3: Pop Development and the Uses of Feminism
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49 Chapter Three Pop Development and the Uses of Feminism Meena Khandelwal and Carla Freeman Introduction This chapter considers the ideological foundation that makes microfinance one of the most popular development policies in history. What are its claims, and why do they have such broad appeal across the political spectrum? We explore these claims using examples from the “pop development” discourse that circulates in the West/Global North/developed world and ask in particular why a “rescue narrative” is so endemic to the way that microfinance operates in the service of neoliberal capitalism. One answer to this puzzle lies in the focus of microfinance on women as both vulnerable subjects and agents of economic change. Microfinance advocates mobilize the language of liberal feminism in their claims to advance the interests of women the world over. So pervasive and seemingly self-­ evident are the assumptions of pop development , and in particular its mission on behalf of “third world women,” that its contradictions, complexities, and failure can seem threatening. How can such noble intentions be wrong?1 Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins (1993) demonstrate how imagery found in National Geographic magazine reproduces subtle, enduring reverberations of power and race in history. They seek to understand “what popular American education tells Americans about who ‘non-­ Westerners’ are, what they want, and what [Americans’] relationship is to them” (Lutz and Collins 1993, xii). We turn a similar lens on microfinance. With the blurring of philanthropy, international aid, and consumer marketing campaigns, the entangled discourses of pop development, liberal feminism, and neoliberal capitalism are expressed by a perplexing group of bedfellows: nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), pop stars, journalists, corporate elites. Development is being democratized. No longer the monopoly of economists and other experts, 50 Meena Khandelwal and Carla Freeman it is increasingly offered as something ordinary people and movie stars alike can do through charity-­ driven efforts. The documentary Half the Sky, (RED), and Kiva are just a few examples of this trend, which we will discuss. Lost in these convergent interests and campaigns are the knotty and sometimes contradictory interests at stake, the legacies of history, and the complex power dynamics—of gender, class, caste, ethnicity, race, religion, sexuality, and so forth—operating both within the collectivities at hand and between these and intervening agents. Feminist research has provided many fine-­ tuned, geographically and historically contextualized studies of gendered agendas and consequences of development. Our approach is one of broad strokes, drawing examples from colonial and postcolonial periods and from different regions of the globe. An analysis of the pop development discourse about microfinance necessitates this kind of intervention, and we analyze the twin narratives of rescue and female heroism, then show how they converge around a third, an emancipatory vision of women’s entrepreneurship. Our analysis relies heavily, therefore, on lessons learned from critical development, postcolonial, and transnational feminist scholarship. Liberal ideology valorizes the individual subject, who is a free and responsible agent unburdened by the constraints of tradition; she enacts autonomy, choice, self-­ making, political and civil rights, and the ability to move unrestrained in the world. The microfinance agenda incorporates a value-­ added message of women’s empowerment through employment and entrepreneurship . In fact, feminist scholars have critiqued the heroic image of women as strong and resourceful economic actors when it also renders the structural features of capitalist patriarchy invisible. In the United States, capitalism is equated with liberalism, democracy, and modernity. Microfinance is promoted as the perfect convergence of these ideals, exemplified in the New (Entrepreneurial) Woman.This process is reminiscent of both colonial and nationalist histories in which patriarchal agendas are advanced in the name of women’s rescue, status, uplift, protection, and, today, empowerment. Background What is it that makes microfinance one of the most popular development policies of the last century? What are its claims, and why do these claims have such broad appeal across the political spectrum—among liberals, conservatives, and progressives? The emotional and moral appeal of microfinance generally, and Pop Development and the Uses of Feminism 51 microcredit specifically, hinges upon a particular discourse of individualism with a notably feminine profile. Poor third world women who are the subjects of microfinance and its diverse supporters (including well-­ intentioned, educated , liberal feminists, students, and activists) are positioned within a familiar structural arrangement, both materially and discursively. We argue that microfinance ’s emphasis on women as the engine of economic development performs a particular kind of emotional work while simultaneously masking structural power relations. If this collection...



Subject Headings

  • Rural development -- Developing countries.
  • Microfinance -- Developing countries.
  • Small business -- Developing countries -- Finance.
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