Gender Analysis: International Development: A conversation with Martha Chen

International development organizations like the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development are among the most notable students of gender analysis. They came to embrace gender analysis after discovering that their efforts weren’t succeeding without it. Early development practices, explains Martha Chen, lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, were thought to be gender neutral. In reality, the models that development agencies exported to developing countries were not only based on gender assumptions but shaped by the conventional gender roles of men and women in the United States. For example, many U.S. Agricultural Extension Service programs assumed that men worked on the farm and women worked in the house. This image — already too simplified as a description of American farm life — was even less apt when exported. Frontline workers were left to cope with faulty assumptions and the misguided programs that resulted from them.

Chen recalls the classic story told to her by a poultry developer working in Bangladesh. His program model directed him to offer education and training to men at their homes. But knowing that women, not men, were really caring for the poultry, he hit upon the idea of asking for a cup of tea at the beginning of each visit. This ploy got him into the kitchen, where he could deliver his advice within earshot of the women poultry workers as they served the men.

Operators of scores of other development programs found the same thing: Programs that didn’t account for gender didn’t produce results. Eventually, policymakers discovered this — and something more as well: If programs not only respond to the real situations of women but actually improve their situations — particularly through education — women find ways to benefit their families and communities. As gender analysis has become central to development, the tools and frameworks used to conduct it have become increasingly sophisticated. All of them start, says Chen, with three fundamental questions: “Who does what? Who owns what? Who gets what?” These questions can inform the design of a single local program or a national policy. Ideally, Chen hopes, program planners and policymakers will take gender analysis one step further by asking about “the conditions that give rise to women’s disadvantage in the first place.”