Ideas / Commentary

Spooked by a Ghost Statistic: Challenges to How We Approach Women’s Empowerment

An unverified piece of data haunts the international development community.

As an international development professional with deep interest in questions of gender and power, I was delighted to read Kathryn Moeller’s article in The New Yorker, “The Ghost Statistic that Haunts Women’s Empowerment.” The article tells the story of development actors’ embrace of “the Ghost Statistic” – an unverified piece of data claiming that women invest 90 percent of their income on their children compared with 40 percent invested by men.

Moeller argues that in their use of the Ghost Statistic, international development actors not only perpetuate a falsehood, but grossly oversimplify the means and ends of women’s empowerment and place an unfair burden on the very women and girls these organizations purport to serve. This narrative situates female empowerment as an ‘instrument’ for economic and social returns, rather than an outcome of multi-faceted and sustained efforts to bring about a more just society.

Having made similar arguments to peers and colleagues over the years, I read Moeller’s piece feeling a mix of gratitude and affirmation. I hoped her article would elevate greater self-awareness and critical practice within our sector.  There was only one hitch: Moeller had included my own organization as an example of those institutions that instrumentalize women and girls.

To be sure, CARE has its share of internal inconsistencies and unresolved intellectual debates. But the organization I know is not a one-dimensional accomplice to instrumentalism. Nevertheless, Moeller’s article is an opportunity to think critically about how we at CARE may have contributed to the instrumentalist narrative, to set the record straight where appropriate, and to recommit ourselves to CARE’s core values and our Gender Equality Framework.

The case for transformation

Moeller explains that instrumentalists privilege short-term and narrowly defined gains in the status of women and girls over longer-term changes to the discriminatory systems that contributed to their disadvantage in the first place. By their nature, instrumentalist approaches fail to meet CARE’s ambition for transformation as mandated in our Gender Equality Policy. But how well have we supported transformation in practice?

In the programmatic realm, we assess every project we implement, in every country, with our global Gender Marker. It has limitations as a self-assessment tool, but it helps us track whether we are working with women and girls as well as men and boys to tackle harmful social norms and practices that undermine human rights. We’re also trying out new ways of doing things so we can better influence structural change over the long term.  For example, our regional strategy in Latin America, “Equal Value, Equal Rights,” convenes a diverse alliance in order to change policies and social norms that govern the treatment of domestic workers.

Getting our facts straight

While the validity of women’s empowerment data is not Moeller’s sole concern, her story largely hinges on the lack of accountability in the recycling of the Ghost Statistic. Do we at CARE have our facts straight?

Our global reporting systems collect information on all of our projects on an annual basis, so we are able to speak with reasonable confidence about our reach and impact. No other large INGO shares its aggregated impact data on its website. Specific to our work on gender equality, CARE’s gender, power, and justice primer is a curated collection of statistics and evidence of what we know of gender and rights globally. And while CARE continues to value and support quantitative assessments where they make sense, we have also pioneered innovative ways to monitor changes in gender equality. Our work on measuring social norms, feminist evaluation, and strategic impact inquiries reflects an emphasis on collective learning that links organizational practice with transformative outcomes.

Decolonizing our practice

One of the most devastating criticisms of the Ghost Statistic is that, if true, it would “reflect gender disparities that are deeply racialized in the global imagination.” Whose stories are we sharing? And who is ‘we,’ anyway?

Increasingly, CARE supports the people we work with to share their own stories, such as the adolescent girls who are a part of the Tipping Point project.  We agree with Moeller that we have much to learn from feminists and other movement actors on the front lines of social change and are actively trying to become better allies through research and increased engagement with local women-led organizations. Turning the lens of gender and power on ourselves, CARE trains all of its staff to recognize the biases we may unwittingly apply to our work.  And the ‘we’ that is CARE is a global confederation with increasingly diverse membership.

Digging deep

With all this said, are we doing enough?  Moeller was undoubtedly reacting to development materials that feature messages like, “Women and girls are the key to overcoming poverty” or, “Just one gift…can help a girl go to school and grow up to lift her entire community out of poverty.” These well-intentioned soundbites suggest a real contradiction between transformative aspirations and how development actors like CARE describe the work that we actually do.  Some of the disjuncture is attributable to a communications gap, while some of it is an honest reflection of the fact that not enough of our work is transformative.

On both counts, we need to continually improve our processes and accountabilities so that we are working in alignment across technical, policy, and communications work.  And we need brave leadership at many levels to tackle the long, hard work of transformation.  After all, dismantling patriarchy and other entrenched systems of inequality is a political undertaking; it doesn’t happen without inviting discomfort along the way.

If we are being honest, isn’t this why instrumentalist narratives persist even in organizations with transformative missions?  CARE struggles to clearly explain the complexity of our work to an audience that is sometimes uncomfortable with and potentially hostile to the requirements of profound systemic change.  So we offer simplified narratives, ghostly or not, and speak the incontrovertible language of investment returns as an alternative to deeply political concepts of gender justice and human dignity.

We have to come to grips with these tensions in order to deepen and accelerate the transformative change we seek in the world.  I have no doubt that CARE’s tradition of critical self-reflection will enable us to meet this challenge.  It also helps to be called out once in a while. Thanks, Kathryn Moeller, and please keep telling us how we’re doing.

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