Western Hegemony and Gender Equality Approaches in Development Co-operation

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For decades, Western Europe and the US have played an instrumental role in influencing the growth and developmental policies in the international sphere. These policies started to gain ground after the Second World War period, which saw a wave of economic liberalisation in developed countries with the aim of promoting economic and social development. Government regulations began to give way to open markets and privatisation in countries such as Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US. The prevailing narrative, which drew from the works of economists from Western Europe and the US such as Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James M. Buchanan, was that economic growth, living standards, and social well-being could be boosted through a free-market capitalist system and liberal trade policies. Coupled with the backing of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other overarchingly powerful institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the world saw the emergence of the neo-capitalist liberal ideology.

This attractive open-market system, which promised substantial economic returns, came at a time when many developing countries were struggling with stagnating economic growth and balance of payment crises. The subsequent decades saw China, India, Cuba, Indonesia, Myanmar, amongst others liberalising and quickly becoming part of the international community through joining forums, such as WTO. More extreme cases saw the IMF agreeing to bail out countries through a series of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) in countries such as Jordan, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, with trade liberalisation being the precondition.

Thus, the developed world set the precedent in key macroeconomic policy areas in developing countries through ideological and financial supremacy. But this has often been to the detriment of developing countries’ citizens. For instance, liberalisation did not translate into a better living standard for all, rather it made the rich, richer. Two decades after liberalisation, economic inequality increased in several developing countries. “In India,  the top 1% of earners, who captured 6% of the total income in the early 1980s, has risen to 22% today” (Chancel and Piketty, 2017: 1). Similarly, in China, the top 10% income share has risen from 27% to 41% of national income between 1978 and 2015 (Piketty, Yang and Zucman, 2017: 1).    

This open-market hegemonic regime can be seen in trade and border regulation policies as well, such as the WTO’s crackdown on developing countries to reduce agriculture subsidies at a time when American farmers were receiving subsidies amounting to USD 20 billion (Bose, 2014). Discrepancies in open-border policies not only apply to goods but also to people. Holding a European or American passport allows for visa-free travel in over 150 countries, but nationals of developing countries often face lengthy, time consuming, and expensive visa processes. In fact, borders are often still closed to refugees from the developing world who flee from war and terror. For example, the UK government announced earlier in 2017 that it was halting a program to resettle lone refugee children after 350 had been brought to the UK (Travis & Taylor, 2017). In March 2017, US President Donald Trump signed a new executive order that would temporarily halt travel of citizens from seven nations he says pose a high risk of terrorism (The White House, 2017).

Gender equality in developing countries is another key policy area guided by a Western-dominated approach in development co-operation, with little consideration for the local context. There are broadly two types of gender equality approaches that we see today: political and economic.

The driving forces and main ideas behind political gender equality approaches in development co-operation still contain vestiges of trends guided by women’s historic struggles in Western Europe and the US; these trends focused solely on the public sphere, such as the suffrage movement demanding universal enfranchisement for and by white, middle-class, educated women. These only address political concerns, such as local legal frameworks, without suggesting action-based initiatives based on the recognition of the cyclical nature of social, economic, and political disparities. For example, according to a report on Gender Equality in Swedish Development Cooperation in Kenya, the primary obstacles are the constitutional and legal framework that perpetuates gender-based discrimination and the clear gender imbalance in respect of political power (Örnemark and Nyamweya, 2010: 15). However, in a country where women face negative cultural biases despite the existence of comprehensive laws aiming to protect them, there is an overwhelming need to first implement women’s rights and gender mainstreaming at a local level, for example, through awareness-raising campaigns. Forced marriages, preference for having male children, unequal inheritance for widows, and the tradition of female genital mutilation are just a few examples of such practices which are widespread despite being illegal.

Making gender equality approaches fit into a pre-molded narrative will inevitably mirror the failures of the liberalisation regime that was imposed onto the developing world only a few decades ago.

