Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: “Should feminists in rich countries shift their focus to international development?” written by Carolina Flores Henrique

This essay is a joint winner in the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics undergraduate category.

Written by University of Oxford student, Carolina Flores Henrique

I will argue that feminists should move some of their attention to evidence-based, cost-effective interventions targeted at improving the lives of women in poor countries. In particular, feminists in rich countries should shift resources to supporting interventions that improve health (e.g. fistula treatment), allow women to make their own reproductive choices (e.g. contraception distribution), and empower women economically (e.g. direct cash transfers) in poor countries.
Feminists should fundraise for and donate to effective charities working in these cause areas; bring their skills to researching effective ways to improve women’s
health and economic standing in poor countries; and give more of a voice to women in poor countries and the obstacles they face. 

Feminism is a movement that opposes sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.¹ It encompasses all women, and thus its scope should include those in extreme poverty. Further, if we have reason to think that some interventions in poor countries are much more effective at producing gender equality than interventions in rich countries (as I will argue below), justice may require us to shift resources to interventions in poor countries, for no plausible theory of justice is compatible with great inequality in resource allocation.

In addition to justice requiring fairer resource allocation, achieving the best results with finite resources requires us to compare different ways of acting and prioritize the most effective. Hence, in choosing a cause or intervention, we want to know how much good it will do, how likely we are to be successful, and whether others are already effectively working on this problem.

Asking ‘Which causes contribute to gender equality for a large number of people?’ (i.e. considering importance) should lead feminists to favour interventions in poor countries, where women still struggle with many problems which have been substantially reduced in richer countries.

For example, rich-country feminists have focused on domestic violence in their own countries. Although this is important, the burden of intimate-partner violence is much higher in poor countries. Women lack or have low levels of physical security in all low and lower-middle income countries, while in most rich countries women have moderate to fairly high levels of physical security.² In many poor countries, domestic violence is not a crime, and a majority of people think that a man is justified in beating his wife in certain circumstances.³ Taking into account that the population of poor countries is far larger than the population of rich countries, it follows that the cause ‘reducing domestic violence in poor countries’ is more important than the cause ‘reducing domestic violence in rich countries’. However, how important a cause is does not tell us whether it is one we should pick. The cause also needs to be tractable, i.e. one should have good reason to expect working on that cause to result in high levels of progress. We should ask ourselves the question ‘How hard is it to achieve the outcome with the intervention?’ and prioritize interventions where results are easier to achieve. As an example, compare abortion rights activism in the USA with contraception
distribution in poor countries. Both of these interventions aim at allowing women reproductive choice, but the second is much more tractable than the first. In the USA, abortion rights activists stand against large and highly-funded anti-abortion groups (e.g. large religious organizations, the Republican Party), which means that progress will be difficult. In contrast, improving contraceptive distribution in poor countries is tractable: Population Services International runs a number of interventions (including distributing different kinds of contraception for free or at a low cost, removing social barriers to contraception use through media campaigns, and creating low-cost contraceptive solutions) which prevent an unwanted pregnancy for under £50. 4 In other words, it is much easier to improve reproductive choice in poor countries than in rich ones.

This exemplifies a more general point: because poor countries have historically been neglected, we should expect to find more tractable causes there. Diminishing
marginal returns should lead us to expect that the same amount of resources will make more of a difference if directed towards situations where people are poorer, and hence towards interventions in poor countries. In contrast, many problems in rich countries are very expensive to solve, in part because we have already picked the lowest-hanging fruit.

This is the case as far as contraceptive access is concerned. In Africa, only 27% of women aged 15 to 49 use a modern contraceptive method, and 23% of women want to use contraception but have no access to it.5 In contrast, in the USA, 62% of women in the same age group use a modern contraceptive method,6 with widespread access to contraception. Hence there is much more scope for empowering women to make their own reproductive choices in Africa than in the USA.

Finally, we should consider present neglectedness in choosing which causes to support. If there are plenty of people working on a certain area, or if the intervention we are considering has enough funding to carry on effectively, adding a voice or a donation will not make a significant difference, even if the cause is both important and tractable.

