June 12, 2017

Modernising ‘the Rest’

By Sean Rai-Roche, University of Edinburgh

“What does it mean to be modern?” (Latour, 2012: 8)

“Coloniality and modernity constitute two sides of a single coin.” (Grosfoguel, 2011: 13)


The meaning of the terms ‘modernisation’ and ‘Westernisation’ are highly contested. Often conflated in popular understanding, they have come to express particular ideas within ‘development’ discourse. The discursive construction of the rigid dichotomy between ‘modern’ and the ‘traditional’ has had profound effects upon how those seen as ‘traditional’ have been emplaced, imagined and treated by those considered as ‘modern’. The idea of modernity is historically a Western concept, emerging as a result of the struggles of the Enlightenment and consolidating through the industrialisation and colonisation that followed. This, however, does not necessarily mean that they equate to the same thing. Instead of following post-development thinkers and abandoning the possibilities of modernisation without Westernisation completely, I identify possibilities and trajectories of different kinds of modernisation, which are based on a set of cultural values that are seen to contribute to the formation of a alternative type of modernisation.

Clarifying Concepts

Often associated with European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, the idea of modernity in Western discourse came to represent social change from a ‘pre-modern’ or ‘traditional’ society to a ‘modern’ one through the use of science and rationality. Inherent in this understanding is that there is a linear path to progress that all countries must follow if they are to become ‘modern’. In contrast, some argue that modernity began with the conquest of the Americas in the 16th century (Cupples, 2013) and that it should be seen as a “European phenomenon but one constituted in a dialectical relation with a non-European alterity that is its ultimate content” (Mignolo, 2007: 453). The idea is that Europe’s self-definition of being modern depends on the existence of an inferior, ‘non-modern’ alterity, against which claims of modernity and progress can be based.

Modernity may be understood as a discourse about the linear ‘march toward progress’, one that gains its currency from the division of societies into ‘modern’ and ‘pre-modern’. In doing so, it prescribes to those deemed as ‘pre-modern’ a process of ‘development’, aligned with Western capitalist imperatives and ideologies, as the only way to achieve modernity. Westernisation, then, is understood as the process whereby non-Western states become more like the capitalist economies and societies of the West. Thus, Westernisation is an extremely broad concept that covers changes in the political economy, social relations, epistemologies and cultures across the world, which have increasingly conformed to Western ‘ways of doing things’. This is not to say that countries undergoing Westernisation are doing so in the same ways, nor do they necessarily have their own cultures eroded or dominated as a result.

So, if it is the case that modernisation refers to the aspiration to attain a certain state of development, which is symbolised and embodied by the West, then is modernisation not synonymous with Westernisation?

Modernisation as Westernisation

Beginning in the late 1940s, colonial powers retreated in the face of growing independence movements; by the 1960s most colonised nations had become independent states. Formal decolonisation, however, did not mean an end of colonial relations. Instead, colonialism took a more subtle, concealed and epistemological form. ‘Coloniality’, a concept used by Peruvian scholar Anibal Quijano, conceptualises this hegemonic relationship between the West and ‘the rest’. The term aims to highlight how “the relation between European culture and the other cultures was established and has been maintained, as a relation between ‘subject’ and ‘object’” (Quijano, 2007: 174). Edward Said uses the concept of 'Orientalism' to demonstrate a “style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between 'the Orient' and (most of the time) 'the Occident'” (1978: 2). Hence, “‘the West’ is much more an idea than a fact of geography” (Slater, 1993: 421). It is important to be cognisant that the self-proclaimed ‘modern’ Occident viewed all ‘Other’ societies as being effectively the same: they were pre-modern, homogenous, irrational and without history. We can observe echoes of Orientalist discourses running through contemporary modernisation theory. Henry Bernstein (1971) asserts that modernisation is a totalising social process, which treats all ‘traditional’ societies as universal and homogenised. He argues the imaginary of the traditional “simply reflects the ethnocentrism underlying the formation of modernity” (Bernstein, 1971: 146). So, following this, if the idea of modernity is a colonial/Western concept, predicated on a division that is inherently ethnocentric, then any attempt to achieve said state of modernity must be seen within a process of Westernisation. This will be further illustrated by examining the development discourse of the 20th century.

If we consider how modernisation theory has shaped development practices in the post-WWII period, it becomes clear how intertwined it is with the process of Westernisation. Daniel Lerner, a key influence on US development policy in the post-War period, argued that for former colonies “their only hope is to be modernized by an injection of Western values and expertise” (Lerner, 1958: 1). The reason for the ‘underdeveloped’ state of many former colonies was purported to be their lack of Western values and cultural practices: “cultural Europeanisation was transformed into an aspiration” (Quijano, 2007: 169). Payne and Philips (2010) show how development theory after WWII was based on the assumption that the Third World countries needed to ‘catch up’ with the developed West. Thus, development policy in the post-War period was characterised by an insistence on the adoption of Western knowledge systems, social relations and institutional structures. Walt Whitman Rostow, and his famous work on the Stages of Economic Growth (1959), was perhaps one of the most influential theorists within development policy throughout the 1960s. Rostow asserted that all societies could be placed within five distinct categories – traditional society, preconditions to take-off, take-off, drive to maturity and the age of mass consumption – and that modernisation involved progressing from one category to the next. The theory became extremely influential within development studies and came to characterise much of US policy approach in the 1960s and 70s. It had a strong commitment to universality and assumed all countries desired capitalism and wanted to emulate the type of societies that were observable in the West. Thus, Rostow thought, “traditional society is a kind of degree zero of history corresponding to a natural state of ‘underdevelopment’” (Rist, 2008: 95). He did not value what he saw as ‘traditional society’ and did not appreciate that other cultures may not desire Western forms of social organisation.

Linking back to Bernstein, who argues “ethnocentrism is most overt when modernization is rendered synonymous with Westernization” (Bernstein, 1971: 147, emphasis added), we can see how the inherent ethnocentrism that pervades modernisation theory comes out in the equation of the idea of modernity with that of the West. This is evident in a justification of colonialism by Rostow: “colonies were often established initially […] to organise a traditional society incapable of self-organisation (or unwilling to organise itself) for modern import and export activity” (1990: 109). It is this justification of colonialism, on the grounds that it created the economic organisation necessary for modernisation, which is most disturbing. The assertion that non-Western populations were ‘incapable of self-organisation’ is an unashamedly colonial discourse, which occludes any understanding and appreciation of how such societies were previously structured and run, along with their local forms of knowledge. As Grosfoguel (2011: 13) contends, “Coloniality and modernity constitute two sides of a single coin”, in that the idea of modernity – and in turn modernisation – is a colonial concept, one that cannot be divorced from its Westerncentric origins. Thus, we see how modernisation discourse in the immediate post-War period gave primacy to Western understandings of progress and adhered to colonial rhetoric concerning the inability of non-Western people to develop their societies without external influence.

Although the 1960s was dominated by the ideas of Rostow and his ‘stages of growth’, there emerged somewhat of a crisis in development in the 1980s (Kothari, 2005; Booth, 1985). This was a result of rising and intensifying levels of inequality, poverty and exclusion (Schuurman, 1993; Keily, 1995), which led to dominant development theories and narratives being brought into question. It is in this context that neoliberalism emerged as an economic paradigm, which placed emphasis on individualism, rationality, economic liberalisation, institutional restructuring and modernisation of production (Harvey, 2007). James Scott shows how “today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization” (1998: 8) because of its ability to coerce societies into adopting Western, capitalist forms of economic organisation. Moreover, capitalism’s need for homogenised global demand has contributed to a process of ‘McDonaldisation’ (Ritzer, 1998) as Western fashions and tastes become more prominent and ubiquitous in non-Western societies.

In parallel to the ascendency of neoliberalism, the increasing recognition that international development had not succeeded in alleviating issues of poverty and inequality engendered the emergence of ‘alternative’ forms of development, such as participatory approaches, feminist critiques and post-development theory (Kothari, 2005). According to Kothari, however, these alternative approaches have been overshadowed and subsumed into a neoliberal agenda (2005: 429). Control over the construction of discourses of development was vital for colonial powers to maintain their authority and the practice has continued today under neoliberalism. Hence, we can observe how alternative approaches to development, often advanced by oppressed, non-Western groups, become incorporated into neoliberal, capitalist discourse and thus lose their potency in terms of offering potential for radical change. This demonstrates how the very idea of development, as a means to modernity, reproduces and valorises certain claims to the superiority of Western knowledge while maintaining its intellectual and epistemological dominance through the appropriation and subsuming of other knowledges. Thus, the only way to ‘modernise’, when assessed by standards of the capitalist West, is to Westernise.

