European or a North American retailer, or you could sell to an African or a Latin American one, and their requirements can vary. I don’t know what the outcome of this shifting power dynamic between suppliers and buyers is, but it is much more complex than simply a global North-South dynamic.

Anni: There are a lot of private governance mechanisms in value chains, such as corporate environmental standards. What are the benefits and limitations of private governance?

Barrientos: The benefits of standards is that they’ve improved the quality of products, even lower price products, bought by low income households. And don’t forget, if you go through the whole extended value chain, it’s not just what you buy as a new product, but what is recycled. A lot of the mobile phones in Africa in the villages are not brand new but recycled giving low income households access to consumer goods previously denied them. Standards improve product quality. Certainly food is a lot safer now than it used to be. The likelihood of the clothing you wear catching fire is less than it used to be.

The disadvantage, though, of standards is that the smaller suppliers really struggle to meet them. It has led to much less diversity and much less small scale production. The smaller suppliers are often then forced to become wage labourers in the larger firms that are able to meet the standards and sell into the supply chains.

So there are pros and cons. In a highly globalised world where you have these very complex supply chains that cross borders multiple times, it’s only through the standards that you get the necessary harmonisation to get those kinds of complex supply chains functioning and producing goods that in the end are affordable. A lot more people at lower incomes can buy goods now than 20 or 40 years ago. It’s not all good or bad. In my view it’s just the reality of how production trade takes place, whether we like it or not. We have to live with it and then work out the leverage to make improvements for suppliers and for workers, and especially for women who constitute the majority of workers in much labour intensive production.

You can find out more about the work of Stephanie Barrientos through here:

March 07, 2017

An unchanged model: the role of women within the relationships of development

By Silvia Vacchi, University of Warwick

Historical relationships between “developed” and “underdeveloped” countries are influenced by gender relations, and some patterns, despite society’s and human evolution, have not substantially changed throughout history. This is illustrated by a comparison between the British colonial period and the invasion of Afghanistan by the U.S. in 2001. Accounts of these periods can be found in “The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset” by Philippa Levine (2013), and “Unveiling Imperialism: Media, Gender, and the War on Afghanistan”, by Stabile and Kumar (2005). Both pieces examine the gendered norms and behaviors within the relationships between the Western developer/invaders and the underdeveloped/invaded in each of the time periods. The comparison of these periods highlights the centrality of the oppression of women within the relationships between the developed and underdeveloped.

The first historical phenomenon that will be considered is the period of the British colonization. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain started expanding its political, military and commercial dominion over a number of (mostly) underdeveloped countries. The British imposed unequal trading relationships in order to enhance Britain’s growth and strengthen its overall power. Besides the obvious consequences that this caused to the colonized countries’ economies and political structures, we can observe that their social and gender relations were severely impacted as well. This resulted in profound inequality between the genders.

The second event is the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, which took place in 2001, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. This territory had been a crucial area during the Cold War. The Soviet Union had occupied the country at the end of the 1970s, and at that point Afghanistan fell under the control of a pro-Soviet party. This, in turn, was rejected by a revolutionary and extremist group, the mujahideen, which were supported by the United States in order to counteract the Soviet power. This controversial move proved to be disastrous for the fate of Afghanistan, whose population (and women in particular) began to experience limitations to their rights and freedom (Stabile and Kumar 2005, 766-768). Although men had to comply with certain rules as well, the main abuse was perpetrated on women, who saw severe limitations to their basic rights and were frequently targets of violence (Stabile and Kumar 2005, 769). The deterioration of women’s rights was presented as the main reason for the later US aggression; however, as we shall see, this was definitely not the truth.

The first similarity between the cases that can be detected is that both represent forms of colonialism. In fact, in both situations we can observe a strong Western country taking over a foreign territory in order to pursue its own interests. A second analogy between the two phenomena is the concept of male dominance. In the case of British colonialism the number of white, British men in the colonies was significantly higher than that of women (Levine 2013, 155). In fact, as Levine puts it, “The most general impression of the Empire was of a man’s world” (Levine 2013, 156). Although American men didn’t have any significant numeric advantage on local women, the preponderance of their power found further confirmation in their treatment of women.

