The Good Wife of Development

After a long day slaving over a warm laptop, Rosalind Eyben’s Fellow Travellers in Development, Fellow Travellers in Development published in Third World Quarterly, dropped into my inbox. It is both charming and appalling. Read it as a specimen of aid industry history and you will see why.

Fellow Travellers in Development follows a group of Western women now reaching retirement age through their careers in ‘development’.

Most didn’t think ‘development’ was what they were doing, and didn’t ‘career’ so much as tumble through an unwelcoming profession (then a job for white men only – Rosalind gets her career break ghost-writing a report for a dyslexic aid agency head).

It gives an account of the macho early aid industry, filtered through the official end of white rule and the rise of ‘women’s lib’. It traces genealogies of contemporary aid thinking and practice into the present day, showing how social development ideas – progressive thinking on poverty, gender and participation – owed partly to the recognition by women (otherwise privileged by their race or class) that there was more than one way to look at a problem.

Beneath the charmingly personal account, Fellow Travellers in Development cuts a steely slice into the continuities in the sociology of aid. Rosalind’s formative development experiences are as WFP wife; the ‘careers’ of the rest of the cast – Amy, Carol, Mary, and Pam – were equally shaped by how / whether they fit in with their husbands’.

To a World Bank Wife like myself (and many other expat aid wives I know), these were familiar scenes: aid often seems to depend on men travelling around the world dispensing expertise, while their wives drop, stall or refashion careers to support their partners. There are also ‘trailing spouse’ husbands and the occasional same-sex partner in the industry.

Yet few seem to devote themselves exclusively to the unacknowledged and onerous work that transient families depend on to stay well and productive as the wives of these men (the Editor of the special issue featuring Fellow Travellers, Anne-Meike Fechter, has written lots of interesting stuff about this).

The aid business still assumes a Good Wife at home, easing the way of the busy aid bureaucrat. There may be more examples of how this works out, but some of my faves are:

an international aid agency that spends billions on Early Childhood Care & Development but excludes pre-school fees from the benefits its staff receive

another that promotes 6 months’ exclusive breastfeeding in its programmes but offers only three months maternity leave for its staff

best of all, as one World Bank Wife explained to me recently, the aid agencies then often hire back these highly qualified professional wives at cut-rate consultancy rates in-country – so they subsidize the aid agencies twice over.

Some things have changed in aidland. International aid bureaucrats are no longer always European post-colonials. And the Expat Wife of Aidland, with her PhD and her household domestic staff and her comfortable lifestyle is hardly the stuff of feminist victimhood.

But the reliance on the Good Wife at home continues to be silently formative of the aid experience. Hardly surprising then that unpaid care work remains so firmly off the development agenda : it remains off the domestic agenda for aid professionals abroad.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

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