This makes the case for moving one’s attention to poor countries even stronger. Problems such as glass ceilings in the labour market, objectifying representations of women in the media, sexual assault in the developed world, and reproductive choice, are the target of much activism. They often figure in the media, and are the object of widely touted awareness campaigns and heated debate. In contrast, tractable and important problems affecting poor women in poor countries are off the mainstream, and unusual targets for political or fundraising campaigns. Spending your time, campaigning skills, and money on an important, tractable, and neglected development cause is likely to have a much higher impact than being one more campaigner for an already crowded issue.

Comparing abortion rights activism in the US with support for contraceptive distribution in poor countries illustrates this point well. The abortion rights debate
makes the news often; the fact that millions of women lack access to contraception in poor countries, rarely. This is a reflection of the much higher levels of engagement garnered by abortion rights activism than by campaigning for contraception distribution in poor countries. There is thus more of a need for campaigners to engage in the latter than in the former issue.

In sum, moving attention to poor countries would allow us to reach many more women, who are often in a worse position; to draw on clearly-designed interventions with a high probability of success; and to plug funding and awareness gaps that have long been neglected. This means that focusing on poor countries is likely to lead to the best consequences in terms of gender equality. Further, taking into account the difference in effectiveness between acting in poor and in rich countries, it would be unjust not to shift some resources to poor countries.

This does not imply that feminists should focus exclusively on poor countries. First of all, not all resources can be moved to a focus on poor countries. Engaging with issues affecting women in rich countries may be very important for the growth of the feminist movement within those countries. It may also be that some people are very well-suited to specific roles in causes in rich countries, such that their impact would be greater here than elsewhere.

Secondly, change in rich countries may act as a catalyst for global change in a number of ways. For example, a cultural shift towards gender equality may lead to
more interest in bringing it about in poor countries. If more women take up high level decision-making positions, we may see an increase in funding to interventions targeting the needs of women, as well as more innovation in this field.

Still, if we truly care about promoting gender equality, we should move a significant amount of resources to development interventions. Failure to do so is tantamount to greatly privileging women who were born in a position of comparatively great privilege – in a rich country where there is (typically) access to healthcare, education, decent living standards, and legal protection of their rights. It would be unjust to focus our attention on women in such a position to the detriment of women in poor countries. It would make feminism an exclusionary movement, a movement that does not pay adequate attention to the experiences of those who are sufficiently far and whose experiences are different from those of women in rich countries.

One worry one may have about focusing on development interventions is that this may shift resources away from political action to bring about systemic change. It may be argued that, even though development is valuable, what is crucial is changing institutions, legislation, and attitudes. Hence, the objection goes, shifting
resources to international development would undermine the goal of bringing about a new kind of social structure by dispelling the focus on political action.

While I agree that changing institutions is required for gender equality, I do not take this to be incompatible with my proposal. First of all, there are many ways in
which women’s suffering is partially due to gender inequality – such as when an illness which affects only biologically-female people remains under-studied and thus without effective treatment, or when women suffer from gender-based violence. In these cases, the suffering involved has no place in an equal society, and feminists will rightly be concerned to reduce it.

Secondly, suffering can prevent women from taking part in public life and from acting in ways that further their social standing. If one is seriously ill, or suffering
under an abusive relationship or extreme economic hardship, one is in no condition to participate in public life, to seek an education, or to claim equal rights. Reducing suffering is necessary to empower women.

Finally, shifting our concern to development interventions does not exclude political action. It may be found that the most important, tractable, and neglected causes within development are those requiring political action. If that’s the case, then feminists should campaign for political and social change in poor countries. The key point is that international development should be recognised as a priority in achieving gender equality; which means are most conducive to achieving gender equality will require careful research and debate.

