Engendering Neoliberal Reform

by Amy Lind

Many planners and development practitioners have recognized women’s work as an important source for community development and mobilization. A common message is, if a development project is to be successful, women must be involved.

Yet it is often assumed that women’s community-based participation is a “natural” extension of their roles in individual households. In this way, development projects often rely on the unpaid labor of women. These implicit and explicit “male biases” in development planning have led many feminists to rethink the theories in which economic and political agency are constructed and the gendered consequences of planning strategies which often lead to an increased workload for women rather than to their liberation or empowerment.

Decentralization and Neoliberal Reform

An important example of this gender bias is in the decentralization measures that often accompany broader processes of neoliberal reform — the downsizing and restructuring of states. In Latin America, decentralization measures may shift major responsibilities to local communities, and in turn shift responsibilities to households, and therefore to women. In Bolivia, the Ley de Participa÷ion Pol’tica, initiated in 1995, was passed in conjunction with a decentralization policy which promises to shift national responsibilities to the local level and incorporate indigenous and other community groups in the planning and political process.

Over 300 of the local municipalities in Bolivia that have acquired this new responsibility were created for the first time with the new legislation. Before this, local decisionmaking structures were defined by indigenous communities; these local and historically resilient structures are now being replaced by the new municipalities, based on one universal model.

This new law may integrate historically unrepresented communities into the official political system. If this occurs, indigenous, women’s, and other community organizations will acquire new political and advocacy roles in local planning. However, much of this depends upon the decisions that are made at the local level, which is dominated by indigenous male leaders concerned primarily with preserving indigenous communities vis-“-vis the modern state.

Development Planning Theory

The literature on development planning and urban social movements tends to overlook the important questions of how gender inequalities are reproduced in community structures, why more men are in community leadership roles than women, and how this determines policy agendas in general and women’s participation in particular. Urban planners may applaud increases in local power — such as in the role of local governments, officially designated community representatives, and social movements — without considering how local power is structured along gender lines, and the differential effects of the restructuring of communities for women and men. In other words, an increase in local power may not automatically translate into power for women.

What policymakers may regard as a more productive local economy may instead be a shifting of costs from the paid to the unpaid economy, much of which falls upon women. In terms of local power and community action, it is important to engender analyses of local power structures as well as broaden the scope of the question: for men and women’s organizations, empowerment begins by addressing inequalities within their families as well as in society at large.

The new decentralization laws in Bolivia demonstrate the tensions that local communities face when they must develop a cohesive strategy vis-“-vis the national state and also address unequal power relations within the communities themselves. One way to understand the gender aspects of this process is to broaden working definitions of community development and planning to encompass both formal and informal, or both institutionalized and grassroots, planning practices. Bolivian feminist policymakers and activists have been at the forefront of pushing for this type of definition in the new laws and planning practices in the country; the gender effects of these laws will depend largely upon the ways in which local communities negotiate and implement this process, and upon the extent to which women integrate themselves into decisionmaking positions and influence local leadership.

More Equitable Strategies

While feminist planners and social scientists have contributed significantly to these debates on neoliberal reform, much has yet to be done to incorporate these insights into broader policy discussions. What kind of strategies can be supported and/or developed to foster a more equitable distribution of resources and political power among men and women at local levels?

1) There should be a gender analysis of neoliberal policies and their impacts upon local communities — on production structures, local governance and private development organizations, community organizations, and on households.

2) Urban policies need to account for “male biases” in their frameworks by examining more systematically the relationship between formal and informal community development and the gender dimensions of these processes. Women’s active participation in decisionmaking should be promoted and, given the fact that many women enter decisionmaking arenas through their participation in informal community organizations and networks, these organizations and networks should be incorporated more fully into planning initiatives from the start.

3) More support could be given to local women’s organizations and horizontal networks among them, and with other urban social movements. A broader understanding of community development and citizen participation could be fostered, in part by bringing public awareness to seemingly “private” issues such as women’s roles in social reproduction, and by increasing awareness of communities’ locations in national, regional and global contexts and their ability to foster social change in restructuring processes.

4) More generally, national governments and international organizations could promote the engendering of all social and economic policy rather than designing specific frameworks for addressing “women’s issues”. Initial efforts to do so at an international level include the United Nations Development Program’s 1995 Human Development Report, along with other UN proposals to engender international development initiatives, and academic initiatives such as the those proposed by the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE).

Important conceptual work has been done to engender macroeconomic models as well as development and economic theory. Still, planners could do more to draw connections between this literature and studies of planning practice. In this regard, studies of gender have yet to be fully incorporated into economic policy and planning agendas. Several countries have established ministries or bureaus of women’s affairs, although much needs to be done to engender all state activities, rather than separating “women’s issues” from general economic and political issues. In general, more could be done to examine empirically the hidden dimensions of neoliberal policies, and to translate these ideas into practice, particularly in regard to local development and urban policy.

Amy Lind is Assistant Professor in the Women’s Studies Program at Arizona State University.
This article draws largely from a previously published article, “Gender, Development and Urban Social Change: Women’s Community in Global Cities,” World Development #25 (8), 1997, pp. 1205-1223.

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