On the one hand, both the British colonizers and the US soldiers dealt with women from a position of greater power. On the other, local men in the colonies and Afghan men exercised this same patriarchal power on women. Although both behaviors were deeply unjust and unequal, the latter was seen as especially backward and inhumane, including practices such as underage marriage, female slavery or prostitution (Levine 2013, 156-157). The way indigenous men in British colonies mistreated women was judged unbearable and unacceptable by the colonists of the 18th century (Levine 2013, 158). Similarly, the US media channels started condemning the atrocities imposed on Afghan women after 2001. This scandalized American public opinion, and ultimately helped convince people that an American military intervention was necessary. It is crucial, however, to point out that this was a strategic move on part of American institutions, considering that the violation of Afghan women’s rights had started well before, and yet little to no public attention had been turned to the situation earlier (Stabile and Kumar 2005, 772-775). For example, “[...] from 12 September 2001 to 1 January 2002, 93 newspaper articles [about women’s abuse] appeared – three times the number of articles that appeared in 1999 and six times the number that appeared in the 18 months before 11 September 2001” (Stabile, Carol and Kumar, Deepa, 2005, 772).

This similarity probably stands out the most between the two historical moments, and it finds its roots in the notion of protection of women. In fact, since both the colonial and the Afghan societies were seen from a male-dominated perspective, it was only considered natural for Western, white men to protect women and present themselves as their saviors and protectors (Stabile and Kumar 2005, 769-770; Levine 2013, 158). This assumption was in both cases exploited in order to legitimize the invasions, which were triggered by much less noble intentions. In fact, in the same way that the colonists exploited the protection of women in order to foster the growth of their economy and power, the US had their own economic and political interests in the region. This is suggested by the fact that the country only decided to intervene in the region after 2001, while remaining indifferent during the previous decade (Stabile and Kumar 2005, 769).

One last interesting parallelism between the two situations is the relationship between Western women and local ones. During the nineteenth century women began to join their husbands in the colonies, because it was widely believed that the presence of more British women would help the colonists settle, with significant economic benefits as a result (Levine 2013, 161). This phenomenon highlighted the differences between these white, British women and the indigenous ones. It could be asserted that the women of the colonies were judged as the less valuable people within the colonial society, to the point that they were even discriminated by other women. In fact, British women who had emigrated to the colonies began an activist movement to protest against the violation of their and the local women’s rights; however, they didn’t judge these indigenous women as their equals, but rather as helpless beings who needed aid and protection (Levine 2013, 176).

The patronizing attitude of Western white women is evident in the case of Afghanistan as well: Afghan women were seen as oppressed by Afghan men and by their religion, which was seen as inherently masculine and patriarchal by certain US liberal feminist groups, such as the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) (Khalid 2011, 15-16). This group, among many others, employed a kind of discourse that Edward Said would define as “Orientalist”, which entails the hierarchical representation and construction of the identity of Afghan women as the “Other woman” (Mohanty 1988, 61). This narrative construct a biased and oppressive conceptualization of the subjects in question.

From this comparative analysis, it can be concluded that, despite time, change and evolution, a lot of trends remain the same when it comes to historical and human patterns. What is even more evident is the fact that women are the targets of many forms of violence, because they are usually judged as inferior and weaker members of society across many times and cultures. At the same time, women are also used as scapegoats and political instruments: in fact, being considered incapable of their own protection, their helplessness is usually exploited as an excuse for the pursuit of other ends.


Khalid, M. (2011) “Gender, Orientalism and Representations of the ‘Other’ in the War on Terror”, Global change, Peace & Security, 23:1.

Levine, Philippa (2013) "The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset", Ch. 9, Gender and Sexuality, pp. 155-179.

Mohanty, C. T. (1988) “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses”, Feminist Review, 30.

Stabile, Carol and Kumar, Deepa (2005) “Unveiling Imperialism: Media, Gender, and the War on Afghanistan”, Media, Culture and Society, 27: 5.

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Edouard Leonet
Anni Piiroinen
Sailja Jain
Maria Elena Olsen
Madiha Shekhani
Aistė Jotautytė

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Most recent comments

  • Thanks for the article. Very interesting insight to value chains and how they work today. Keen to se… by Juha Piiroinen on this entry
  • Really insightful perspective Sylvia. Aspects and traces of Orientalism and western superiority in f… by Madiha Shekhani on this entry
  • Hi Anni, thank you for the question, it's actually quite important to highlight what you've mentione… by Madiha Shekhani on this entry
  • You mention the internalisation of inequality by women workers, but hasn't there also been instances… by Anni on this entry
  • S flink du e! Bravo by Kristine on this entry

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