- Economic Citizenship: Neoliberal Paradoxes of Empowerment by Amalia Saʾar
Oxford: Berghahn, 2016
262 pages. isbn 9781785331794
Economic Citizenship: Neoliberal Paradoxes of Empowerment focuses on a particular arena of neoliberal cultural production: the social economy. The social economy can be understood as a wide range of organizations that come together for a stated mutual or cooperative good. For Amalia Saʾar, the Israeli social economy brings together business tycoons, social-service professionals, state functionaries, grassroots activists, and women from disempowered backgrounds. A central paradox the book addresses is between economic-empowerment projects and their discourse of individual self-sufficiency, on the one hand, and the more radical commitment to social change purported by many of the targeted women, on the other. This paradox can be found in much of the literature on women’s empowerment programs, as well as literature on gender and development more broadly. Although these programs claim to alleviate poverty, empower women, and contribute to economic growth, empirical research shows that alongside potential benefits, these programs tend to entrench neoliberal subjectivities and reinforce rather than alleviate economic and political inequality. Saʾar’s overarching argument is that because these programs have positive effects on women, we must accept their contradictory effects rather than dismiss them for further embedding neoliberal understandings of empowerment. The tension between structure and agency that remains at the end of the book—a tension brought about because the author does not always thoroughly unpack the relationship between the two—might reflect the author’s conviction that there are no clear answers.
This book is of interest to scholars of development, gender and development, and Middle East gender studies, and is a welcome addition to debates about empowerment. Saʾar relies on ethnographic work that focuses on several different economic-empowerment projects, with rich narratives and differing points of view elucidated through extensive quotes from interview participants. Indeed, ethnography illustrates the multiple and [End Page 66] contradictory effects of such programs and the complexity of development as a whole. The author’s use of intersectionality as a guiding framework makes this book especially attuned to questions of power and marginalization. The first chapter looks at debates around the social economy and neoliberalism within the particular context of Israel. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 discuss vulnerability, empowerment, and entitlement in relation to gender, the work women do, and the social economy, respectively, and the final chapter addresses the tension between women’s desire to work and the social reproductive work they are still expected to do. Two important themes that the author develops in the book are notions of empowerment and the question of funding. Saʾar approaches the theme of empowerment critically with the caveat that “my commitment as an ethnographer to the complex reactions of women on the ground does not allow me to dismiss the idea out of hand. Besides, as we shall see, it seems to yield some secondary gains that make it attractive, if ambiguously so” (110).
Much of the book describes such secondary gains as psychological and social benefits that women derive from their visible economic role. Although this minimizes the issue of economic empowerment—assuming that personal empowerment will lead to economic empowerment—Saʾar’s discussion of the psychological dimensions of empowerment is fascinating. Here we see the intersection between the neoliberal language of improving the self and feminist organizing. Saʾar shows how in various project-related seminars women are told to focus on changing their own behaviors and thoughts and to think positively rather than negatively. For example, one workshop encouraged women to use the first person to generate a sense of agency and responsibility and to avoid focusing on structural barriers, because doing so does not provide concrete solutions.
Interestingly, Saʾar notes that different feminist organizations approach empowerment in different ways, ranging from the individual to the communal. For example, community-oriented approaches to women’s empowerment are most often found among Palestinian women, and Saʾar connects this to the collective discrimination and poor infrastructure and public services faced by Palestinians as a whole. She also shows how...