Homogenising Development?

Post-development theory has been subject to several criticisms since its emergence within academia. I would like to touch on just one critique: its homogenising and universalising perspective. I examine this aspect of post-development thinking because it illustrates how the discipline often uses discursive framing to construct binary categories (a charge it accuses development of), which circumscribes the capacity of nation states to modernise while avoiding processes of ‘Westernisation’.

Ironically, post-development thinkers, such as Escobar, have tended to homogenise the idea of development, overlooking the many complexities and contestations within development approaches. As Pieterse argues, “Escobar plays games of rhetoric: in referring to development as ‘Development’ and thus suggesting its homogeneity and consistency, he essentialises ‘development’” (2000: 183). By homogenising the very idea of development, Escobar is not only constricting the potential for different, and perhaps subaltern, articulations of what development might mean, but also buys into the very dichotomous thinking he has critiqued in his work. Kiely suggests that “post-development theory is guilty of homogenising the idea of development, thereby conflating all theories of development with the outmoded (and long discredited) theory of modernisation” (1999: 30). The point here is that by relegating the words ‘development’ and ‘modernity’ to nothing more than a symbol of oppression and exploitation, one is restricting the potential for different expressions of what they could potentially mean. Thus, the dichotomous thinking of many post-development writers “is implicitly attempting to impose a new binary divide between First and Third Worlds” (Kiely, 1999: 38) and in doing so illustrates their political perspective: North-West bad, South good. Attempting to frame such complex histories and processes into such simple groupings is unwise and reproduces the same binary divisions that post-development abhors.

The ‘Asian Values’ System and Non-Western Modernisation

The purpose of this critique of is not to undermine post-development’s overall analysis of the cultural hegemony of development regimes, but to open up the possibilities for alternative forms of modernisation and theories of development to be imagined. By recognising the shortcomings of post-development theory, it becomes more plausible to view particular forms of modernisation within the context of society-specific goals, transcending these constricting totalities, which seek to modernise while also retaining their specific social values and cultural norms.

For example, the debate surrounding an ‘Asian value’ system, purported to be instrumental in Southeast Asia’s modernisation process, allow us to identify different, non-Western forms of modernisation. From the end of the 1970s the role of, and the debate surrounding, ‘Asian values’ gained prominence on the international stage. Previously, most social scientists adhered to the Weberian view that the ‘Protestant Ethic’ had led to the development of Western capitalism and that the Confucian values of East-Asian societies presented an obstacle to economic growth and development (Hill, 2000). This discourse, however, was brought into contention due to the dynamic growth of Asian economies and thus set the stage for a discussion of the role of societal values in modernisation programmes. The idea of Asian values gained traction with policy makers and politicians in East-Asian countries and became a key part of the construction of national identity. Berger (1997: 270) shows how Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore and co-founder of the People’s Action Party (PAP), suggested how Singapore had been ‘infected by the West’ and that the solution was a ‘strong assertion of Asian values’ in order to counter the destructive individualism of the West. Deepak Lal, in his piece entitled Does Modernisation require Westernisation (2000), states, “as Lee Kwan Yew has noted, the family-based societies can still rely on the social safety nets of the family rather than having to create welfare states like those in the West” (2000: 21). This invocation of particular cultural values in relation to social services highlights how the development process in Singapore was seen as very separate from a Western model. Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, another founder and prominent politician within PAP, explicitly addressed a distinction between modernisation and Westernisation, disregarding the latter as glorified fashions and trends in society that lead to a misplaced sense of superiority (Hill, 2000: 183). Thus, we see how the processes of modernisation in Singapore were based on, or at least explained through, the idea of a specific set of Asian values that encouraged economic development. The promotion of these values was designed to counter the ‘infection’ of Western influences, which were blamed for the creation of social ills because of a ‘crisis of Westernisation’ (Hill, 2000: 184). The Singaporean nation-state consolidated around ideas of Asian values in the 1980s, which became a distinguishing feature of their modernisation programme.


The concept of modernity arose out of the colonial categorisation of societies as ‘modern’ and ‘pre-modern’ in order justify their subjugation and exploitation. By examining development theory in the post-WWII period I have demonstrated how modernisation approaches were very much processes of Westernisation, as it was believed this would instil in former colonies the capacities and expertise needed to reach modernity. The advent of the neoliberal project, however, saw the restructuring of societies and institutions to reflect elements of the modern, Western state. It witnessed the subsuming of alternative, critical voices under a Western project that limited the space for alternative meanings of development. However, with the rise of the East-Asian economies during the same period, which challenged and destabilised historic power relations, there became a somewhat alternative form of modernisation that drew on cultural values very different from those in the West and can thus be seen as a processes of modernisation devoid of cultural Westernisation.

Essentially, what this question comes down to, is what we understand by the term ‘modernisation’. If modernisation is simply a process of technological innovation and productive expansion, within particular social structures and institutions, then it is possible for countries to modernise without Westernising. But if, however, we consider the historical conceptualisation of modernity as a colonial construct used to exploit and dominate its subjects, then it is very hard to see any process of modernisation as separate from a process of Westernisation, even when Western imperatives have been hybridised, tweaked or even discarded.


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May 23, 2017

China, Latin America and Changing Relations of Dependency: The Case of the Soybean Complex


By Maria Eugenia Giraudo, University of Warwick

China’s expanding presence in Latin America has been the subject of much discussion in Latin American academia and popular media. The growing role of China in the region raises many questions: Is China an alternative, anti-imperialist partner (McKay et al., 2016)? Are we witnessing the emergence of a ‘Beijing consensus’ that may replace the ‘Washington consensus’ (Slipak, 2014)? Is China producing new relations of dependency (Jenkins, 2012)? The nature and volume of trade relations between China and Latin America seem to suggest that this last focus on dependency is the most apt. However, these accounts have mainly focused on the imbalances in trade statistics, thus failing to explore the struggles over the controlof the value chains that connect these countries. A closer look at the governance of the soybean value chain – one of the key commodities in this bilateral relationship – reveals how efforts by China to further its control over the supply and trade of this product has created a deeper form of dependency than that described by traditional dependency analyses.

Theorising the phenomenon: Dependency revisited?

Latin America has become a key supplier of raw material and agricultural exports to China. Within the literature, a number of influential accounts have framed this phenomenon in a positive manner by drawing attention to the impact on Latin America’s terms of trade in its relations with China. However, other authors have analysed this relationship in less rosy terms, choosing instead to focus on the role of China in the re-primarisation of the economies of Latin America, and the ways this dynamic has fostered new relations of dependency (Sevares, 2007; Jenkins, 2012; Slipak, 2014).

Dependency theory emerged in the 1960s in response to the failures of the structuralist approach that had proposed the state strategy of Import Substitution Industrialisation as a remedy Latin America’s underdevelopment. Although internally heterogeneous, dependency theory argued that the core-periphery dynamics observable in North-South economic relations were inherent to capitalism (Cardoso and Faletto, 1979; Frank, 1967). The peripheral economies of the Global South were locked in a position of dependency, as they depended on primary goods exports to the Global North, while relying on the latter for industrial manufactures. Furthermore, the development of advanced countries was dependent on the underdevelopment of the periphery. The expansion of industrial activity in the core was reliant on cheap primary products from the periphery: these cheap goods allowed core economies to specialise in manufacturing and to provide workers with food at low prices and thus assure low wages and high profits. Arguing that such imbalances determined underdevelopment, dependency analysis largely focused on the core/periphery trade structure and the domination of Latin American countries’ balance of payments by primary commodities.

While largely forgotten in the wake the debt crisis of the 1980s in Latin America, and the following period of neoliberal structural adjustment, recent transformations in international trade have prompted the emergence of a new language of dependency in Latin America. This is the mainly result of China’s increasing role in the region as a consumer of primary resources and as a crucially important trade partner. The rapidly expanding presence of China in Latin American trade has led many to discuss the region’s ‘sino-dependency’, and even pushed the Executive Secretary of the UN’s ECLAC agency to warn about the ‘risks of a new dependency’ upon China.

