22 Oct

“You don’t need a business case to promote human rights”: The politics of panels in international development

These were the words said at a consultation session by  Simona Scarpaleggia, co-chair of the United Nations (UN) High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment. Her statement encapsulates the increasing tension in the women’s economic empowerment agenda; the tension between promoting women’s economic empowerment as a development enabler versus promoting women’s economic empowerment as, first and foremost, a rights issue.

This tension is what a panel session, organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights, Gender and Development Network and CORE UK (UK civil society coalition on corporate accountability) tried to grapple with. The panel, titled, ‘Women’s empowerment, the role of private sector in development and responsible business’ addressed the various ways the private sector can do business-as-usual while simultaneously promoting women’s rights and enabling gender equitable development outcomes.

Some interesting ideas and case studies were shared but the whole dialogue felt disjointed as if, some aspects of the conversation were conjoined in a way that did not naturally fit. So, in this blog, I want to focus on some of these areas.

Where is gender in the agenda?

The panel lacked a conversation on definitions, more specifically, how we define business in the discourse of women’s economic empowerment. Defining concepts has been a large priority in the women’s economic empowerment agenda because ideas about labour, work and the private sector have historically excluded contributions made by women.  The concept of business, is a gendered concept, precisely because it exists in an economic discourse which promotes, reiterates and values men’s economic contributions over women’s economic contributions. For example, productive labour is valued and measured as the currency of work while reproductive labour and associated activities (i.e. care work) is not valued or measured. According to a poll conducted by Oxfam, unpaid work typically done by women ‘such as cooking, cleaning and childcare could be valued as much as $10 trillion a year – 13% of global GDP.’ This is not taking into account the social value such work contributes to the well-being of societies.

The concept of business, extricably linked to labour and work, cannot then be defined as a gender neutral concept yet this is what was being done in the panel session. The conversation focused on ways to improve the current models of business (hence responsible business) without analysing the concept of business through a gender framework. If we contrast this approach with actors working to advocate for the valuation of care work or enabling women’s entrepreneurship, we see that their approach starts with the premise that the private sector is a gendered concept, one which must be redefined if we are to move towards economic models benefiting both men and women.

How do we frame the discussion? Robert W. Cox’s ‘problem solving theory v. critical theory’

How we define business has implications for the approach we take in addressing the issue of women’s economic empowerment.

The political scientist, Robert W. Cox, introduced the ideas of ‘problem solving theory and critical theory’ in his seminal work, ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory.’ In this article, Cox proposes that these two theories are two opposing ways to analyse an issue. One of the major ways these two analytical lens differ is their approach to the role of history, what I would extend further to be the role of context.

Problem solving theory views an issue to have a fixed set of conditions (ahistorical), while critical theory contextualises an issue within its prevailing circumstances. Critical theory assumes that these circumstances will change and consequently change the nature of that issue. Critical theory is historical because it acknowledges context (past, present, and future) as constitutive of the issue in focus.

As Cox explains, either approach affects the way we address an issue,

‘Problem solving takes the world as it is and focuses on correcting certain dysfunctions, certain specific problems…Critical theory is concerned with how the world, that is all the conditions that problem solving theory takes as the given framework, may be changing.

Because problem solving theory has to take the basic existing power relationships as given, it will be biased towards perpetuating those relationships, thus tending to make the existing order hegemonic.

What critical theory does, is question these very structural conditions that are tacit assumptions for problem-solving theory, to ask whom and which purposes such theory serves.

Critical theory thus historicizes world orders by uncovering the purposes problem solving theories within such an order serve to uphold. By uncovering the contingency of an existing world order, one can then proceed to think about different world orders. It is more marginal than problem solving theory since it does not comfortably provide policy recommendations to those in power.’

In viewing ‘business’ and private sector as fixed gender-neutral concepts, the panel session applied a problem solving lens to the issue. In the context of women’s economic empowerment, this is a limited approach because we need to deal with ‘the structural conditions’ that have led to existing conditions. This must first begin with contextualising the relationship between private sector and women’s empowerment. A critical theory approach to this panel would have been an effective approach to do this. Instead of assessing ways to refine the existing private sector model, it would have been more effective, to question the entire model itself and whether it is conducive to gender equitable outcomes. Questions adopting a critical theory approach would ask the following:

  • How do we define private sector and in what ways are they gendered?
  • What are the assumptions we make about the role of private sector in socio-economic development and in what ways are these assumptions gendered?
  • When we talk about private sector as a conduit for gender equality, in what sphere are we measuring this equality? In the home, at her workplace, in her community or in the power of her political vote?
  • How does private sector led development differ from other conceptualisations of private sector in development (i.e. private sector development)? What are the gendered implications in the different conceptualisations?

