Women and Foreign Assistance in the NIS
By Jodi Koehn and Nancy Popson
The successes and limitations of international assistance--focusing on women--in the NIS and the implications for development after 11 September 2001 were the topics of a Kennan Institute roundtable on 7 November 2001. The discussants included: David Abramson, Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C.; Armine Ishkanian, Research Fellow, Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, University of California, Berkeley; Kathleen Kuehnast, Research Associate, George Washington University; former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute; and Member, Kennan Institute Advisory Council; and Michele Rivkin-Fish, Visiting Professor, University of Michigan.
David Abramson began the meeting by pointing out several potential problems with the assumptions made regarding gender in development programs. Such programs treat women's emancipation as a prerequisite to sustainable development and take issues concerning women out of context, Abramson stated. Local women's priorities are often ignored and are considered too traditional to be compatible with the "kinds of roles that would lead to genuine empowerment." An unfortunate consequence, Abramson noted, is that international aid goes to elite women who are already socially or economically empowered.
Abramson focused on the problems of development in his specific area of research, Uzbekistan. According to Abramson, the development debate in Uzbekistan is often expressed in a polarized struggle between the traditional conservative or religious-based and modern secular cultures. Abramson discussed two different types of social strategies: women's NGOs, which have been targeted for development by western aid, and an institution called gap. Gap in Uzbek means a gathering of women who adopt strategies for pooling their money and take turns using it in an effort to redistribute that wealth. Gap and NGOs function in many of the same ways, but have very different constituencies. Foreign aid, Abramson stated, tends to ignore gap and focus on establishing NGOs based on a western model. One problem, Abramson argued, is that the women supported by western NGOs tend to overlook traditional women who participate in gap and see such an institution as something from the past rather than a contemporary strategy of adaption to present economic concerns.
Abramson then turned to implications for women and aid after 11 September. He contended that conflict management can actually create conflicts. Available resources in an area can alter the way people organize themselves. Abramson argued the importance of thinking about how gender relations affect, are affected by, and are integral to conflict--beyond issues of domestic violence. This is not easy, Abramson noted, because large-scale public conflict is seen as a male domain in which women's concerns are solely that of victims.
Abramson remarked that after September, our awareness of the linkages among politics, social networking, commerce, and spirituality in Muslim societies has increased. This linkage is unfamiliar to the West because it is practiced in the informal sector and is institutionalized, but not always legal. According to Abramson, we cannot think about spirituality and economics and politics as separate fields if we are to understand how core terrorist activities and other conflict engaging activities are supported.
The next speaker, Armine Ishkanian, focused on NGO development in Armenia addressing what has and has not been effective. Ishkanian noted that international aid has given Armenia three things: technical support and advice on how to run an NGO, moral support, and financial support which enables the NGOs to survive. These three concepts have worked together in supporting and maintaining a viable NGO sector, Ishkanian stipulated.
Aid programs have also supported exchange programs, bringing Armenian NGO activists together with their western counterparts, allowing them to engage in global dialogue, and decreasing their feeling of isolation. According to Ishkanian, these opportunities are crucial to Armenia.
Like Abramson, Ishkanian noted that international donors tend to focus on elites. This is the case, Ishkanian argued, throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The elite in these countries were individuals who had social connections within the country and with expatriates. Ishkanian suggested, however, that enough time and initiative could combat this problem as NGOs in these countries become more established and people begin to trust them. Another problem, Ishkanian noted, is that donors have had some unrealistic expectations and sometimes have made demands without taking the local situation and concerns into account. For example, Ishkanian elaborated, one popular program has been to create crisis centers to address the very real issue of domestic violence in Armenia. However, phones that fail to work cannot call a hotline. Therefore, Ishkanian argued, it is necessary to look at the local traditions, ideologies, and conditions within the country before establishing programs to "fix" the problems.
