Coles, A., Gray, L. and Momsen, J., editors, 2015: The Routledge Handbook of Gender and Development

A. Kumar

Onderzoeksoutput: Bijdrage aan tijdschriftBoek besprekingAcademic


Although still a long way to go, gender equity and women’s rights are becoming increasingly important issues around the world. To that effect, this handbook provides useful insights for conceptualizing, understanding, analysing and progressing the work on gender in development. Through its eight parts and 57 chapters, which involve 66 contributors, the handbook is possibly one of the most comprehensive interventions on this topic.

The book was put together as the millennium development goals (MDGs) came to a close in 2015. Since then, the United Nations has agreed on the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and recognized gender equality as Goal 5, an important step in progressing the positive impacts of gendered focus of development that the book’s editors, Anne Coles, Leslie Gray and Janet Momsen, of this book point to (p. 2). However, they also provide poignant critiques of gender and development work by pointing out its past focus on seeing women primarily in their reproductive functions and as a heterogeneous category (p. 3). They go on to argue that even though the world has entered an era of the SDGs, critiques of MDGs such as ‘linking developing countries into a top down neoliberal market-led development approach’ stand true (Coles et al., 2015: 3).

Neoliberalism has long embedded work on gender and development. Many chapters (Abbasi, 2015; Miraftab, 2015; Torres, 2015) of this book force the reader to think about the inherent neoliberal characteristic of dominant development approaches and ways of encountering, and countering them.

Interestingly, and I would add rightly, the chapters also extend the idea of developing countries by bringing into the fold post-communist countries. Very importantly, many contributions of the book are by authors from the regions they write about, which helps diversify the range of voices and narratives drawn upon. Another commendable aspect of The Routledge Handbook of Gender and Development is the wide range of research methods used in the chapters. Here, one can get an insight into methodological approaches to study gender and development, whether it may be through large projects or small studies, at home and abroad. Many of these approaches could also be useful in studying gender relations in the global north.

It is nearly impossible to provide a comprehensive review of this mammoth volume. However, to give a sense of the quality of work presented here, its usefulness and the fact that marrying gender, postcolonialism and development could be one of the best ways to do gender and development work, I focus on Chapter 3 ‘Gender and postcolonialism’ by Sarah Radcliff. Radcliffe (2015) starts her chapter by reminding us that the north–south division is partly ‘organized through and dependent upon a gendered axis’ and therefore focuses the chapter on how development could be critically understood through a postcolonial and gender analysis (p. 34).

Her key argument is that gender power relations and the critiques of colonial legacies are central to how we understand development issues that low-income groups in developing countries face. Driven by this thesis, Radcliffe (2015) identifies a key change that instead of homogenizing and ignoring Third World women, development interventions now put them at the centre (p. 36). However, she explains, this approach views culture as the main reason limiting these women’s empowerment. A postcolonial approach provides four counters to this. First, culture is not as localized or traditional as often perceived. Global and local, and tradition and modernity enmesh to produce culture. Second, global discourses are often co-opted by grassroots women to make local and national claims—another evidence of the entangled global and local. Third, female policymakers also often extend (neo)colonial forms of power against minority women. Fourth, women’s lives in the global south are shaped through many subjectivities (economy, religion and so on) beyond development interventions. Therefore, Radcliffe argues, it is important to move away from the ‘Western cultural assumptions built into’ interventions such as the MDGs and mainstream ‘ethnic minority women within nation-states committed to gendered and racialized solutions’ (p. 37).

Another subtext coming out of the four counters is that cultural biases have led to women becoming the sites of development’s modernization agenda. Gayatri Spivak’s famous words come back to us: ‘white men are saving brown women from brown men’ (Spivak, 1992: 92). Radcliffe (2015) provides a number of examples where this cultural bias leads to interventions that are too simplified and ignorant of the agency of the women they target. An important reminder from postcolonial critique is that women from the global south do not always consider their and low-income men’s agendas separate. However, development interventions that largely come to focus on women ‘as subject to patriarchal cultures’ often forget that Third World men might also be less empowered compared to the north (p. 39). Postcolonial critiques demonstrate how global development reproduces colonial differences by critiquing race and becomes complicit in (neo)colonialist geopolitics. We might benefit by remembering that global–local interplays embed diverse masculinities and femininities.

Radcliffe (2015) brings the postcolonial discourse to the post-9/11 world of securitization to explain that security discourses reinforce ‘racial-gendered hierarchies’ (p. 43). They create particular visible categories and make others less visible. In conclusion, Radcliffe (2015) rehearses the overlaps between feminism and postcolonialism, surmising that both question the ‘positionality of knowledge’ (p. 44). Therefore, going back to Spivak, it might be poignant to remind ourselves that we need to unlearn our privileges and learn to listen to, rather than just speak for the majority world women (Spivak, 1992).
Originele taal-2Engels
Pagina's (van-tot)215-217
Aantal pagina's3
TijdschriftProgress in Development Studies
Nummer van het tijdschrift3
StatusGepubliceerd - 4 jun. 2018


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