Monday, May 9, 2011

Paternalism or "maternalism" in Africa?

Aidwatch has an interesting post on feminism and international development. Dr. Easterly believes that there are far too many male guilty consciences working themselves out in the Aid world and that this tends to hurt rather than help those in need. I agree but I'm not sure its necessarily only us males who have this problem. I've often talked about how demeaning it is to Africans when foreigners claim to be "protecting" them from various nefarious forces. This "mother (or father)-bear" instinct is condescending when it is applied, as it so often is, in blank fashion to an entire continent because it implies that Africans are weak when they are not. It is true that in some ways African women and children are uniquely exploited by NGO advertisements (how many times have you seen some random picture of a half-starved mother and child and then been asked for money?) but I would guess that the people behind such ads are not exclusively men.
More generally many feminist arguments have often struck me as on the one hand very novel and powerful and on the other hand very incompletely applied by feminists themselves. Dr. Easterly's post is a very good case in point. Certainly condescending attitudes in the Aid world are damaging and should be exposed and discussed and it is to the feminist's credit that they bring up the issue but I'm not convinced that it is only males that practice such condescension.
For my own Phd studies the concept of performativity, which was originally conceived of by feminist scholar Judith Butler, has been invaluable but by the time I encountered it in the Science and Technology Studies literature it had been very fruitfully applied in a much broader array of contexts than simply gender issues.
I know that feminism has in the past decade or so been going through some small turmoil with a newer breed of feminists questioning some of the orthodoxies of the "founding mothers" of feminism but I haven't kept up on the details. It would be interesting to hear one of these new feminist's perspective on gender issues in the Aid world.



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