Aid agencies have ambitious goals to empower women in the developing world. Yet many feminists believe donors’ gender policies are depoliticised – that they fail to address the unequal power balances between men and women.
One truth must not be lost in this debate: poor women rate daily survival as a far greater concern than equalising their power relations with men. Small-scale technology can make all the difference to their lives. It may also give them the time and space to demand their political rights.
Change is ‘profoundly political’
I recently researched views by feminists around the world on alternative approaches to development. Most dream of political as well as economic power redistribution from men and boys to women and girls.
Time and again, I heard that gender policies established by international aid donors are overly technocratic and too focused on women’s economic rights.
Writing about Afghanistan, feminist academic Deniz Kandiyoti, a professor at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London, United Kingdom, said: “The blueprint for gender mainstreaming is destined to remain hollow if it continues to inhabit a technocratic space that is almost entirely divorced from political processes.” 
Research by London School of Economics academic Jenevieve Mannell shows that in South Africa, much of the expertise on women’s rights and equality that was part of the struggle against apartheid – female members of the African National Congress, for example – was absorbed into government offices to ‘mainstream gender’ following apartheid’s collapse, and as donors pushed for gender mainstreaming. 
Some feminists question whether Northern governments and aid agencies are qualified to champion women’s political rights.
They have a point when so many are led by men – failing to meet their own mainstreaming-policy objectives and so falling far short of being models of gender equality.
Besides, their policies are set up to fail because of overambitious and unrealistic goals. I have seen millions of dollars poured into programmes with lofty goals such as ‘improving gender equality and the empowerment of women’.
These tend to result in more conferences, workshops and technical assistance to ministries responsible for gender issues – but experience tells me that these activities have little impact on the lives of the poor women they are meant to help.
There are others who believe that donors do have a role to play by chipping away at the gender mainstreaming policies in vogue today and turning them into long-term political interventions that support local processes of change.
Feminists are calling for an alternative – a different paradigm for development that embraces a new approach to tackling the unequal power balances between men and women.
This paradigm does not tread lightly. It challenges the idea that women can participate effectively in existing patterns of market-based production or within configurations of institutional power. And it would, for example, require women’s organisations to work with other social movements (such as trade unions) and engage with those who are most resistant to a reversal of the status quo.
But somewhere in this debate we have to remember the many poor women whose interests lie not in fighting for their political rights, but in survival: how to gather the wood for cooking and keeping warm, or collect drinking water, or grow sufficient crops to feed their families.
This chimes with a recurring vision I heard from feminists during my research, of a world where women’s practical needs are met through better access to food, shelter, land, energy and reliable maternal, reproductive and sexual healthcare.
Some feminists argue that once macroeconomic policies are transformed, state provision of basic needs such as land and credit will follow. But while waiting for states to provide these basic needs, donors have a role to play.
The role of small tech
Small-scale, low-cost technology designed with a particular community in mind goes a long way to meeting women’s basic, daily needs. This is an area where rich countries can channel their technological know-how to better use, making tangible improvements to women’s lives in the process.
My favourite example is the Hippo Water Roller Project, which shaves time off women’s busy days by allowing them to roll water long distances in plastic barrels rather than carry lesser amounts on their heads.
The NGO Practical Action specialises in such technology. Its fuel-efficient and low-cost wood stoves, whose designs differ depending on local culinary practices, reduce the time that women spend collecting fuelwood.
They are especially relevant in war-torn countries such as Sudan where foraging for fuelwood is dangerous.
High-level conferences and debates around women’s empowerment abound. The UK parliament is about to legalise its obligation to reduce gender inequality in international development.
Let these steps happen – but I hope they include more funding for small-scale tech projects. These will not transform power relations between men and women overnight, but they may free up women’s time, ease their tasks and improve their health to a point where they can manoeuvre for change in their unequal status.