Great Stories, Philanthropy, Resources, Vision

What if we’re wrong?

Last December I retweeted CBC host Jian Ghomeshi: Lots of other people retweeted it, which makes sense because it represents what has become common understanding in the development field. There are lots of reports supporting the idea that aid given to women results in benefits to their family and community, while aid given to men is more likely to be ultimately wasted.
This conviction has become a point of pride for many organizations who promote the dominant percentage of their efforts that are dedicated to women. After generations of patriarchy being the culture of development, it is encouraging to see that this shift in paradigm is making a difference.
I felt pretty secure in putting the Hitchens quote out (though there are plenty of other ways I disagree with him), and the feedback I got was uniformly positive.Today there are almost no dissenting voices to the practice of giving priority to women…
Except for one private message from someone I respect for his global experience, leadership insight, progressive approach, and confidence to speak his mind with reason and sensitivity.
Jonathan Wilson from Soul Systems challenged me with a message that is deserving of being quoted at length (with his permission):
Hi Chris,
Re the empowerment of women to combat poverty tweet: you are in the business of supporting development work, so I thought I should share the concerns I do have with this common truism.
I actually believe this is one of the most misguided concepts to be found in development work, although it is very popular, e.g. both the UN and WV place a big emphasis on this in their work. It is my observation that the focus on women comes at the exclusion or neglect of men — yet absent/dysfunctional men are a key cause of many of the problems that drive chronic poverty (perhaps even the main cause — even the disempowerment of women is a result of it). As a result of this exclusion or neglect, systemic causes of poverty are actually perpetuated. As women are empowered and men are neglected, men are further marginalized and demeaned, and the consequence can only be a worsening of their already dysfunctional condition. I see there being two reasons for this emphasis on women.
Firstly, it is generally much easier to work with women and get results (in the developing world): as I found throughout Africa, they are generally more responsive and more responsible. And yet the reason men are the way they are is in part because of the dysfunctional social conditions that shaped them. In South Africa, Apartheid had a tremendously destructive impact on the social fabric of black cultures. Growing up in Papua in a culture that encountered culturally sensitive and developmentally wise missionary work before it encountered the disruptive and destructive forces of colonialism, I saw what happens when men and women are both transformed — both contribute significantly, in their respective ways, to social development.
Secondly, as a Christian I get concerned wherever there is a tendency to demonize and exclude the “guilty” party even while rightly recognizing and attending to the suffering of the exploited or abused party. This kind of exclusionary thinking should not make its way into our own if our own has been saturated by the Gospel. But it has permeated Christian organizations, which makes me wonder sometimes how theologically critical Christian development workers are of the various development models out there, and especially the trendy ones.
I ran a leadership development program in South Africa for several years.  An explicit goal of ours was to populate every class with a participant demographic representative of the demographics of the country.  It was rewarding and encouraging to have, in every class, every time, just that: in other words, about 70% blacks, and the remainder a cross section of Indians, Coloureds (the South African term for the very distinct and established mixed race grouping) and whites; and 50% women and 50% men.  What those statistics don’t tell you is how astonishingly hard it is to achieve that mix.  But we were determined to be as holistic and systemically integrative as possible, and the resulting mix made for very powerful classes in which tremendous mutual learning flowed back and forth across the boundaries of race, culture and sex.  I’m not saying we had it all figured out, but it does illustrate the kind of approach I am talking about.
Additionally, I know a church in South Africa that runs a myriad of development projects, e.g. micro-credit, small business, etc and women are often a big part of those. On the other hand, they work intensively as well in the mentoring of young black men by other men – being godly fathers to men who had none. It’s a slow, hard work, but if it isn’t done, the chronic issues plaguing the country will not go away.
To my mind, thinking still specifically of Christian NGOs, our faith enables our development work to take an integrated approach, where justice and empowerment are not the only things at work, but also a redemptive and restorative approach — and one that reconciles those parts of the system that are at enmity with each other.
Anyway, those are my thoughts, for your consideration. There may be other perspectives on this I have not considered.
The only commentary I’ll add to Jonathan’s corrective is that I appreciate how he affirms the importance of empowering women, but challenges any accompanying neglect of the longer term mutual need to involve and develop men. In the long run any approach that fails to address the needs of any part of the community is incomplete. Practical priorities are great, but we must be cautious about the lasting effects of a swinging pendulum.