A water well in the sahel of south-east Niger frequented by women. When designing initiatives meant to empower women and girls, it is important to understand how gender initiatives can inadvertently support gender inequality, writes JBS International's Leith Lombas. Photo by: Christoph Rupprecht

As a feminist methodologist seeking to better understand the impact of humanitarian relief and development cooperation, I want to learn what it is like for people in the global South to encounter aid organizations.

How do they view development organizations and their practitioners? How and in what ways do local populations welcome aid? How and why might they resist aid? How can we, as researchers, better understand the plight of people receiving aid or development services?

How does gender come into play during the implementation of aid programs? In what ways and to what extent are gender relations changed? Are they improved? Are they made more difficult? What is left unsaid or taken for granted during these interactions?

These questions may be posed of both domestic and international aid and development programs.

A study of aid in West Africa

One example of how gender and power interact in the context of global aid can be drawn from the work of Benedetta Rossi, an anthropologist who offers a compelling example of feminist research in her study of the implementation of aid programs in rural Niger. Rossi’s ethnography takes place in the village of Gidon Rabo. She notes that aid organizations in the middle and late 1990s viewed desertification and the gender and development movement as important areas to focus development resources.

In 1998, Rossi observed a project implemented in Gidon Rabo by a Western European-based NGO. It was the largest World Food Program project in Niger. A central aim of the program was to modernize Nigerian agricultural production in ways that would boost yearly crop yields and preserve the farmland amidst drought conditions.

The project was also part of a gender and development initiative. In Gidon Rabo, GAD representatives afforded local women access to village land that they could use for profit. These women were encouraged to implement the project’s new agricultural practices as part of claiming the additional land. Although GAD representatives felt that this would empower women in Gidon Rabo, the local women held a different view. They felt that claiming this land would make little difference in their lives since the plots of land were small, the soil was without nutrients, the climate was harsh and their energies were already stretched with the daily challenges of community life.

Nevertheless, the women of Gidon Rabo accepted the land, but they chose not to work the fields. Instead, they requested iron wire from the NGO to enclose the land they already held to protect it from the animals that were killing the plants. The women of this community explained this need to the aid workers. The aid workers responded and brought iron wire for them.

The women of Gidon Rabo said they took the offer of land because they wanted to maintain a relationship with the NGO. Over time, the women and the NGO continued talking and developed a relationship that addressed key village needs, including the request and building of a nearby dam. Although GAD was a part of this project, gender was not raised among the women of the village as a central issue. However, they knew that being a part of the project could potentially help the village as a whole in other ways.

Thus, from the perspective of the women of this community, development projects made other interventions possible. Rossi’s ethnography illustrates how aid organizations act on knowledge developed about local communities. It also shows how local women are able to validate what they know as true (that climate change made life more difficult) and add to the existing knowledge about what would improve their lives — in this case, voicing the need to protect their crops from animals using iron wire and to get a much-needed dam built. Rossi’s research highlights the dynamic nature of development: a process where the women of Gidon Rabo recognized how power is exercised, were able to work as agents of change and took action for short-term and long-term benefits to their community.

Rossi’s work articulates this process and the complexities inherent in doing feminist research in international development.

The feminist approach to research

The traditional scientific view holds that rigorous methodology can reduce social and political bias in research. Feminist researchers, however, maintain that scientific inquiry takes place in a political world inhabited by people with real histories. They assert that research and knowledge production are almost always political and value-laden, and knowledge is often developed in support of social systems that maintain the status-quo. Feminist research methodologies attend to the relationship between knowledge and politics, are advocacy-driven and attempt to understand how gender, along with other ways in which research participants identify themselves, is used to justify and support inequality.

Multiple versions of feminism contribute to different branches of feminist methodology. As a whole, feminist methodologies focus on actively questioning and redirecting the power imbalances built into the inquiry process. As researchers, we draft the questions and establish the rules of the research encounter; we have considerable say in what gets discussed, considered, thought, remembered and becomes understood as true about research participants. Feminist methodologists strive to remain attuned to issues of power and often share both decision-making and data interpretation during the research endeavor. Examples include developing research protocols and questions in collaboration with participants and then seeking their input on the interpretation of conclusions. This stance includes asking for, listening to and making central to the research agenda participants’ own stories and understandings of their lives and concerns, particularly when these do not align with how their lives have been described in research, political and media accounts.

The research process and the knowledge it builds are important to create a more just and livable world.

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She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

About the author

  • Leith Lombas

    Leith Lombas is a research associate at JBS International. He has 12 years of experience in social science and nonprofit research, education and training. His areas of expertise include evaluation design, qualitative and mixed methods research, empowerment and participatory evaluation design and approaches, gender and international development, violence and violence prevention, homelessness and HIV/AIDS prevention. He has extensive knowledge of social theory, feminist theory and gender studies.