International development policies have been my bread and butter for the past two years, both academically and professionally. When I first entered this field, I wanted to understand why development programming was only guided towards non-white people. Didn’t the world overall need “development”? As I soon learned, the word “development” as it is used in the field means very specific things, and often has deeply racist, Islamophobic and sexist implications.
In his book Encountering Development, Arturo Escobar describes development as a tool of social control that is racialized and gendered. At the same time, it is a tool that protects of interest of First World countries vis-à-vis the rest. So, for instance, development is often attached to conditionality. In the Canadian case, the 1965 Strategy for International Development Cooperation, establishes that development programming should be supported in countries where Canada has or can develop economic interests. That was later reinforced, when in 2009 the Conservatives announced that they would only do development in “countries of focus,” stopping all programming in the poorest areas of the world, and concentrating the money in areas where Canada could do resource extraction or had military missions.
When I was a child Canada and the US did a lot of development programming in Mexico. In theory it all sounds wonderful, but it is complex. For example: in public school in Mexico I was part of a breakfast program, while other kids were part of uniform and school supplies programs. These programs were meant to mitigate education expenses for low-income families while encouraging marginalized populations to send their kids to school. Great, right? But let’s unpack what exactly these programs involved.
They were an example of development efforts led by Western countries like Canada, the US and the UK after Mexico defaulted on its international debt in 1982 and was put on structural adjustment measures by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.Interestingly enough, school breakfasts were provided by companies owned by Nestle through corporate social responsibility and the like, which at the time were also encouraging women to stop breastfeeding under the banner of “modern womanhood” (even after a massive scandal in the 70s). Similarly, uniforms were often produced in maquiladoras in Northern Mexico by women who were paid next to nothing and worked under dangerous conditions. What followed the 1982 crisis was the opening of the Mexican economy, the depreciation of labour and the rise of maquiladoras under the North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In the early 2000, the country stopped receiving most development funds and programming even though 52% of the country lives in poverty. The decision had to do with the fact that, by that time, Asia and Africa represented better economic opportunities and tax havens for Canada and the US, primarily.
So what does all this have to do with how development depicts Muslim women? What has changed since Escobar’s book was published in 1995? For Escobar, hunger and poverty were the main tools of control through which Western countries problematized Third World countries. Are you familiar with the pictures of the African starving child being fed by a white well-fed Westerner? These images are powerful reminders of the North-South relationship, the racialized division of labour under capitalist systems, white supremacy in international policy and the dispensability of black lives.
While the rhetoric has not disappeared, it has expanded, with more concentration on particular notions of gender equality. In the Canadian context, and even in the American and British one, gender equality in international development is defined as focused on women, who are assumed to be heterosexual and of a child-bearing age and capacity. Thus, the development discourse focuses on sending girls and women to school, and on providing health services to women, which are mostly focused around maternal health, and which do not support sex-ed or contraception (now under consideration with the new government), things that are considered to be fundamental rights for most women in Canada.
After Canada went to Afghanistan the discourse around gender equality was heavily focused on Muslim women. What did international development policy have to say about them? They were oppressed, uneducated, poor and marrying men twice their age while still under 18 (minimum marriageable age in Canada is 16 at the federal level). The problem? Brown/black men, extremism, tradition and, of course, Islam. The same rhetoric was applied to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Senegal, Tanzania, etc.
Now, let’s be careful. The argument here is NOT that gender inequalities in Third World countries do not exist or that girls do not experience barriers while trying to access education, jobs, etc. It is not that underage girls getting married should be normalized. On the contrary, we are discussing how these issues are shown to be solely a Third World problem, and how the narrow focus on culture and tradition can obscure economic and political dynamics.
In the Canadian case, in the midst of sending Canadian troops to Afghanistan and depicting Muslim women in Third World countries as deeply oppressed, development funds were heavily granted to Christian-evangelical organizations whereas others supporting programming in places like Gaza (under the banner of anti-terrorism), lost their funding. Not to mention, Canada’s priority became promoting maternal, newborn and child health (no sex-ed or contraception included) and ending child, early and forced marriage.
Muslim countries, in the discourse, are inherently patriarchal, oppressive towards women and set on their “traditional” ways of marrying girls to older men for the sake of “practice”. Pictures of Afghani girls married to old men circulated heavily in Canada, and the rhetoric was endorsed by many NGOs. Aside from the fact that the development discourse around child marriage almost completely ignores boys who are forced to marry, girls in child marriage are not privacy-deserving, their pictures and names are published everywhere… something that would be unthinkable in the case of white girls in the Western world, legally speaking their privacy would be extremely important.
So even when Muslim scholars and activists were writing books asking Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, for instance, the international development rhetoric said, yes, they do. And you, as an educated, middle-class, Westerner, can help by supporting the policies and by donating money to likeminded NGOs. Never mind the work done by Muslim activists in these countries, grassroots approaches or anything else…
Let me also say that policies are heavily influenced by the liberal feminist argument of the sisterhood, their notion of rights and empowerment, a term often used in policy circles but poorly defined (what does it even mean to be empowered?). The same activists pushing for this in the international arena, are people who have turned a blind eye to the marginalization of immigrant women in Canada, missing and murdered Indigenous women in the country, the challenges faced by trans-women, and contributors to a discourse of feminism that often fails Muslim women.
The development discourse has many layers and many problems, and exploring all of them would be beyond the scope of this piece. But for starters, how do we, people living in Canada, determine what is best for Muslim women elsewhere? Why do we have the need to save them? And why is it that we are only prompted to act through the images of hijabi girls holding hands with 60 year-olds?
As mentioned by Escobar, development discourses are tools of social control. They keep us busy worrying about the problems of the Third World while neglecting the ways in which our lifestyles actually promote the oppressions of communities in other countries. The policies also tell us that these problems are related to browness and blackness in one way or another… these people, unlike the mainstream populations of their countries who are white or mixed, are unable to get themselves out of poverty and violence, because these people are inherently violent. They further tell us, that patriarchy only exists abroad… we are the post-patriarchy societies of the West… we have transcended violence against women, child marriage, discrimination and harassment (right?).
Development has come to mean something very different from the innocuous, positive connotations of the word. After 60 years of heavy development funding and programming, the Third World is just as poor, inequalities are just as bad, violence keeps on the rise, refugee crises face backlash and women, mostly women of color, are just as marginalized domestically and internationally. But we are still compelled by the images of brown and black girls in little hijabs… the powerful imagery calls us to save them… to bring development to them… don’t they deserve it? My question is, what exactly are we, through international development, bringing to them other than (mostly) white saviors trying to find their purpose in life?