Boycotting and promoting

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Duncan Green of Oxfam asks, on his development blog “From Poverty to Power”, whether men should boycott all-male panels at conferences:

They may not be as extreme as geeky tech events, but lots of development gabfests do indeed feature men on the panel talking to women (and men) in the audience. That violates basic fairness, inhibits the profile and (possibly) career development of half of the potential talent pool, and is likely to distort the agenda and resulting discussion (less focus on care economy, women’s rights etc). So obviously, the answer is yes to a boycott, right?

Except…..

Read on here.  Green goes on to discuss reasons why a boycott may not be appropriate, and also asks:

And why privilege gender over eg ethnicity – what about all-white panels on development (which are even more common than all-male ones)?

As someone who is more likely to be in the audience than on the panel, I commented that audiences can also make a choice to not attend debates that are dominated by men (or other groups).  So I declined my invitation to the UNAIDS/World Bank/PEPFAR debate on whether AIDS funding is still relevant, which took place in July: the participants, while articulate and inspiring, were all men (incidentally, the HIV community normally does better than this).  And nothing could have persuaded me to go to the Easterly-Sachs debate, not because there were no women (there were) but largely because Easterly heavily trailed it as being of interest mainly because it involved him and Sachs being on the same panel – *gasp* – for the FIRST TIME EVER.  And his coverage of the debate was limited to telling us how they didn’t come to blows.  What a relief for the world’s poor.

Of course, evern for development people who do sit on panels at conferences, this only takes up a small proportion of their time.  There are plenty of other elements to peoples’ careers where they can work to ensure fairer representation of perspectives, whether they relate to gender, ethnicity, experience, or anything else.  While I don’t go to conferences very often, I am quite often in senior roles running training, or seminars, or evaluation and research projects.  So Duncan Green’s debate got me thinking about what else development workers (particularly white male ones from rich countries like me) can do.

What we do obviously depends on how much influence we have over our work.  I’m an independent, freelance consultant which means I’m often hired as an individual, sometimes to work with other consultants, or to work with a team in whatever country the assignment is; and sometimes just to do it on my own.  Not everything I get asked to do particularly lends itself to working with other people.  For literature reviews or analysis of statistical data, I’m best off being shut in a room on my own.  But when I get asked to do training, or evaluations, or programme designs, I make a point of talking to the client about how to involve the people most concerned.  For me it is not so much about gender as about other types of exclusion, since women are pretty well represented in my line of work (though I hope I am not complacent about gender, and I also try to find ways of ensuring transgender experiences are not overlooked).

Possibly one of the reasons I have blogged so much about the work I did with sex workers in Namibia last year is that I was originally commissioned to go out and do some research myself, alone, but that UNFPA and UNAIDS subsequently agreed with my suggestion to train sex workers to conduct the research themselves.  Not only that, but we also agreed that I would mentor one sex worker representative to be a co-trainer with me.  We were delighted with the results.  

I don’t always get what I ask for, however.  Very often clients don’t want to spend the extra money on paying for someone to work with me, or for their travel costs – even if I make it clear that I’ll invest my own time in mentoring, and that I will still be solely accountable for the deliverables.  When this is the case, to an extent it is possible to try to do the assignment with as much of an eye on fair representation as possible, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen.  Sometimes it is also necessary to take a view as to whether participation is likely to be merely tokenistic (which is also unfair).  I’ve turned down requests to involve groups when it was clear that they would not get the support they needed to participate meaningfully.

Anyway, the point is that development workers, whether they are freelancers or staffers, techies or managers, have lots of opportunities to confront exclusion and privilege in a positive way.  Deal with all-male panels by all means, but don’t just leave it at that.

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One thought on “Boycotting and promoting

  1. Yes, great! I’ve been following the debate about men challenging male centredness (and privilege) through calling attention to exclusion by boycotting panels and conferences (philosophy, development or computer technicians, like on Woman’s Hour on BBC4 this morning). You are right to call Duncan Green on limiting the idea to this being the only strategy on the menu and the idea that because there are other exclusions, the gender-based one need not be taken too seriously.. The issue here is taking responsibility for calling on privilege (whether as a speaker, audience member, consultant etc.).What interests me is how ‘intersectionality’ (multiple dimensions/axes of inequality – gender, race, wealth etc.) gets manipulated by the priviliged to continue the paths of least resistance. Because you can’t (easily) organise a panel that ticks all the boxes, we are told it’s not really worth bothering (with things like boycotts). How convenient! Especially for us white, liberal, middle class men in a (relatively) comfortable Global North. We can fix the World, but let’s not make it too uncomfortable for ourselves… I applaud you, Matt, and other people who are able to step outside their own privilige and choose to act consciously. Most systems of power and organisation are patriarchal (eventhough constantly evolving). We are all part of them and we maintain them, mostly by taking paths of least resistancee. We virtually can’t choose not to be ‘part of the system’; we can only choose ‘how’ we take part. Every choice is political to some degree and acknowledging that is the place to start. Go, Matt!

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