The centrality of soybean to China-Latin America dependency

When examining the relations of dependency between China and Latin America, one commodity in particular stands out: soybean. The incredible rise in Chinese consumption of the oilseed and China’s reliance on the international market for its supply have caused global soybean prices to soar. WWF reported that China’s consumption of soybean increased from 26 to over 55 million tonnes between 2000 and 2009, and Chinese imports are expected to have increased by almost 60% by 2022 from 2014 values. China imported 69 million tons of grain and 1.4 million tons in soybean oil in 2014, while the European Union received over 12 million tons of soybean and 19 million tons of soybean meal in the same period (Foreign Agricultural Service/USDA 2014).

Coinciding with technological and productive improvements, this has fostered a massive expansion of soybean production in South America, and the Southern Cone particularly. Global supply of soybean is dominated by the United States, Brazil and Argentina, who together make up 75% of the world’s production (FAOSTAT). The ‘soybean heart’ of Latin America is found in an area dissected by the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Together these three countries surpass the United States’ levels of production, export quantities and cultivated surface. Between 2000 and 2010, cultivated land increased by over 40% in Argentina and Brazil, and a remarkable 95% in Paraguay. This now equates to an area roughly the size of Spain, entirely dedicated to mono-cropping soybean.

There is an intimate connection between the economic performance of the countries of the Southern Cone and China’s demand for soybean – a connection that clearly typifies the relation of dependency existing between these economies. However, as will be examined next, trade statistics alone do not capture the full extent of the unbalanced and dependent relations embedded in the soy case. Rather, to fully capture how soybean has become a source of deeprelations of dependency between China and South America, we must examine the governance of the soy commodity chain.

China’s growing control of the global soybean complex

The case of soybean demonstrates that relations of dependency have taken a more complex form, which requires an analysis that goes beyond the composition or volume of bilateral trade. Following the traumatic ‘Battle of the Beans’ in 2004, in which China was badly burned by global derivative markets and Western agricultural conglomerates, China has attempted to extend its governance of the global soybean industry through a variety of multi-scalar strategies. These strategies, taken together, have engendered dynamics of economic domination that signify a deep relation of dependency between China and South America – dynamics of control that cannot be ignored by analyses of Sino-Latin American dependency.

Strategy I: Land purchases

The purchase of land for soybean production has been one of the most important components of Chinese land acquisitions. In 2011, the Chongqing Grain Group (CGG), a Chinese trading company based in Chongqing, announced a US$850 million purchase of 200,000 hectares in the northeastern Bahia region of Brazil, for the production and processing of soybean (Zha and Zhang, 2013: 468). This project was partially supported by the Chinese Development Bank (CDB) and, according to the mayor of Chongqing, CCG holds a majority stake in the project, while 30% is owned by their Brazilian counterparts (Maissonave and Magenta, 2011).

Strategy II: Acquisitions and investments

China has been incentivising Chinese companies – many of them state-owned – to expand globally as a strategy to both secure the supply of soybean (and other agricultural products) and enhance its capacity to control prices (Myers and Jie, 2015). For example, China’s largest grain trader, China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation (COFCO), recently acquired NIDERA, a transnational agribusiness company and Noble Group, a grain trader and commodity supply manager based in Hong Kong. Together, Nidera and Noble represent almost 15% of the total volume of grains exports in Argentina, above the levels of Dreyfus, Cargill and Bunge (Bertello, 2016). With these two acquisitions, China has asserted its dominance of the commodity chain, in which COFCO has become the largest grain exporter in Argentina.

Strategy III: Investments in infrastructure and financial support

A third strategy is through lending and investments. As opposed to the operations mentioned above, where the projects were designed and implemented by state-owned companies, these loans and funds are directly provided by the Chinese government through its development banks, namely the China Development Bank (CDB) and the China Export-Import Bank (Eximbank). The role of China in Latin America as a source of loans and finance has been increasingly significant in the last fifteen years. Since 2003, credit provided by China to the region has amounted to US$113 billion, and in 2015 the total value of bilateral loans surpassed that of the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) combined (WWF, 2014; Myers et al., 2016).

Strategy IV: Veto of ‘technological events’

An additional area where governance of the soybean chain takes place is related to bio-technological events (specific genetic modifications to certain seed species) and the utilisation of genetically modified (GM) varieties of soybean and other crops. This struggle over governance is mainly enacted through trade, and the opposing forces of concentrated supply and demand. As global demand for soybean and other grains chiefly emanates from China, any decision by this country to halt imports, or impose conditions on the quality of goods, can have significant effects on exporting countries. This allows China to exert control over the biotechnological aspect of the commodity chain, as well as to informally penalise countries that treat China in a manner that they perceive to be unfavourable.

Deeper dependency

A closer look at China-Latin America relations through the lens of dependency analysis has proven effective in problematising the discourse of South-South Cooperation and positive current account balances, as well as highlighting deep imbalances underpinning the asymmetric relations at play. However, the analysis of the deep dominance of China over the entirety of the soybean value chain presented here has certain implications for the dependency approach. As the different strategies explored above have shown, dependency is not always – or not entirely – reflected in trade balances. Rather, trade often reflects other channels of asymmetry. While a closer look at the soybean value chain has revealed the need to further expand dependency analysis to fully reflect the complexities of these relations, one of the main tenets of this intellectual tradition remains valid: the development of the core is dependent on the underdevelopment of the periphery. In this case, the consolidation of primary commodities production in Latin America, and the increasing control of that production by Chinese capitals, has strengthened China’s capacity to monitor prices, ensure levels of production, and maintain industrialisation within its own borders. A double-dependency emerges, as South American countries rely on Chinese demand as the source of their economic dynamism, and China relies on South America’s re-primarisation for the maintenance of its industrial prowess.

Picture: Kyle Spradley | © MU College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cafnr/10894992756/.


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April 04, 2017

The Persistence of Poverty: The Case of Indonesia

By Madiha Shekhani

‘There is no ‘stock’ of poor who can be understood and treated in a uniform, singular manner’.

(Rigg 2016, p. 7)

A ‘poverty free world’ has become a global buzzword. According to dominant narratives the percentage of the world’s population living under $1.90 a day fell from 42.5% in 1981 to 10.68% in 2013 (World Bank 2016). Undoubtedly, considerable leaps have been made in decreasing poverty levels. Yet, it still rigidly persists in several regions, with trends of increasing intensity.

Research has fallen short in identifying why regardless decades of relentless effort, poverty still persists. The experience of poverty is complex and intersectional, hence, the discussion needs to shift from merely correlates to causes of poverty and ‘reveal the social and political processes that make people poor and keep them in poverty’ (Green & Hulme 2005, p. 868).

Indonesia has been hailed as one of the Southeast Asian economic miracles almost to a point of redundancy. The region not only provides an intriguing model for growth, but also one for the case of poverty and inequality. A rather stable and economically successful middle-income country, Indonesia defies general assumptions about how the poor mostly reside in low-income countries (Rigg 2016). According to latest data, out of a population of roughly 257.6 million people 8.3% live under the international poverty line at $1.90/per day (World Bank, Poverty and Equity). As per national poverty lines, 10.73% of the population lives under the poverty line set at 200,262 rupiahs per month or $22 (Central Bureau of Statistics 2017; Nooteboom 2014, p. 2).

Is Definition Part of the Problem?

How guilty have dominant representations of the poverty been in contributing to the magnitude and intensity of poverty? Scholars have established that the choice of a definition of poverty bears crucial importance for its measurement and resulting socio-economic policies (Booth 1993; Hagenaars & de Vos 1988; Laderchi, Saith & Stewart 2003).

‘Poverty analyses continue to be dominated by income/consumption conceptions’, argue Green and Hulme (2005, p. 867). Perceiving poverty as caused by a dearth of immediate assets, whereby monetary income is all one needs to ‘graduate to being non-poor’, fails to explain why certain ‘factors become precipitating for certain people in certain situations and contexts’ (Green & Hulme 2005, p.869). Such an outlook ‘encourages the conceptualization of the poor as a single homogeneous group whose prime problem is low monetary income’ (Hulme & Shepherd 2003, p.403). Policies to combat poverty emerging from this framework only address the monetary causes of the issue and fail to erode away the larger structural causes; thereby a large portion of the problem remains unengaged with and continues to solidify.