In conclusion, for feminism to be truly inclusive at a global scale, to accommodate the demands of justice, and to make the most progress towards gender equality, it must move resources to development interventions. By donating to effective interventions that improve women’s lives in poor countries, agitating for the governments of rich countries to invest more in international development, making efforts to give centre stage to women from poor countries in the media, and researching and constructing more effective interventions targeting gender inequality, feminists can make strides towards gender equality in the next decade.

References
1 bell hooks 2000. Feminism is for Everybody. London: Pluto Press.

2 WomanStats 2014. Women’s Physical Security. Viewed 24 January 2016. http://womanstats.org/newmapspage.html 

3 Childinfo 2013. ‘Attitudes towards wife beating: percentage of women aged 15–49 who think that a husband/partner is justified in hitting or beating his wife/partner under certain circumstances’ Viewed 24 January 2016. https://web.archive.org/web/20140704112113/http://www.childinfo.org/attitud
es_data.php

4 PSI 2009. Washington: PSI. Viewed 24 January 2016. http://www.psi.org/wpcontent/uploads/drupal/sites/default/files/publication_files/2009%20Annual%20Cost%20Effectiveness%20Report.pdf

5 WHO 2015. World Health Organization (WHO) 2015. Fact Sheet 351 – Family planning/Contraception. Viewed 24 January 2016. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs351/en/

6 Jones J, Mosher WD and Daniels K, 2012. ‘Current contraceptive use in the United States, 2006–2010, and changes in patterns of use since 1995’, National Health Statistics Reports, No. 60.

7 Population Services International. 2011.Annual Cost-Effectiveness Report 2009.

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13 Responses to Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: “Should feminists in rich countries shift their focus to international development?” written by Carolina Flores Henrique

  • Paul Treanor says:

    The author does not seem to understand the point of feminism. The reason that “tractable and important problems affecting poor women in poor countries” are not on the feminist agenda, is that they generally affect men to a similar degree. Certainly the underlying economic, administrative and technological problems of poor countries affect the majority of the population in those countries. They are either not gender-specific, or they are only marginally gender-specific.

    Feminism is not simply about harm suffered by women, it about harm caused by an oppressive relationship of men to women. So feminists don’t protest against earthquakes, which kill thousands of women every year, because there is nothing gender-specific in an earthquake. Pornography, on the other hand, is very strongly gender-specific: most of it depicts women, in a way that feminists consider to be a harm, and it is largely made by men, for the benefit of men. From a feminist point of view it is entirely logical to campaign against pornography, instead of volunteering to help earthquake victims, even if the relief work is directed entirely at women. The number of women affected has nothing to do with it, nor has the effectiveness of the intervention. In fact, most feminist anti-porn campaigns fail in their objectives, but that’s not the point.

    Reading this piece, it is very hard to avoid the impression that the author is unfamiliar with radical feminism, and with second-wave feminism in general. She does not mention intersectionality either, which would be the logical starting point for a feminist, in any consideration of these issues. Is this the whole text, or just a short version of a longer essay?

  • Carolina Flores says:

    Dear Paul,

    Thank you for commenting! In response to your comment, the claim that ‘“tractable and important problems affecting poor women in poor countries” are not on the feminist agenda generally affect men to a similar degree’ is compatible with there being some such problems which are gender-specific, and which feminists would thus have reason to act on. Those are the problems which I think feminists should be paying more attention to. A couple of examples that come to mind are child marriage and adolescent pregnancy. It is enough that there are a few such problems – tractable, important, neglected, and gender-specific – to support the claim that feminists should be paying more attention to those, or at least that should explore that possibility.

    Further, I agree with you that feminism is not just about harm caused to women, but about harm caused by oppression to women because they are women. I try to briefly address how this is compatible with my suggestion in the essay:

    While I agree that changing institutions is required for gender equality, I do not take this to be incompatible with my proposal. First of all, there are many ways in which women’s suffering is partially due to gender inequality – such as when an illness which affects only biologically-female people remains under-studied and thus without effective treatment, or when women suffer from gender-based violence. In these cases, the suffering involved has no place in an equal society, and feminists will rightly be concerned to reduce it.