As did Abramson, Ishkanian then turned the discussion to the aftermath of 11 September for Armenia. The conflicts in Armenia, namely that of Nagoro-Karabakh, have been "put on the back burner" because of the war in Afghanistan. However, Ishkanian argued for the continuation of aid to the country in terms of democracy, civil society, and sustainable development programs because they do promote peace. NGOs, Ishkanian continued, can play a role in building cooperation in the region and hopefully peace.
The third speaker, Michele Rivkin-Fish, discussed whether the purpose of interventions for democracy and women's rights is to promote values and social norms similar to ours, or to facilitate the expression of many values and realization of opportunities for different groups to achieve their interests.
Rivkin-Fish began by listing what it is we know about development and assistance. First, the situation of women and minorities is a measure of democratic change in this region. Second, the life conditions of women have deteriorated since the fall of state socialism. Third, development projects intended to promote democratizing change and women's rights often have unexpected results in practice. Finally, many of the efforts to work with women's groups to develop women's NGOs have not focused on the larger structural and economic inequalities that exist on the ground. In addition, instead of reaching the intended marginalized groups, sometimes foreign aid has actually helped elites to better their situation.
The West has not considered several issues that would help to promote women's rights and certain kinds of democracy, Rivkin-Fish suggested. We have not adequately analyzed how mechanisms through which aid is delivered and organized can affect democratic principles. According to Rivkin-Fish, we have not thought enough about the ways in which we may need to promote the inclusion of a range of values and social forms.
Thinking more about our methods of engagement can help bring democracy into our action in addition to our theory, Rivkin-Fish argued. What kind of information are we gathering? Whose insights do we need to obtain and incorporate into project designs? How does aid reflect democratic ideas? Rivkin-Fish stated that we need to learn to adapt to local cultural contexts and change the method of designing and implementing projects.
The West also needs to think of ways to make our interaction more democratic, Rivkin-Fish suggested. According to Rivkin-Fish, we should have an incorporationist stance offering local people a framework that is already in existence; a provocative stance which would go in and make the changes; and an anthropological stance to understand the ways in which the values of local groups react to their situation and enable us to create new forms of interaction to consider local culture in designing and promoting aid.
The final speaker, Kathleen Kuehnast, focused on Kyrgyzstan and began speaking about the assumptions which the West has made in the post-Soviet era. According to Kuehnast, we have not fully considered that a market economy is not a "machine with replaceable parts," but a highly social institution based on human relationships. In addition, Kuehnast pointed out, civil society cannot be mandated. It must be built from a grassroots level.
In the process of economic liberalization, Kuehnast emphasized the importance of paying attention to local level institutions, indigenous society, and social networks. Privatization needs to be done in stages, with consideration of what works in a given context. According to Kuehnast, we lost viable social relationships that benefitted many people in our attempts to get rid of all things Soviet or communist.
Kuehnast pointed out that there has been success. International donors have made a substantial effort to include women. The problem is that the results of many assistance programs have not been truly at the grassroots level; tending to involve elite women where hierarchical ideas of administration predominate, Kuehnast noted. In addition, Kuehnast stated, the relevance of assistance programs often loses its impact in terms of democratization and freedom when people are just trying to survive.
According to Kuehnast, the notion of gender has begun to expand to include men. This means that we must contextualize women in terms of their relationships with men, Kuehnast argued. In addition, Kuehnast concluded, the high percentage of young, unemployed men and women in Central Asia calls attention to another problem--particularly given what is currently happening in Afghanistan. We need to remember that all the different scenarios of aid are about human relationships, community, a need to belong, and the need to make a real difference, whether we are referring to the family or in larger circles.
In conclusion, all the speakers stressed that assistance has been critical to development in their countries of research. However, assistance programs that do not take local conditions into account or that impose a particular set of values can often miss alternative mechanisms of aid delivery and benefit only a small portion of the intended recipients. In reassessing assistance after 11 September, the speakers suggested that it is critical to understand local conditions and address issues of gender as they relate to conflict, unemployment, and community.