The dominant measures of poverty in Indonesia — the World Bank, BPS and Sajogyo poverty lines — are largely restricted to income and consumption measures. Poverty lines seem to have fallen short in several aspects. The first is the alarming variance in the number of poor it identifies. According to the $1.90/day poverty line 8.3% Indonesians are poor; however, the number rises to 36.4% when switching to $3.10/day (World Bank, Poverty and Equity). The gap between the two figures is startling. Since the $1.90/day poverty line is ‘official’, it appears that the people living between the two poverty lines are essentially marginalized. Moreover, according to the national poverty line, only 11.3% of the population is counted as poor (World Bank, Poverty and Equity). According to these poverty lines, Indonesia is branded to have fared quite well in eradicating poverty. The residual poor or those who do not fit within these restricted, politicized lines are not small in number, and so ignorance of their condition is essentially one of the basic causes of why poverty persists in the country. Additionally, poverty lines fail to identify the spatial diversity of poverty across rural and urban divisions. Since experiences and causes of poverty within urban and rural areas are quite different, policies based on these statistics lead to a misallocation of resources. Along similar lines of discounting the heterogeneity of poverty, dominant methods do not take into account the distinction between transient and chronic poverty. Within Indonesia, there is a noteworthy number of chronically poor — statistics from 1999 depict that the crisis resulted in a tripling of the proportion of chronically poor (Suryahadi & Sumarto 2003, p.52).

Within Rigg’s (2016) framework of poverty ‘the persistence of poverty in the middle-income economies of Asia lies largely in the uneven and unequal nature of economic expansion’ (p.10). Therefore, dominant measures can also be critiqued for not being indicative of inequality along different divisions, not just between the poor and non-poor but also within the poor. If the affected population is not identified correctly, policies and solutions will be misplaced and largely superficial, leading to a persistence of the original problem. Persistence of poverty in Indonesia could be seen partly as a result of one-dimensional definitions of the problem which restrict combatting the multitude of causes that lie beneath the problem.

Contributions of Colonial Legacies

The relevance of colonial legacies for both economic and social development of a post-colonial state has been spoken of widely within literature (see Booth 2007; Grier 1999; Nunn 2007; Nunn 2009). Poverty within Indonesia existed long before the arrival of colonists so they cannot be blamed for giving birth to the phenomenon in the region. However, they can be credited with solidifying and exacerbating the condition and leaving behind structures that have enabled it until today.

Inequality across regions and within groups is arguably the most enduring structure that the Dutch embedded within the Indonesian economy. Under the guise of concern for poverty in the region, an imbalanced amount of development in Java transformed it into the economic hub at the expense of progress in cities such as Sumatra and Kalimantan (Booth 1998). Regardless of visible growth in Java, poverty persisted within the region, signifying the frail nature of the link between economic growth and poverty (Booth 1998). Since some regions were not permitted to develop, the repercussions are still felt today.

Rapid economic growth in colonial Indonesia particularly weakened the society and the economy because it was accompanied by exploitation by the colonists (Booth 1998). A key example of Dutch exploitation in the region was the system of forced cultivation of export crops. Such policies were combined with forceful migrations to export zones, which essentially disrupted household dynamics (Booth 2007). Initially what comes to light is the unsustainable and detrimental nature of rapid growth for the poor. Colonialism worsened the conditions of the poor while simultaneously creating structures that reduced their capability to control their income, labor, and life. Systematic devaluation and exploitation of already poor laborers further solidified their poverty, and can be said to have led to the persistence of the collective poverty of certain regions and groups of people.

Dutch policies not only secured regional inequalities and poverty, but also those within certain groups; there were some ‘gainers and losers, and gainers were often concentrated in particular ethnic groups and regional locations’ (Booth 1998, p. 89). While favoring some groups over the others, the colonists essentially set the stage for poverty along lines of ethnicity and class, trends of which are persistent in Indonesia today. They embedded structures that contributed to poverty, and further weakened institutions of health and education that could have possibly been part of the solution to poverty.

Manifestations of Colonial Legacies

The economic sector in Indonesia conforms largely to prevailing explanations of poverty, and to trends established within the colonial period. Influential scholars from the region such as Abuzar Asra (2000) confidently assert that economic growth has been highly beneficial for the region. Interestingly, in order to highlight this trend, evidence is mainly drawn from organizations such as the World Bank or USAID. Thereby, indicating that such claims often emerge from and are restricted to the bounds of dominant paradigms, and must be viewed with caution. Under the narrative of the success story, the experience of the ‘individuals, sectors and regions that have been left behind’ is ignored (Rigg 2016, p.3). Additionally, explanations of how the unequal nature of growth and an imbalanced focus on monetary measures have contributed to the problem are often glossed over (Rigg 2016).

There has been an excessive focus on rapid economic growth throughout colonial times, the Suharto era, and the post-crisis era. The continuous coexistence of economic expansion and poverty should act as an indicator that the former could possibly be contributing to the problem. Assumptions regarding the ‘trickle down’ nature of economic growth fail to take into account the inherently unequal structures upon which growth has been predicated. A key example of this can be found in Irian Java in the 1980s. In terms of GDP and World Bank estimates the province was ranked sixth in the country. However, these measures failed to represent the context — most of what was produced in the region was not invested or consumed there, leading to one of the highest incidences of rural poverty in Indonesia (Booth 1993).

Patterns of disparate focus on some regions over others are still largely visible. Concentration of growth in Java and Bali has continued at the expense of areas such as Kalimantan and Eastern Islands who ‘despite being rich in natural resources, account for only 17% share of national GDP’ (Henstridge, De and Jakobsen 2013, p.iii). Stagnation along regional lines mirrors the specializations that were set within previous eras. Patterns of inequality have also persisted along lines of class and employment sectors based on disparate allocation of resources. Benefits of recent growth — as with previous growth in Indonesia — have accrued to groups such as the Sukanto Tanoto families who form ‘0.02% of the population and hold 25% of the country’s total wealth’ (Leigh & van der Eng 2007; Tabor 2015, p.5).

How to Tackle Persistent Poverty Then?

The importance of economic explanations of and solutions to poverty must not be marginalized, and the arguments presented in this piece in no manner advocate a disposal of mainstream explanations of poverty. Rather they call for a critical examination of the weight placed upon monetary deprivation as a cause of poverty, and on economic growth as a solution to it. Poverty persists when the causes of the issue are misinterpreted or reduced to isolated ideas.

Not enough attention has been paid to the structural explanations of the persistence of poverty in Indonesia. By bringing to light the origins of the problem, it is easier to identify the foundations that fuel the stickiness of the issue. Although such foundational causes are much harder to deconstruct and counter, the result of doing so can plausibly be predicted to yield more long-lasting and qualitative results. The persistence of poverty is not just economic but historical, social and political, and to fully explain it, the definitions of poverty must mirror this multidimensionality.


Asra, A. (2000) ‘Poverty and Inequality in Indonesia’, Journal of the Asia Pacific Economy, 5(1-2), pp. 91–111. doi: 10.1080/13547860008540785.

Booth, A. (1998) The Indonesian economy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: A history of missed opportunities. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Booth, A. (2007) Colonial legacies: Economic and social development in east and sSoutheast Asia. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press.

Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS) (2017) Badan Pusat Statistik. Available at: https://www.bps.go.id/Brs/view/id/1378 (Accessed: 1 January 2017).

Green, M. and Hulme, D. (2005) ‘From correlates and characteristics to causes: Thinking about poverty from a chronic poverty perspective’, World Development, 33(6), pp. 867–879. doi: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2004.09.013.

Grier, R.M. (1999) ‘Colonial legacies and economic growth’, Public Choice, 98, pp. 317–335. doi: 10.2307/30024490.

Hagenaars, A. and de Vos, K. (1988) ‘The definition and measurement of poverty’, The Journal of Human Resources, 23(2), p. 211. doi: 10.2307/145776.

Henstridge, M., De, S. and Jakobsen, M. (2013) Growth in Indonesia: Is it sustainable?. Oxford Policy Management. Available at: http://www.opml.co.uk/sites/default/files/Growth%20in%20Indonesia_Drivers%20of%20recent%20economic%20growth.pdf

Hulme, D. and Shepherd, A. (2003) ‘Conceptualizing chronic poverty’, World Development, 31(3), pp. 403–423. doi: 10.1016/s0305-750x(02)00222-x.