    Secondly, suffering can prevent women from taking part in public life and from acting in ways that further their social standing. If one is seriously ill, or suffering under an abusive relationship or extreme economic hardship, one is in no condition to participate in public life, to seek an education, or to claim equal rights. Reducing suffering is necessary to empower women.

    Finally, shifting our concern to development interventions does not exclude political action. It may be found that the most important, tractable, and neglected causes within development are those requiring political action. If that’s the case, then feminists should campaign for political and social change in poor countries. The key point is that international development should be recognised as a priority in achieving gender equality; which means are most conducive to achieving gender equality will require careful research and debate.

    As for your point that I’m ‘unfamiliar with radical feminism, and with second-wave feminism in general’, I think that’s a bit too harsh. I claim no in-depth knowledge of these fields, but am certainly aware of concepts such as gendered oppression and intersectionality. In a future version of this piece, I may try to incorporate those considerations into the argument.

    • Paul Treanor says:

      Some text is apparently missing / misformatted here, probably due to copy-pasting.

      • Carolina Flores says:

        Reposting my comment to correct the formatting – hopefully it’s clear now:

        In response to your comment, the claim that ‘“tractable and important problems affecting poor women in poor countries” are not on the feminist agenda generally affect men to a similar degree’ is compatible with there being some such problems which are gender-specific, and which feminists would thus have reason to act on. Those are the problems which I think feminists should be paying more attention to. A couple of examples that come to mind are child marriage and adolescent pregnancy. It is enough that there are a few such problems – tractable, important, neglected, and gender-specific – to support the claim that feminists should be paying more attention to those, because the impact – here, the reduction in gender-based oppression – could be much greater than that achieved by current forms of activism.

        Further, I agree with you that feminism is not just about harm caused to women, but about harm caused by oppression to women because they are women. I address how this point is compatible with my suggestion in the essay:

        “While I agree that changing institutions is required for gender equality, I do not take this to be incompatible with my proposal. First of all, there are many ways in which women’s suffering is partially due to gender inequality – such as when an illness which affects only biologically-female people remains under-studied and thus without effective treatment, or when women suffer from gender-based violence. In these cases, the suffering involved has no place in an equal society, and feminists will rightly be concerned to reduce it.

        Secondly, suffering can prevent women from taking part in public life and from acting in ways that further their social standing. If one is seriously ill, or suffering under an abusive relationship or extreme economic hardship, one is in no condition to participate in public life, to seek an education, or to claim equal rights. Reducing suffering is necessary to empower women.

        Finally, shifting our concern to development interventions does not exclude political action. It may be found that the most important, tractable, and neglected causes within development are those requiring political action. If that’s the case, then feminists should campaign for political and social change in poor countries. The key point is that international development should be recognised as a priority in achieving gender equality; which means are most conducive to achieving gender equality will require careful research and debate.”

        As for your point that I’m ‘unfamiliar with radical feminism, and with second-wave feminism in general’, I think that’s a bit too harsh. I claim no in-depth knowledge of these fields, but am certainly aware of concepts such as gendered oppression and intersectionality. In a future version of this piece, I may try to incorporate considerations based on these concepts into the argument – I agree that it could make the argument more appealing for a certain audience. Thanks for commenting!

        Best,
        Carolina

  • John Askonas says:

    This article, it seems to me, is not so much about feminism as such as about a plain articulation of utilitarian caculus. The main argument seems to be that given that aiding women in underdevelopped countries is more cost-effective than helping those in developped countries, feminists should shift their attention to the former — as doing so can generate more utility.

    First I doubt this raw version of utilitarianism has much appeal as the author assumes. One can simply assert that some problems both men and women suffer under the patriarchal society in the west demonstrate the measure of misery that is as important as, if not more important than, those we find in underdevelopped countries.

