Cross-over Dreams Gender, Development and Community Development

by Claudia B. Isaac

For some time, I have been thinking about the crossovers in my own practice and scholarship, where the distinct practices of “Gender and Development” and “Community Development” intersect. “Gender and Development” joins gender and economic development issues, and “Community Development” deals with place-based issues. Though the links between the two fields have developed organically in my own practice, both practices also interlink theoretically. There are obvious points of common ground between the two fields. Both are explicitly progressive, dedicated to undermining inequitable social structures and promoting grassroots activism. Both fields involve the facilitation of a nested set of social practices: community building, organization building, and capacity building.

Gender and Development vs. Community Development

Yet the two practices are historically distinct. “Gender and Development” (GAD) has been largely applied in developing countries, and has roots in the 1970s efforts to challenge modernization theory’s understandings of underdevelopment, with specific (and largely exclusive) attention to the impoverishing effects of development policy on poor women. “Community Development” (CD) harkens to cycles of increased urban activism in progressive planning from the turn of the century, resurgent in the advocacy movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and currently expressed in community-based efforts in urban and rural revitalization and community preservation. The central distinction is that CD planning rarely focuses on gender oppression as a central problematic.

GAD practitioners have always targeted poor women and economic revitalization, and CD practitioners have long acknowledged that women often constitute the majority of grass roots activists. Significant branches of both fields have evolved out of a critique of global capitalism. Thus, Gender and Development theory intersects productively with CD practice. The insertion of GAD planning within CD brings with it a potential danger of erasing gender as a central political category (and women as a central planning constituency); on the other hand, the engendering of previously generic practices can contribute to the true transformation of patriarchy.

There are clear dilemmas as well as opportunities in the crossover practice of GAD and CD. There are three areas where gender theory productively informs both GAD and CD practice, and where contributions of gender theory can inform CD planning without being co-opted or erased: 1) the position of the expert vs. domestic knowledge; 2) the relationship between public and private life; and 3) organizing around practical and strategic needs. These are discussed below.

Community-based Planning and the Cult of Expertise

Much of “Gender and Development” practice focuses on the provision of technical assistance to village or barrio women aimed at increasing their development capacity. Technical assistance can be either empowering or oppressive, depending largely on how the expertise is offered to communities. As I discovered in research on women’s cooperatives in Mexico, many such efforts reinforce what I have come to call the “Cult of Expertise”, which is entered into by technical assistants and development planners and reinforces the agendas of “outsiders” such as governments, businesses, NGOs, and capital. The counter-practice is technical assistance intent on facilitating women’s own attempts to build on their existing (usually domestic) knowledge to develop projects and programs that are eventually fully owned and managed by them.

Gender and Development theory attempts to surface the “domestic knowledge” of poor and working class women and validates the kinds of administrative and negotiation skills women learn in their households as opposed to the hierarchical strategies learned outside of the household. CD planners are similarly concerned with valorizing “local knowledge” — the usually qualitative understanding often ignored by data-driven planning processes. Moreover, both GAD and CD planners seek to facilitate collective problem solving and strategic action at the base.

In particular, Gender and Development planners contribute important insights on power relations and the social production of meaning to the practice of empowering technical assistance. Good examples of these contributions can be found in Power, Process and Participation, edited by Rachel Slocum. This anthology elaborates concrete methods of analyzing gender roles and increasing women’s voice in development. The principles and exercises enumerated there can be generalized to “non-gendered” CD projects, and the exercises show the centrality of gender domination in any collective analysis of political power, and economic access.

Public and Private Life

All gender theories consider the relationship between public and private life. Gender and Development theorists approach this relationship through the discussion of household vs. market production (the relationship between production and reproduction, and wage labor and domestic labor). They query the nature of the work, and the hegemony of the market. They help locate the true costs of privatization, whereby structural adjustment policies shift the cost of production from public firms to private households. GAD theory contributes a framework for creating alternative economic models, based on understanding the logic of household production and the domestic subsidy of capitalist development.

These theories point out the ways that poor women struggle against the implicit gender oppression in structural adjustment policies. Their task is consonant with CD planners who work with poor households to meet their basic community needs in ways that help to transform and ameliorate the negative effects of economic globalization. GAD theory resonates with the concerns of CD planners about how structural conditions are conditioned by class, race, and gender position, and how important it is for grassroots practice to be true to the social context and concrete with respect to place.

Practical and Strategic Needs

One of the greatest potential contributions Gender and Development planning can make to the practice of Community Development is in theorizing the relationship between practical and strategic needs. This distinction informs program development in GAD planning, and helps us understand which forms of organizational development are most effective in transforming inequitable social structures.

Planning to meet the basic material needs of women can lead to making strategies to transform the structural conditions that create those basic needs. As noted by Maxine Molyneaux, Kate Young, Caroline Moser and Diane Elson, practical needs generate survival strategies and problem solving in response to subsistence crisis. But an understanding of the structural underpinnings of practical crises can turn practical solutions into strategic responses to structural adjustment.

This question addresses how relations of gender domination create poverty among women, and helps to explain the extraordinary prevalence of poverty among women. The link to CD planning is also evident. CD efforts almost always have dual and related goals — to alleviate the immediate material conditions in poor communities, and to mobilize communities in response to the causes of their poverty. In my experience many of the most successful community-based initiatives arise out of a shared community crisis such as the need to overcome disinvestment, impoverishment, and loss of community resources. People mobilize around practical needs. Successful practice always links practical community revitalization needs to strategic organizing and coalition-building, to bring about broad-based policy transformations. The practice of CD (particularly strategic planning within community-based organizations) entails organized local responses to global political and economic forces in order to generate positive change in the material quality of life. The use of strategic planning in CD attests to this practical/strategic relationship. Strategic plans are often used to generate practical projects, and campaigns to improve services often extend into policy activism.

Each of these cross-over practices can integrate gender concerns into larger policy debates, and bring techniques and strategies designed for planning with women into wider, non-gendered use.

Claudia B. Isaac is Director of the Community and Regional Planning Program, University of New Mexico.

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