Laderchi, Caterina Ruggeri, Ruhi Saith, and Frances Stewart (2003). "Does It Matter That We Do Not Agree On The Definition Of Poverty? A Comparison Of Four Approaches". Oxford Development Studies 31.3: 243-274. Web.

Leigh, Andrew and van der Eng, Pierre (2007) 'Top Incomes in Indonesia,1920-2004', Social Science Research Network. (Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=963537

Nooteboom, G. (2014) Forgotten people: Poverty, risk and social security in Indonesia: The case of the Madurese. Netherlands: Brill

Nunn, N. (2007) ‘Historical legacies: A model linking Africa’s past to its current underdevelopment’, Journal of Development Economics, 83(1), pp. 157–175. doi: 10.1016/j.jdeveco.2005.12.003.

Nunn, N. (2009) ‘The importance of history for economic development’, Annual Review of Economics, 1(1), pp. 65–92. doi: 10.1146/annurev.economics.050708.143336.

Rigg, Jonathan (2016) Challenging Southeast Asian Development: The Shadows Of Success. 1st ed. Oxford: Routledge. Print.

Suryahadi, Asep and Sudarno Sumarto (2003) 'Poverty And Vulnerability In Indonesia Before And After The Economic Crisis', Asian Economic Journal 17.1: 45-64. Web.

Tabor, S.R. (2015) 'Constraints to Indonesia’s Economic Growth', Asian Development Bank. Paper No. 10. Available at: https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/178041/ino-paper-10-2015.pdf (Accessed: 1 January 2017).

World Bank (no date) Poverty and Equity. Available at: http://povertydata.worldbank.org/poverty/country/IDN (Accessed: 1 January 2017).

World Bank (2016) Poverty headcount ratio at $1.90 a day (2011 PPP) (% of population). Available at: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.DDAY?end=2013&locations=1W&name_desc=false&start=1981&view=chart (Accessed: 28 December 2016).

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 (www.capturingthegains.org). 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: http://blog.gdi.manchester.ac.uk/transforming-role-women-global-value-chains-iwd2017/#more-2639.

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.

February 24, 2017

Forced Labour in the Global Sugar Industry

sugar man

By Ben Richardson, Associate Professor in the University of Warwick

Sugar and slavery are historically intertwined, and yet despite the emancipation acts that have formally ended slave labour, contemporary practices of ‘forced labour’ still haunt the industry.

Approximately 80 per cent of world sugar production is from sugarcane grown in tropical climates and 20 per cent from sugar beet grown in temperate climates. Forced labour has been located chiefly in sugarcane agriculture, usually among the gangs of manual cane cutters engaged in harvesting, rather than in the industrial mills which crush the cane and turn it into raw sugar. In its high-profile ‘List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor’, the US Department of Labor (2016) cites forced labour in the sugar industries of Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Dominican Republic and Pakistan. Yet such designations are not clear cut. For instance, a 2012 study on the Dominican sugar industry by the non-profit organisation Verité was used as evidence by the US Department of Labor in its ‘blacklisting’ decision. However, this study was criticised by academics for twisting data about the experiences of workers to conform to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention criteria on forced labour and for giving a misleading picture of the industry as a whole (Martínez no date; Bednarzik and Kern 2013).

Conversely, other academics have drawn attention to forms of ‘unfree labour’ which typically escape categorisation as forced labour. In the Indian sugar industry, debt is used by some sugar mills as a mechanism to recruit migrants to work in the sugarcane fields and to restrict their subsequent mobility, wages and bargaining power. Because of the pittance wages they receive many of these ‘bonded workers’ are unable to pay off their debt and so return year after year, reliant on informal employment relationships and living in makeshift camps hundreds of miles from home (Guérin 2013). Credible reports of prison labour used in the Fiji sugarcane harvest and of highly-restrictive ‘village-level visas’ provided to Burmese migrants in the Thai sugar industry also exist. Such examples illustrate the complex and contested nature of classifying concrete employment relationships as forced labour.

An exploitative labour regime

There are three aspects of the way that work is organised in sugarcane agriculture (its ‘labour regime’) which are conducive to exploitative employment, and, potentially, forced labour as well. These are:

1. Piece-rate payments. Many field workers in sugarcane agriculture are paid on a piece-rate basis rather than a day-rate. For cane cutters, this requires that they work long hours and undertake demanding physical toil. Partly because of this economic incentive many cane cutters want to exhaust themselves; another complicating factor in categorising certain types of labour as forced. Nevertheless, coupled with limited water breaks this intensity of work produces real health risks, including the development of chronic kidney disease and in rare cases even heart attack (Richardson 2015). The piece-rate system is compounded by the seasonal nature of sugarcane production where during the annual harvest there is a requirement to cut and transport the cane to the mill in a short amount of time lest the farmer go unpaid. ‘Forced overtime’ is a phrase commonly used in evaluations of the sugar industry (see US Office of Trade and Labor Affairs 2013).

2. Migrant labour. Foreign and domestic migrants are a common source of labour in sugarcane agriculture. Poverty and deracination are perhaps the most significant means by which these people are disciplined as labourers; the lack of economic alternatives and limited capacity to challenge injustices means they must often accept the conditions set out for them. As noted in the previous section, though, indebtedness and legal restrictions on individual freedoms have a role too. A recent report on India alleged that since migrant workers are hired as couples “girls are married before the legal age of 18” and “routinely face abuse and rape by landlords and middlemen who enslave them through debt bondage” (Chandran 2016).

3. Outsourcing. The use of subcontractors or intermediaries as recruiters tends to downgrade the institutional and legal protection afforded to workers. For instance, union representative is often low among this section of the workforce, leaving it more exposed to exploitation, while ‘contracts’ may be verbal only, leaving workers little recourse to contest arbitrary deductions made from their wages (see Sharma 2006 on this practice in Bolivia). Historically, intermediaries have also been involved in human trafficking, collaborating with border officials and transport agents to bring undocumented workers into a country. This was the case with Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic, though here as in other countries, my understanding is that trafficked labour is rarely found in sugar production today.

Eradicating forced labour

Arguably forced labour, as strictly defined by the ILO, has declined in sugarcane agriculture over recent decades. Part of this transformation can be attributed to the exposure to international norms of human rights that have percolated the global sugar industry; another important part being the mechanisation of agriculture which has significantly reduced employment of fieldworkers. Among those planned attempts to eradicate forced labour, two strategies stand out:

1. Strengthening national labour law. Against a backdrop of increasing exports and foreign investment, the Brazilian sugar industry has been a high-profile case in the struggle against forced labour. More than 10,000 workers were ‘liberated’ from ‘slave-like’ conditions in sugar production between 2003 and 2011. This has been attributed to the determination of inspectors in the Ministry of Labour and Employment to investigate rural employers and the legal powers held by the Labour Prosecutors’ Office to prevent companies subcontracting core tasks and holding them criminally responsible for any breaches of labour law. Alongside this, novel policy instruments launched by the government have created economic incentives to tackle labour abuses. The most important has been the ‘National Pact to Eradicate Slave Labour’, in which major retailers and banks made public commitments not to buy products or lend money to companies published on the Ministry of Labour and Employment’s ‘Dirty List’ of firms convicted of slave labour. Civil society organisations like Repórter Brasil were also involved and helped identify likely sources of labour rights violations and the supply chains that were affected. There were setbacks: some questioned its impartiality when the sugar miller Cosan sought a court injunction to get itself off the list just days after the Brazilian state bank had said it would suspend financing to the company and Wal-Mart planned to suspend purchases of its packaged sugar. Nevertheless, significant gains have been made in the country (ILO 2009; McGrath 2013; Richardson 2015; Sakamoto 2016).