Learning from below: Equity in the representation of voices 

When we talk about equality in the composition of panels, we often refer to gender equality. The overrepresentation of men in panels has led to advocacy campaigns such as ManPanel and persistent efforts by Sofia Foundation.

This panel was composed of seven female speakers:

Dr. Sarah Wollaston,  Secretary of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group

Kathryn Covey, Manager of National Contact Point Co-ordination at the OECD.

Rt. Hon Baroness Anelay of St Johns DBE, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister for Human Rights and the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict

Luz Angela Uriana Epiayu, Colombian human rights defender of the Wayuu people in the province of La Guajira, Colombia.

Dr Annelen, legal and advocacy advisor of the Colombian Lawyers’ Collective ‘Jose Alvear Restreppo’

Laura Kelly, Lead, UK Government’s Department for International Development Business Engagement Hub

Emily Coates, gender and diversity specialist, PwC’s Sustainability and Climate Change team

It was great to see panellists representing different institutions and actors within the dialogue; government, inter-governmental, private sector, civil society and grassroots communities. However, diversity in the representation of voices does not necessarily mean equity in the voices being represented.

Ms Epiayu, the human rights activist from Colombia was the only panellist representing a community at the forefront of the issues being discussed. She spoke the least, perhaps due to the language barrier; Ms Epiayu spoke Spanish, while the panel was conducted in English. However, the dialogue often veered towards the technocratic, multilateral approaches which may not have left enough space for Ms Epiayu to provide her expertise in this area. Ms Epiayu was the most experienced expert in the room not because of her life experience living in a community affected by irresponsible business practices, but because she has been able to organise, mobilise and influence action while existing in a disabling environment.

On my way home from the panel event, I came across this article detailing the impact climate change has had on Ms Epiayu’s community, La Guajira province. The article analyses how the discourse of climate change has been used to mask the real factors behind the Wayuu’s people’s chronic poverty: government inaction, intergenerational poverty and irresponsible private sector models in the form of agribusiness and mining which have polluted the land and the community’s livelihoods. One mine complex in the area, Cerrejón, ‘uses over 17 million liters of water every day…the average rural Guajiro citizen consumes 0.7 liters of water each day.’ This is inequality; this is the power imbalance that drives and reproduces poverty in our world.  I wonder how much more insight we could have had from Ms Epiayu’s contributions had we shifted the dynamics and the format of our conversation.

The dynamic of this panel has led me ask myself why we look for solutions to development issues everywhere but in the communities facing them. Should the panels and high level dialogues ensure equal representation or equity in representation? Are the proposed solutions and best practices effective if the discourse and format of solutions (high-level declarations, and human rights articles) are neither accessible nor easily adoptable by the communities facing these issues?

New models for reflective learning within the sector

Why do we have panels? This is a genuine question I want to ask the development community. Is it to stimulate, to influence, to promote, to challenge or an outward gesture to other actors that we are active? Panels are typically didactic, and unless there is real effort to stimulate debate, can often become summative as opposed to analytical.

My other question to the development sector is, do we need panels? Are there other forms of ‘reflective learning’ we can use instead to share with others in the sector what we are doing and what we are learning? I am curious to create or build on existing public knowledge spaces that are conscious of the power dynamics between different actors (i.e. funder v recipient, Global North v Global South, civil society v government v state) and the trade-offs in adopting a problem solving lens over a critical lens when discussing issues.

Exciting news…

Over the next few months, I am excited to announce that I will be advising BOND organisation to design their influential annual International Development Conference which will be held in 2017. BOND is a ‘UK membership body for organisations working in international development or supporting those that do through funding, research, training and other services.’ I will be joining other experts to ensure the design of the conference is ‘relevant to the widest range of audiences and tackles the most pertinent issues in international development.’ Here’s to more learning.  J



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