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March 10, 2017

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

Interview by Sailja Jain and Anni Piiroinen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 07, 2017

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

By Silvia Vacchi, University of Warwick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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