2. Transnational supply-chain mapping. Prompted in part by civil society campaigns, among Western multinationals engaged in the sugar supply-chain there is increasing recognition that they ought to know how the agricultural commodities they source are being produced. To this end, a number have engaged in mapping their supply-chains, with some going further in terms of auditing their suppliers against company codes of conduct or encouraging them to become certified against the standards set by external organisations like Bonsucro or Fairtrade (which both insist on the absence of forced labour). One limitation of this approach, however, is that there are no mandatory requirements for buyers to suspend purchases from and/or provide remediating support to particular suppliers know to be benefitting from forced labour. Accountability is sorely lacking. Moreover, there may be little influence that they can wield beyond the first-tier supplier (i.e. the sugar mill). Another limitation is that some audits – even by independent specialists – appear to have been of poor quality, simply rubber-stamping sugar supply-chains as ‘sustainable’ (see Jesus et al. 2015). That said, academic research has shown how such private governance can interact with public governance to promote firm-level compliance with labour law, suggesting that strategies like transnational supply-chain mapping ought not to be evaluated in isolation (Coslovsky and Locke 2013).

After forced labour

An aspect of forced labour which has received less attention pertains to its legacies: what happens after emancipation? In the short-term, one risk is highlighted by research from Brazil which found that, out of desperation for money, some individuals liberated from forced labour with one employer in sugarcane agriculture returned to work with another (Richardson et al. 2009). In the medium-term, a different kind of problem can be seen in the Dominican Republic, namely the lack of citizenship and/or residency for the ‘stateless’ Dominican-born children of undocumented Haitian migrants first brought to the country to work in the sugar industry (see Martinez 2012). Related to this, the undocumented workers that have since retired have apparently been unable to access the state pensions because they cannot prove they were making social security payments (Bracken 2015). Finally, longer-term issues include the structural effects on employment practices, such as the reconstitution of gendered and spatial strategies to disempower labour in the Mozambican sugar industry that have drawn on the historical use of forced labour by British sugar planters (Lazzarini 2016), and, of course, the question of reparations for slavery. In the decade following the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, this latter issue has once again resurfaced in British consciousness, demonstrating perhaps the most important thing about sugar in this context: its imprint on the public imagination of what slavery is, and how it should be ended.

sugar cane


Bednarzik, R. and Kern, A. (2013) ‘Methodological Assessment of Research on Indicators of Forced Labor in the Supply Chain of Sugar in the Dominican Republic by Verité’, submission to the Bureau of International Labor Affairs, 4 June 2013.

Bracken, A. (2015) ‘Blood, Sweat and Sugar: Trade Deal Fails Haitian Workers on DR Plantations’, Al Jazeera America, 16 July 2015.

Chandran, R,. (2016) ‘Sexual Abuse Plagues Female Workers on India’s Sugarcane Fields’, Thomson Reuters Foundation, 2 August 2016.

Coslovsky, S. and Locke, R. (2013) ‘Parallel Paths to Enforcement: Private Compliance, Public Regulation and Labor Standards in the Brazilian Sugar Sector’, Politics & Society, 41: 4, 497-526.

Guérin, I. (2013) ‘Bonded Labour, Agrarian Changes and Capitalism: Emerging Patterns in South India’,Journal of Agrarian Change, 13: 3, 405–23.

International Labour Office (2009) Fighting Forced Labour: The Example of Brazil. Geneva: ILO.

Jesus, D. F., Genevieve, O. and Richardson, B. (2015) ‘Violations of Labour and Environmental Law by Sugarcane Mills in Sao Paulo State, Brazil’, Ethical Sugar Discussion Paper, May 2016.

Lazzarini, A. (2016) ‘Gendered Labour, Migratory Labour: Reforming Sugar Regimes in Xinavane, Mozambique’, Journal of Southern African Studies, forthcoming.

Martínez, S. (no date) ‘Comment on Evidence Relating to Forced Labor in Dominican Republic Sugar’ submission to the Bureau of International Labor Affairs.

Martinez, S. (2012) ‘Allegations Lost and Found: The Afterlife of Dominican Sugar Slavery’, Third World Quarterly 33: 10, 1855–1870.

McGrath, S. (2013) ‘Fuelling Global Production Networks with “Slave Labour”? Migrant Sugar Cane Workers in the Brazilian Ethanol GPN’, Geoforum 44, 32–43

Richardson, B. Lehtonen, M. and McGrath, S. (2009) ‘An Exclusive Engine of Growth: The Development Model of Brazilian Sugarcane’, Ethical Sugar Discussion Paper, January 2009.

Richardson, B. (2015) Sugar. Cambridge, UK and Malden, US: Polity.

Sakamoto, L. (2016) ‘Using a ‘Dirty List’ to Clean Up ‘Modern Slavery’ in Brazil’, openDemocracy, 13 September 2016.

Sharma, B. (2006) Contemporary Forms of Slavery in Bolivia. London: Anti-Slavery International.

US Office of Trade and Labor Affairs (2013) ‘Public Report of Review of U.S. Submission 2011-03 (Dominican Republic’, 27 September 2013.)

February 11, 2017

Understanding Gender and Development: Conversation with Professor Diane Elson

Interview by Madiha Shekhani and Maria Olsen

When deliberating on the topic of gender equality, the ground-breaking contributions of Professor Diane Elson cannot go unnoticed. She has authored pivotal pieces such as Male Bias in the Development Process (1995), Budgeting for Women's Rights: Monitoring Government Budgets for Compliance with CEDAW (2006), and Nimble Fingers Make Cheap Workers (1981) in collaboration with the notable scholar Ruth Pearson. Her work has been truly ground-breaking and inspirational. Her research has focused on global social change and human rights, with a particular emphasis on gender inequality in the economic and social realm. Prof. Elson has been a member of the UN Millennium Project Taskforce and Advisory Committee member for the UNRISD Policy Report on Gender and Development. She is also one of the founding members of the United Nations Development Fund for Women’s (UNIFEM) report on Progress of the World’s Women. In addition to her impressive list of achievements, she served as the vice president of the International Association for Feminist Economics as well, and has been named one of 50 key thinkers on development in 2006.

Formerly Professor of Development Studies at Manchester University, Prof. Elson is currently an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex. After countless years of service Prof. Elson has retired, yet she continues to hold an active and influential position within the field. Her rather busy retirement period involves contributing to the UK Women’s Budget Group, advising UN Women, and being a member of the UN Committee for Development Policy. She continues to publish on matters focused on fiscal policy, gender equality and human rights.

Prof. Elson came to the University of Warwick to deliver the Annual IPE lecture on ‘Gender Inequality and Economic Inequality’. After her riveting talk, members from the Think Development team had the wonderful opportunity to interview her.

Maria: Why do you think gender is relevant for development? Why is it still given only marginal importance and treated as more of a niche issue that only feminists need to deal with?

Elson: It's relevant I think because all societies, all economies, all polities are structured by gender, sometimes visibly and sometimes not so visibly. So the kind of development a country has, who makes decisions about it, who benefits from it, the distribution of those benefits, all those are gendered.

It is something that we all need to deal with for two reasons. One is the issue of the distribution of the costs and benefits between different members of households: you miss a lot if you do not look inside them to see what differentiates women and men. The other is that if you don't do a gender analysis of policies you don’t see the impact of those policies. Everyone needs to recognize the different ways that men and women, boys and girls, will be interacting with policy, based on the gendered structure of that society and that economy.

Maria: Often these debates within the Gender and Development (GAD) framework do not take into account intersectionality - the diversity of the experience of inequality, varying contexts, diversity of feminisms. How important are these factors to take into consideration? How could they be possibly translated into policy?

Elson: We all have multiple positionalities. We are involved in multiple kinds of social and economic relations: class, gender, race, location, age, ability or disabilities. But then how do we take that into account? There are some challenges. One challenge is that there is much more data and statistics available on some dimensions of our positionality than on others. So you've got information challenges.

And you've got challenges about what to highlight and prioritize because we don't want the analysis to disintegrate into multiple disaggregations. I learnt a lot from feminists in South Africa. We have to have an intersectional analysis, but how to do that? Well, we can ask of every policy measure, what implications these have for the most disadvantaged person, who is a black South African woman in a rural area. If it doesn't do anything to help her, it's not doing anything to help the most disadvantaged person.

Maria: With rise of different feminisms across the world especially in the South, do you think the depiction of the third world woman in dominant GAD narratives has changed?