    Second, the essay implies a strong hue of Eurocentrism, and is poorly argued on philosophical level. We learn very well, from such feminist philosophers as Young, McNay, and Chambers, that gender inequality is socially constructed, which means that liberal cosmopolitanism cannot save gender issues from disputes and criticisms. The authors seems to take for granted that what gender equality denotes is something that proves to be true by itself, and it needs no further philosophical justifications. This instrumental, and let me say, naive understanding of feminism has already gained plenty of criticisms from various sides – from multiculturalism to post-modernism. If we follow what the author says in this article, then we should assume that gender equality and justice, as she understands it, is beyond doubt, and the remaining problem is simply how to apply what we see as self-revealing truth into other places. This, for me, is an attempt to disempower philosophical thinking and shows the poverty of Eurocentrism and intellectual insolence. Further, the article itself is nothing more than an insult on non-western cultures and customs even without a gesture of inter-subjective deliberation as held by Habermas, or ontological discussion on what ‘being’ and ‘agency’ imply – two crucial concepts in feminist thought.

    Third, the subject and obligation in this article remains obscure. Does the author imply that only feminists should shift their attention or that all people living in developped countries should do so as well? What obligies us to provide support to them? Whence does the moral obligation occur? I suppose the author thinks that it simply wrong to stand aside and not to actively help women in underdevelopped countries, but why should it be obligatory? What is wrong with my showing sympathy towards them but doing nothing at all?

    Given above defects, I have to cast doubt on the very validity of the argument given in this article, and I expect some responses from the author and others.

    • Analytic Pedant says:

      It appears that John may have something to say. It’s a shame he doesn’t express his point clearly in plain English.

    • Matt Sharp says:

      It sounds like you’re expecting Carolina to solve all of ethics in one essay.

  • Paul Treanor says:

    I considered the possibility that this essay was written by an anti-feminist troll, or alternatively that it was written by a radical feminist, to satirise the gullibility and egoism of western liberal feminists. The comments by Carolina Flores Henrique suggest that she is indeed the author, and not a troll, but they don’t quite rule out the ‘anti-libfem satire’ option. The comments by John Askonas, although they are not phrased in feminist terms, do indicate the direction a radical feminist critique of such proposals would take, for instance concerning the patronising and neo-colonial tone of the essay. However, the primary radical feminist complaint would be that such proposals, – essenttially “donate to aid charities” – don’t do anything at all about patriarchy. And that is of course correct: the strategy proposed is not intended as anti-patriarchal, so we cannot expect it to be anti-patriarchal.

    It is difficult to criticise the feminism of the author, without knowing whether she is serious or not. So leaving that aside, I note again what I said about ‘effective altruism’, in comments on an earlier post, namely that there are integrity issues with those who promote it. They promote a strategy that involves substantial diversion of cash flow. In other words, they tell private individuals and corporations to give to charity A, and not to charity B. Some ‘effective altruism’ proponents are successful at getting their message across, via old and new media, so we must assume that money is indeed being diverted. Now the total sums involved are huge – Americans donated an estimated $358 billion in 2014, and UK total private donations in 2014 were £10.6 billion (CAF estimate). Even if only a fraction is being diverted, some charities stand to gain a lot, from the recommendations of ‘effective altruism’ advocates.

    In turn that generates a monetisable advantage for the ‘effective altruism’ advocates themselves. Put crudely, they can ask for a cut. Even if they don’t get an envelope with cash, the monetisable advantage is still there. What’s more, individuals and firms can offer effective altruism as a service, a second form of monetisable advantage. They can charge you a fee, to tell you where to donate. And indeed there are entrepreneurs who do just that, even though they clothe themselves with an ethical mantle.

    So there is good reason to be suspicious, of anyone who advocates any specific donation strategy. Now as I say, I don’t know how serious Carolina Flores Henrique is, about her proposal for a feminist strategy. It’s also unclear whether feminists donate much anyway: radical feminists would spend their money on action rather than charity, and they probably don’t earn much either. I hope these comments make it clear that the issues raised are complex, and that there is no simple recipe to state, not for feminists, and not for the rest of us either.

    • Matt Sharp says:

      Paul, your claim about ‘integrity issues’ is clearly an ad hominem.