An implication of such a one-dimensional approach is that developing country governments are under constant pressure by the international community to enact laws recognising women’s rights. However, consideration of the effective implementation of these laws is often neglected. This is especially true when said laws are lifted verbatim from European models, which are not effective in countries with weak institutions and ineffective law enforcement. Further, having been drafted independent of cultural and private contexts, such laws can also serve to exacerbate the very problem they intended to address.

India’s 2016 Maternity Benefit Law guarantees new mothers paid leave and other benefits; it is comparable to maternity benefit laws in many European countries.  However, without an accompanying paternity benefit act, this law may serve to reinforce the patriarchal society’s already strong belief that the responsibility of childcare should be placed solely on women. In fact, discrimination continues to take place outside the realm of law. For example, women who have taken a long maternity leave find themselves in a disadvantaged position to receive a promotion. In addition, this bill does not cover women who work in the informal sector, which forms 97% percent of the total women workforce (Mohapatra, 2015: 100). This is a concern that developed countries may have failed to consider while drafting similar legislation. Further, the nuances of class, caste, ethnicity, and religion still pose a hindrance in the implementation of such legislation in the developed world, particularly in Scandinavian countries, which set the benchmark for women’s rights political frameworks. For example, despite a comprehensive Act on Violence Against Women in Sweden, domestic violence does occur, and women from certain minority communities, such as those from migrant backgrounds and religions, may find it difficult to report cases of domestic violence  due to a fear  of racism, sexism, or other forms of discrimination within law enforcement institutions (Fredman, 2016).

Turning towards economic approaches to development co-operation, most development programmes funded and run by well-resourced development agencies and NGOs, which tend to claim themselves as apolitical, lean more towards promoting economic welfare.  Most of these run on the basis of the “empowerment” narrative to transform women’s lives through local community development, but they fail to shape the larger context of realising full human rights for women. For example, Bill Gates’ campaign to eliminate poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa through providing chickens rests on the assumption that women are likely to re-invest profits in their families. This kind of approach may improve women’s material well-being but does not increase women’s personal agency or voice in the long term (Riley, 2007: 6). Rather, it is a mutation of the existing unequal gender relations, reinforcing the notion that women are passive subjects, awaiting rescue from benevolent Western donors (Zakaria, 2017: 2). This stems from and further perpetuates the very basis of gender inequality, i.e. that women are incapable of driving change in their own right, rather, they always need to rely on males or other benefactors to ameliorate their living standards.  Furthermore, these efforts are generally coupled with existing poverty relief programmes that provide better education and health services but fail to recognise the intersections with gender inequality or the importance of dismantling inherently oppressive structures.

These two approaches in development co-operation - political and economic - are insufficient on their own to break down systems of discrimination against women. They stem from archaic feminist agendas and fail to address the predominant root causes of gender equality in developing countries, i.e. underlying cultural and traditional attitudes and the subsequently entrenched economic, political and social institutions, which in turn perpetuate further discrimination.

In order for these political and economic efforts to be truly successful, they need to be accompanied by a change in cultural attitudes. For example, providing investment in women-led businesses and social ventures ensures that women are not the beneficiaries but rather active and autonomous decision-makers in their own right. Furthermore, apart from providing economic autonomy, this approach might also help change the existing discourse on the passive role of women in their immediate society. Women-led businesses help create an atmosphere of awareness and thereby contributes to a culture of changing perceptions and, therefore, power balances.

On a macro level, a systematic analysis of gender inequality when enacting legislation specific to a developing country is imperative. Legislation should not be lifted from the European models, but rather new models should be formed based on what would be most effective locally. Gender needs to be a cross-cutting issue, with a recognition of multiple feminist identities, and cannot be addressed in isolation; individuals and organizations must examine political, economic, social and cultural context in unison in order to create real and lasting change.

Making gender equality approaches fit into a pre-molded narrative will inevitably mirror the failures of the liberalisation regime that was imposed on the developing world only a few decades ago. Efforts from the developed countries should seek to serve only in a passive capacity, such as providing initial investments or such as support in research and analysis or capacity building, but should refrain from shaping the development agenda. Only then will existing discriminatory structures give way to an egalitarian political, social, and economic order.


Mallika Singhal is a Sciences Po student in Economic Policy. 


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