Elson: Perhaps I'm not up to date with all reading material that you are now looking at in your course because I've been retired from teaching for five years, so I've not kept up with the literature. I think that there has always been a tension, and there probably still is, between a kind of Northern liberal feminism which has a bit of a missionary attitude towards other women, towards women in the South, towards working class women and women of a different ethnicity in their own country. So that tension I think probably still continues to some extent. But I think that tension is characteristic of a particular kind of Northern feminism, which has been quite varied. I would always describe myself as a socialist feminist, and therefore the kind of work that I wanted to do was to analyse what capitalism meant both for women in the country in which I was living, but also for women in other countries where new forms of capitalism were developing.

I think we certainly always need to be careful when we’re privileged women in a university, not to presume we can speak on behalf of others. So, we always have to be aware of that, but it does not mean we cannot be critical. Think of all those women in the USA who voted for Donald Trump, despite all that was revealed. We have to understand why that happened. Another thing I remembered writing about in the past was the issue of son preference in some countries in Asia. Son preference is very strong and it's mothers and mothers-in-law who are as important as fathers, in enforcing son preference. So you have to understand why women are in a situation where they think, "I only want to have boys, or my first born must be a boy, and when I have boys and girls, it's the son that will get the preference". We have to understand why women are in a position where that makes a lot of sense to them, as well as how can we change the structures that are pushing them in that direction.

Wherever we're from, if we believe in women's rights, we want to contest practices like the son preference but not contest them in a way that fails to understand why women are in a position where they might be colluding in the oppression of other women or even themselves. So it's the structural factors we must identify. And then of course, there is usually some kind of discontent somewhere. What can we do to support women who are voicing discontent and who are organising and struggling?

Maria: Are international organizations and governments still stuck in the Women in Development (WID) phase and haven’t moved to the GAD framework?

Elson: Probably a lot are still stuck because I think it's easier for them to understand. They do not have to rethink their whole understanding of the society, the economy, the polity. They can say, "Maybe the women aren't benefiting, maybe we can add a few projects specifically for women and then we've done our bit". It requires deeper thinking and changes to think, "Maybe it's not just that we need to add on a few projects for women, maybe we need to rethink our economic strategy, maybe we need to rethink the way we organise political life. Maybe we should take some affirmative action. Maybe listen to more women’s voices." It is always easier to add on a few policies that we can say are benefitting women.

On the other hand, I think there has been growing recognition that it’s important to think more broadly. In some countries there has been a wide understanding that a policy like increasing the minimum wage and implementing it is a really important gender equality policy even though it's not labelled as one. Since women are concentrated at the lowest wages, if you can raise the minimum wage, and really implement that . . . of course men will benefit too but women will disproportionately benefit because they're the ones with the lowest wages. I think Brazil is a country that saw that and really did a lot to improve the minimum wage and the enforcement of the minimum wage. When people ask me about gender equality priorities, I say increase the minimum wage and make sure companies pay it!

Madiha: The UN's gender and development initiatives have been criticized for not taking into account root and structural causes of inequality. What would your opinion be about this? For instance campaigns focus mainly on highlighting successful role models, as opposed to shedding light on underlying structures within different societies that inhibit women.

Elson: The first thing I'll say is that the UN is a very big organisation. There are very many different views and voices - different things are done in head office, in different departments, in different countries so it is by no means monolithic. There is a lot of diversity.

I think perhaps what you're pointing to is that some people in UN Women, and indeed in many organizations, think it's really important to have good role models – you know, the woman who made it, the singer, the sportswoman, the CEO as a role model for younger girls to aspire to. I don’t want to rule that out, I think role models can be very important but neither do I think that it is sufficient. I am an advisor to the report that UN Women produces every two years, called Progress of the World Women. In fact, I was the first person to initiate this in the days when the UN women’s entity was UNIFEM – a much smaller organization, much less resources but with a visionary leader from Singapore called Noeleen Heyzer, who invited me to develop this report. This report has always had some examples of good role models but also a lot of emphasis on the structural constraints that women face.

Madiha: Do you think transformation through the UN is possible? What are the limits of the UN or any international body?

Elson: Sure, the UN has a lot of limits, a lot of contradictions, disfunctionalities, and problems. But what do I see as the really important thing about the UN as a whole? I think it’s the focus on universal human rights, and the recognition that women’s rights are human rights. The UN came to recognise that through the pressure of women’s organisations around the world in the 1990s. The emphasis on universality doesn’t mean ignoring differences, whether these are differences between gender, race, indigenous people, rich or poor, North or South. It means recognizing a differentiated universality; where we don’t elide these differences, but we say nevertheless, despite all these differences everybody has human rights. For me that is the most important thing about the UN.

That system is under threat. With the rise of authoritarian leaders that come to power via the ballot box – we’re not in the era of the generals seizing power anymore, we are in the era of authoritarian leaders that win the vote – I think that’s a real challenge for what we can do to ensure human rights for everybody, everywhere taking account of the differences.

Coventry has a good example of the importance of human rights in women’s struggles: Coventry Women's Voices, an organization that has been doing great work on the impact on women of austerity policies and all the cuts to social security and public services, putting this in a human rights context and saying “We've got these rights, but they are being denied!”. The language of rights, rather than the language of needs, is a powerful one. For me that's what's important to hold on to in the UN. Even though none of this is a panacea or a magic bullet, but I do see all around the world different civil society groups organised around these ideas of the rights they are demanding, and therefore from that point of view I think the UN is important and we are going to need to defend it!

Madiha: We see systems such as the neoliberal framework so solidly entrenched within society; it is presented as though there is no alternative to it. We see a gradual and very strong internalisation of all these narratives. How do you move past this?

Elson: It’s never been the case that all women have been feminists or that all women have campaigned for women’s rights or that all women have overtly voiced a discontent. So we have to understand the reason why that is. I think there was a survey in the UK that said that there were a large number of women thought that if a young woman goes out in a short skirt at night and has a few glasses of wine, it’s her own fault if she gets raped. So probing that, understanding where those ideas come from, that’s why we do social science, isn't it? To help us ask those questions, to help us interrogate and understand where these ideas come from.

Madiha: In your book Male Bias in the Development Process, you mention crucial things about the language of subordination, focus on rights instead of capabilities, and male bias in everyday attitudes and structures. You wrote this back in 1995 - how far do you think we have come? Has there been change? What is the value of this change?

Elson: There has been a lot of change but it is not unidirectional. Perhaps it is a bit of a cliché, where you go two steps forward and one step back, but I think there have been a lot of positive changes. You can even see some of that in data on girl’s education, maternal mortality falling -even though it’s far too high in too many countries - and there are more women in political office. So we do see some positive changes. But, as Ruth Pearson and I wrote in our study in the 70s, Nimble Fingers Make Cheap Workers, it's complicated because on the one hand, you get these changes which challenge and decompose old structures of overt patriarchy, but at the same time we have seen a recomposition of new forms, more subtle forms of gender inequality. Yes, you can get a job in the garment factory and you think that’s good because now you’ll earn your own money for your dowry, or your wages will put your brothers through college! But in that factory there is not only a class hierarchy but a gender hierarchy. You will have difficult working conditions that will challenge your health, you will be open to sexual harassment both in the factory and on the way to and from the factory. So you get a complex change in which some overt forms of patriarchy decline, and other new forms of what we call subordination of women emerge. It doesn’t necessarily take a directly patriarchal form but a more diffused form of gender inequality.

But to end on an optimistic note I was heartened to see this massive mobilisation of women, not only in the USA but also around the world outside American Embassies and consulates. There were other women standing in solidarity with their banners and I think that was very heartening to see that. But we have to build on that moment, because it is going to be tough. It’s not just Trump in America, it's Duterte in the Philippines, Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey. Then there’s the rise of fundamentalisms of all kinds, Christian fundamentalism in the USA to the ISIS type of fundamentalism, so we have got a lot of challenges. But what you have got, which my generation did not have when we were starting out, are these tools of communication. It would have taken a long time to get know there was this big demonstration before the internet. What we have now in terms of possibilities of communication and coordination is completely different from what we had 40 years ago, so that gives me some hope.

We would like to sincerely thank Prof. Elson for very generously offering us her time and giving us the chance to learn from her. Her work has made an indelible mark within the field, and has truly inspired us. As aspiring scholars and practitioners we are immensely grateful for all her contributions.