      You’ve not even attempted to attack effective altruism as an approach, but rather have merely made unfounded claims about the integrity of those who promote it.

      If you think specific charities have been recommended because effective altruist organisations have received funds from them, I suggest you provide some evidence, or shut up.

      You’re right that some people can benefit financially from promoting effective altruism as a whole (e.g. those who work for Giving What We Can, or 80,000 Hours, or who write books and media articles on the subject). But so what? If they’re attempting to give an informed and unbiased opinion about the impact of different charities and career options, and are willing to change their minds based on new evidence, then that seems like a service worth having.

      To make an analogy: if a film critic recommends a film because they are receiving funds from the makers of that film, then that is good reason to be skeptical about the quality of the film. But if the film critic earns money from recommending or criticising films in general, then it’s irrelevant that the film industry is worth billions: what matters is whether you think the reviews are worth having.

      • Paul Treanor says:

        In this case, it is indeed relevant to consider the integrity of individuals. Those who advocate giving money to specific organisations, with possibly substantial total donations, have deliberately placed themselves in the position that the receiving organisation has a financial interest in their recommendation. It is reasonable to question their motives, especially if they present themselves as something other than a commercial advisor. Note that there is no official supervision over what such individuals do. Typically in western countries, a financial advisor who tells investors which companies to invest in, is supervised by a financial authority, to prevent various forms of insider trading. There is no such supervision of those (such as Carolina Flores Henrique), who make general recommendations concerning cash flows between third parties. That does not mean she is ‘on the take’, but it does mean that she has a financial interest, because she is in a position to receive payment for her recommendations.

        Because of the very general nature of her recommendations, that financial interest is diffuse. Organisations such as Giving What We Can have a much more direct financial interest, because they solicit funds for specific enterprises, and indeed even transfer money from third parties to those enterprises.

        We strongly encourage you to donate to our Top Charities — these are the charities we believe to be the most effective in the world, and where your donation will have the biggest impact.

        Note that the general function of modern charities in western countries is not to assist others, but to solicit donations, so the term ‘altruism’ is misplaced. Western charities are definitively a form of private enterprise, and share a business culture with the financial sector, retailing, manufacturing, and other private sectors of the economy. Things may be different in Islamic countries, since donations to others are a religious obligation for Muslims. (That was one the case in the West also, but that religious model has been definitively displaced by now).

        • Matt Sharp says:

          There is of course a theoretical possibility that there is corruption in some effective altruist organisations.

          That said, it might be considered defamatory and slanderous to suggest at this possibility without providing any evidence whatsoever.

          Besides, even if there was some evidence of corruption within a specific organisation, that would not mean the general effective altruist approach was flawed, it would just mean we should be cautious about that specific organisation’s claims.

        • grendelkhan says:

          Note that the general function of modern charities in western countries is not to assist others, but to solicit donations

          … to assist others. This seems as sensible as saying that the general function of modern mom-n-pop stores is not to provide goods and services, but to accept payment. If you’re referring to the execrable Dan Pallotta school of charity, then I’m in agreement–soliciting donations indeed obscures the nominal purpose of the charities there–but if you’re saying that GiveDirectly or the Against Malaria Foundation don’t have helping people as their “general function”, I think that you’re hopelessly confused.

  • Paul Treanor says:

    This post is an essay by Carolina Flores Henrique, not a general post on the ‘effective altruism’ movement. Matt Sharp named specific organisations, Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours. I pointed out that Giving What We Can has a financial interest, because it diverts cash flows to specific third parties, which in turn have a financial interest in receiving that money. I did not use the word ‘corruption’. I do not want to get into an off-topic discussion, but Giving What We Can is not subject to regulation by the Financial Conduct Authority, the UK sectoral regulator, and is not listed on the Financial Services Register. It does not disclose the cash flows of its ‘Top Charities’, and the general public must take their word that the money goes somewhere relevant. I accept that Giving What We Can also has non-financial political motives, derived from its founders belief in democratic free-market options. That does not preclude an entrepreneurial approach to charity.

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