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Revisiting ‘reclaiming agency’

Lora Forsythe1 & Kalpana Sathish2

The Women and Development Reading Group recently discussed Kalpana Wilson’s 2008 paper ‘Reclaiming Agency’, a paper that provokes serious reflection on the use of the concept of ‘women’s agency’ and its relationship with neoliberalism. Wilson argues that the concept has been both appropriated and transformed by neoliberal discourses that emphasise women’s survival, labour, and the ‘efficiency’ of women as workers – which results in the exploitation of women’s labour for ‘development’ in addition to the provision of social safety nets in the context of state retraction.

We worked together a few years ago on a women land rights project in southern India, and recently caught up with each other and had a chat about the relevance of this paper today; we have captured this conversation below.

LF: Revisiting the paper 12 years after publication, it is frustrating to see how relevant her (Wilson’s) argument continues to be and how little the narrative has changed in development research and practice. In my field of work – gender, agricultural and natural resource-based development research and implementation – the language of ‘women’s agency’ is everywhere, but often unproblematised. Projects are often instrumental – an app that connects women to markets, targeting women for training in new planting techniques, women’s names on land certificates without legal support. While these activities in some circumstances may have value – they are not about agency.

KS: Yes, it is true. The concept of women’s agency has been manipulated by different programme that ultimately treat women as beneficiaries and targets for implementation, irrespective of their local relevance. Women’s agency is seen as women’s participation, rather than about decision making and the capacity to execute those decisions. For example, in India, in major programmes like Livelihood Programmes, Self Help Groups, village entrepreneurship programmes, women are treated as the beneficiaries rather than stakeholders. However, this has been interpreted as Women’s Agency by both the State as well as Development Organisations. One programme I know that provides livestock (cows and goats) to rural women never consider the supporting factors that needed to sustain the initiatives. The provision of cow and maintenance of records(data) are the primary focus in such initiatives rather than considering how far such provisions enabled women to reduce their burdens or how their voices are represented in decision making.

LF: With development projects steered by global donors and managed increasingly by private sector companies, women’s agency is lauded as the key to improving food and nutrition security, reducing poverty and tackling climate change. This creates significant constraints for practitioners to operate outside a neoliberal framework. In this context, the exploitation of women’s care and agricultural labour is magnified. Private sector expertise, framing and ‘solutions’ are increasingly privileged (the old ‘efficiency’ arguments).

KS: Despite the fact that women frequently lack any control or ownership over resources, many such models consider women as agents responding to global market needs, and promote corporate farming, or organise women farmers as groups to produce organic food products, for example.

Furthermore, in assessing women’s agency, donors focus on quantified, indicator-based outputs achieved by projects rather than about empowerment processes. Empowerment processes and impact need long term funding and investment. However, funding is shrinking under neo-liberalism where human resources considered as an input or a commodity.

LF: Wilson argues that we need to find spaces to support and be led by women’s social movements, inclusive of the priorities of women that re-focus on transformative change as opposed to debates around decision making that are still very much contextualised within a liberal and neoliberal economic framework. Absolutely. But how can this be achieved with funding for development projects that is derived from neoliberal institutions? Is there a role, or does acceptance of funding from these institutions risk us accepting the limitations of the neoliberal agenda?

KS: This is the fundamental challenge that rights-based development organisations face from both donors as well as the State. The organisation I belong to is a Resource Organisation for Transformative Studies and Development Action (ROOTS). We facilitate a network of women farmers and agricultural labourers and conduct micro level action research for raising issues of rural women to the attention of policy makers. In such a process, it is extremely difficult to get the support of donors to fund women’s representation and redistribution agendas, particularly in agricultural livelihoods sector, such as for land reform. Further, there is a significant gap between academic research and developmental research as most of the universities are not open to joint work with civil society organisations.

LF: This is a problem. Researchers operating in these spaces should actively work on their own critical reflection with civil society and social movements, such as through action research methods, which could result in a greater push for more transformational development work. How can we do this better? How can development organisations and researchers support women’s organisations like ROOTS better? It should be a crucial part of academic pursuits, but often is not. We need to do better in changing mainstream praxis.

KS: In the context I work in, the development frameworks proposed by many international agencies often restrict flexibility in operations towards local conditions and context. Action Research projects that are truly transformational in nature are very rare and are seen as a threat to the state operation.

ROOTS can facilitate a better understanding of local context and needs from the perspective of sustainable solutions as it is grounded with people and fair amount of networking capacity at both micro and macro levels. The organisations who have both grassroots experience as well as policy influencing capacity is very rare and needs to be strengthened. There is a greater need for support from development organisations and researchers in terms of funding and co-research initiatives based on real partnerships.

1 Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich (UK). Email: [email protected]
2 Resource Organisation for Transformative Studies and Development Action (ROOTS), Chennai, India. Email: [email protected]