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Surviving the Fierce New World

Posted in Plenary 2 on October 25th, 2012 by
Source: SID/Palgrave

Gita Sen


The struggle for development

We are living in a fierce new world where social contracts are being broken, where new players are emerging, but old ones are not willing to give up. The definitions and meanings of development are being fought over from who is being appointed at the IMF and the World Bank to what the G20 decides. There has been growing inequality with enormous increases between and within countries during the last two decades. There is a viciousness that these increases in inequality have given rise to, and is very much part of this, fierce new world: whether it is what happened to young Trayvon Martin in the United States, or the ongoing atrocities against Dalits in India, the killing of LGBT activists in different parts of the world, the backlash against migrants. This kind of viciousness is part of this fierce new world. And it is the context of our struggle to see how we can go forward from here.1

Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era – DAWN – came together 28 years ago in order to challenge the meaning and nature of development. We asked one question at Nairobi in 1984: Who needs or wants a larger share of a poisoned pie? If development is poisoned, how does it benefit women to get a larger share in it? In DAWN, we challenged ourselves and social movements in general to take on this question in a central way. This was not a call for ideological purity, but to be aware of connections between the struggle for gender equality and the nature of the development within which it is embedded. Trickle-down economic growth, which is what development has come to signify all too often, has many poisonous forms. There is rapacious resource extraction, which destroys the lives of indigenous people and ecological resources. There is the excessive consumption both in the North and among the elite in the South. There is the runaway financialization of the global economy with growing flexibilization and informalization of labour that cheapens both labour costs and human lives. These are the overused, unregulated, exploitative forms of economic growth. How do we deal with such destructive patterns of development that continue to be reproduced in too many parts of the world? How to get from here to where we might have truly human-centred growth?

The struggle for equality and justice

More than 40 years ago, Ester Boserup’s pioneering book spoke about women’s marginalization from mainstream development. But women’s problem is not so much that they are marginalized from the mainstream economy, but that they are included at the bottom of deeply hierarchical systems of wealth production. Why does this keep happening? Because a deeply rooted gender division of labour means that women are responsible for the reproduction and care of human beings in an economic system where people and their survival are only a means to an end, and that end is economic growth and profit making. The means are human beings and what can be done to extract the most out of them. It is essential to talk about social provisioning as critical to the economic system if we are to move towards gender equality.

How can we transform the care economy so that it is no longer marginal to the economic system? In Latin America today, we see some attempts in their democratic struggles to create more just economic systems by building a recognition of care into social security systems supported by the state for all people. But are we talking about taming the beast of neo-liberal capitalism, why do we not wish just to kill it? I do not think we can kill it, but we must work to humanize it if we can. What is going on in today’s fierce world is not humane, nor is it sustainable. Widespread recognition that current levels of global and national inequality are obscene is evidenced by the fact that even a billionaire like Warren Buffet is calling for a ‘Buffet Rule’ to increase taxes on the wealthy so you can humanize the system. We are always being told that there is a fiscal crisis, and that there is no public funding available for social security or for workers or for the poor, or for gender equality, health and education. But there always seems to be public money available for the corporations, and there is always money to bail out the banks, and for the rich to take over communal land to build their mansions.

The fact that Governments are dismantling the welfare state in the European Union (EU) in order for the financial world and corporations to continue to expand business as usual is pure blackmail. It is not in our interest to put up with this kind of blackmail. Now is the time to argue for control of corporations.

The struggle against being sold out

I was teaching in New York at the time of the Iranian revolution against the Shah. The New School where I was based in the 1970s was full of students who were political exiles from many dictatorships – Latin America, Iran, Indonesia and many others. The fall of the Shah of Iran, the quintessential dictator, was greeted with a roar of enthusiasm. A colleague met me in the hallway in the midst of the celebration and said to me – I can understand why those people are celebrating, but you – a feminist – don’t you see what’s happening? Don’t you see what lies ahead? I have remembered his words many times over the years, and as we move through the so-called Arab Spring I remember them again, and I realize how right his warning was. Women are so often at the forefront of democratic struggles for economic justice, and so painfully often, relegated to second-class citizenship and subordinate status through gendered threats, violence and naked patriarchal power. In DAWN, we have referred to this as the tensions between gender justice and economic justice. But selling women out is not only something that happens in the context of new democratic struggles. The EU puts many conditionalities on countries that wish to join it, on fiscal deficit, rule of law, property and governance. But what about sexual and reproductive health and rights? The absence of requirements to guarantee the highest standards for women’s human rights has brought into the EU countries that actively oppose them, watering down thereby the EU’s own overall position vis-à-vis gender justice. That is what we have to fight against – economic benefits cannot be pitted against gender justice. For women, there can be no economic justice without bodily autonomy and integrity.

The huge challenge of taking up economic power

What is the nature of economic power and what do we, as women, need to do? First and foremost, power is based on resources, financial resources. Nobody knows that better than AWID, which has been working on where funding goes for Women’s Rights. But money begets money. When money comes in, whose money is it? How do we use it? How is it spent? How might we think of new ways of bringing resources into our movements? Second, power is based on resources, resources of knowledge. It is high time we came out of our limited comfortable world, where we leave economics to be done by those who do not have our interests at heart. Economics is not rocket science, no matter what economists might tell you. And women must learn it and use it to advance our rights. Third power is based on resources, our resources as people. It is way past time for us to learn to work together with others in an alliance of movements that goes beyond whatever may happen at the World Social Forum. Lastly, power is built on fearlessness; women are far too often afraid of power. Let us come out of that fear, challenge the system, challenge people and take up our own power.


1  Based on Gita Sen’s contribution to the opening plenary at the AWID Forum 2012, 19 April 2012 in Istanbul. Transcribed by Cindy Clark.r; development; inequality; poverty; EU; power; economic justice


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