February 04, 2017

Gender and development conference: a call for papers

The International Development Postgraduate Conference 2017 has put out a call for papers for this summer's conference with the topic 'Changing the Landscapes of Gender Inequality: Theories, Policies and Mobilisations'. The conference will examine why gender matters in development and how change occurs. Some of the questions that will be explored include:

What do NGOs, development agencies and institutions do or not do to ensure gender equality in their change work?

How can theoretical interventions help us rethink approaches to change?

What is the role of the academic community in terms of the role of change?

The key note address will be given by Professor Una Chakravarti, who is a feminist historian, film maker and human rights activist. The conference takes place on 15 June 2017 in the University of Warwick and the deadline for proposals is 3 March 2017. More information can be found here: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/research/priorities/internationaldevelopment/research/annualthemes/


January 28, 2017

In the Race to Industrialize, Do Women Come in Last?


By Madiha A. Shekhani

'. . . within occupationally segregated "ghettos" the demand for cheap labor and the demand for female labor became synonymous.' (Pearce, 1978, p.28)

Industrialization, the mantra of the post-war era, was injected into the global lexicon as the savior of the South. Cloaked under a stellar package of all rounded benefits, the second half of the 20th century witnessed a race to industrialize. Within this framework the strategy of export-led industrialization (ELI) has been hailed for bringing rapid and unparalleled surges of economic growth and development; however, its appeal begins to dwindle once it is deconstructed through the lens of gender.

Several strands of thought have emerged within the gender and development repertoire. The link between ELI and gender is quite complex, and scholars have worked ambitiously to disentangle this web and highlight the complex stratifications within this debate (see Elson 1999; Elson & Pearson 1981; Seguino 1997; Standing 1989). Feminist schools of thought have contributed to arguments which suggest that the policies of ELI and its foundational structures not only create new avenues for gender inequalities to flourish, but also reinforce and solidify existing ones. In particular, the integration of women in this model through underpaid, undervalued, and insecure modes of employment has had intense repercussions, and is one of the leading causes of inequalities within ELI regimes.

The unfair incorporation of women within ELI rests upon the structure of the framework: one of the priorities of the export-led growth policy package is to minimize production costs. In pursuit of this priority, the global industry aimed to shift labour to a more flexible and cheap realm, which was subsequently discovered in the Global South (Standing 1989). The comparative advantage or rather the commodity, which the developing world thus became famous for, was cheap labour (Kaur 2003, p.40). Cheap labour gradually became synonymous with female labour. The rising presence of women in inexpensive, labour intensive and insecure employment roles has been identified as one of the main characteristics of the ELI approach (Seguino 2000; Elson and Pearson 2011): ‘No country has successfully industrialized or pursued this development strategy without relying on a huge expansion of female labor’ (Standing 1989, p.1080).

The approach presents itself as gender neutral since levels of productivity are key criterions in the market, as opposed to gender. However, this narrative ignores the intricacies and dynamics of the market, and the much disregarded household, both of which are deeply ‘gendered institutions’. Therefore, mere ‘participation does not empower women’ (Elson 1999, p. 611). The increasing presence of women in the work force under ELI regimes has been largely noticed across literature, and has been misconstrued by many as an indicator of the gender positive nature of ELI (Berik 2000; Elson and Pearson 1981; Razavi and Pearson 2003). Many have failed to look beneath this contagious narrative and examine the multiple realities underneath hollow statistics.

The increase in female workers is a result of deeply rooted institutional and structural inequalities which ELI capitalizes on and entrenches. The heightened demand is a product of structures which conceive the labour of women as inferior. Even though the numbers of female employment have increased largely with the advent of ELI, their position within the labour market has not improved, as promised. They remain more vulnerable to external shocks to the economy and unemployment than men (Otobe 2016). A work force of women synonymous to cheap labor exists precisely because the labour market is discriminatory and only makes space for women in roles that conform to traditional norms of value of female labour. Demand for women in ELI inspired markets is mostly in labour intensive, low skilled manufacturing jobs because gender constructs dictate that those are the only jobs that ‘nimble’ and ‘docile’ women are capable of (Razavi and Pearson 2003, p.2; Elson and Pearson 1981). The ELI model restricts the availability of opportunities for women: in order to maintain a stream of hassle free, disposable employees, the upward movement of women in to better jobs is confined (Pearce 1978). Since ELI benefits from the subsequent unfair ‘segregation of the work force’ and ‘feminization of labour’, it further perpetuates and reinforces the norms that underlie those processes.

The gender neutrality narrative of ELI doesn’t hold true in practice for it does not address the conditions that seem to have grown substantially with its presence, including the gender wage gap, deteriorating work conditions, insecurity of female employment status and an unequal distribution of benefits, both economic and social (Elson 1999; Seguino 2000; Park 1995). Each of these issues is linked to the gendered imbalance within the market and the household, leading to the lack of control women have upon their choices, resources, incomes, time, and effort. Additionally, what the ELI approach fails to address is that structural and especially societal norms do not provide all women with equal access to the market. Usually, the women working as cheap labour belong to certain marginalized classes, or ethnicities. The repeated exploitation of these women across such cleavages not only perpetuates inequality across genders but also within.

It has been established that the gender wage gap, either organically present or artificially induced has stimulated growth within the export-led systems (Seguino 2000). This can be construed as one of the leading motivations behind systematic efforts by governments to put in place discriminatory hiring rules and to reinforce stereotypes (Berik 2000). With a lack of labour market regulations, which are seen as extra ‘costs and rigidities’, women suffer under awful working conditions and must endure longer work hours in the formal and informal, reproductive economy (Standing 1989, p.1078; Elson 1999). Due to restricted choices women are often confined within jobs that entail hazardous working conditions (Majumder and Begum 2000). Harrowing accounts of factories in Bangladesh describe ‘overcrowded, congested and poorly ventilated’ buildings, where fire accidents have resulted in loss of lives of which 90% have been female (Majumder & Begum 2000, p.15). Such glaring examples depict the inequalities that the ELI system supports whereby one gender is more valued for their nimble fingers than their lives.

One of the most precarious effects of such discriminatory narratives is internalization. After facing sustained periods of marginalization young women have been conditioned to lower their aspirations, and are prepared to work in jobs that deliberately devalue them as mere diligent and disposable commodities (Standing 1989). ELI mechanisms make ‘allies out of the deprived’ and solidify inequality within material and ideational realms (Sen 1987, p.3). Due to internalization there is a lack of protest. Women are preoccupied with attempting to balance the plethora of setbacks they face. Their silence is often construed as satisfaction, and branded as a success for the gender-conscious ELI model. To ensure that these inequalities do not set permanently and lead to consequences such as intensification of existing gendered poverty, one must not misconstrue the absence of overt discontent as ‘evidence of the absence of that inequality’ (Sen 1987, p.3).

The ELI approach rests upon a structure that is inherently disadvantageous to women and their labour efforts. By capitalizing upon this aspect, the model encourages and contributes to the permanence of the underpayment of women’s services in the market, alongside a complete disregard for their services in the unpaid, reproductive economy. Cowering behind the rouse of gender neutrality, ELI approaches must be overtly called out for their inherent male biases (Elson 1991). Unless there is recognition of the existing unequal power dynamic between the genders, these structures cannot be undone.

The policies and ideas emanating from ELI regimes and the resulting inequalities have become a concrete part of our global reality. Eradicating the roots of such inequalities is the ultimate goal; however, it is a long-term process that can be predicted to take a substantial amount of time. Thereby, a potential solution to the conundrum of cyclical gender inequality stimulated by ELI is two-fold. Firstly, what is required is a gendered (not just female) collective, working towards combatting the internalization of the imbalanced gender power equation, and a sustained effort to roll back inequality. This must be accompanied by a practical prescription of restructuring, if not replacing ELI, keeping in mind the gendered critiques of the model.

Exploitation of women is not unique to ELI. It is a bi-product of theories and policy prescriptions that view gender as a one-dimensional phenomenon to be dealt with on the side-lines. Gender inequalities stem from exclusion of gender as a complex entity from the initial processes of formulation of ideas, as in the case of the ELI model. Gender and individual experiences of inequality are extremely variegated. Gender’s intersection with a wide range of factors justifies the need to give it a central position within theory and practice across disciplines. In order to develop, our focus must shift from economic growth as an end, to perceiving equitable human, social, political and economic development as the goal. If we are not cognizant of the structures, biases, inequalities that thrive amidst us, women will continue to place last in the race to industrialize.


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