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.
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
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.