processes of democratization, coupled with changing international norms,
neo-liberal policies and State reform, have dramatically altered the conditions
under which feminist and other struggles for social justice unfold in Latin
America today. The restructured terrain on which feminists must now wage
their battles, in turn, has triggered a significant reconfiguration of
what I will refer to as the Latin American feminist movement field—privileging
some actors and actually or potentially marginalizing others.
talk today focuses on the most visible, and increasingly controversial,
actors in this reshaped movement field, actors who have been especially
prominent in "advocating feminism" in national and transnational policy
arenas: feminist non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGO-like feminist
groups, of course, have been around since the origins of Latin American
feminisms’ second-wave in the 1970s—indeed they prevailed early on among
feminist groups in some countries. And feminist NGO surely have helped
improve the immediate life conditions of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands
of women and have been instrumental in promoting potentially progressive
gender policies in a variety of national contexts—despite the less-than
"citizen-friendly" current Latin American and global order. However, as
the title of my talk suggests, I will argue that, in recent years, there
has been a veritable "boom" in more formal or institutionalized feminist
organizations specializing in gender project execution, policy assessment,
and social services delivery. What I refer to as the NGO boom of the 1990s
is marked by a regionwide shift away from feminist activities centered
on popular education, mobilization, and poor and working-class women’s
empowerment and a move toward policy-focused activities, issue-specialization,
and resource concentration among the more technically adept, transnationalized
and professionalized NGOs within the feminist field.
first offering a snapshot of NGOs’ location within the reconfigured Latin
American feminist field, I will analyze how the shifting terrain of local
and global gender politics has increased the demand for feminist
organizations able to deliver "gender-specialized" services. I will argue
that changing international donor and development policies, together with
structural adjustment and the growing erasure of local States from the
realm of social policy, may be propelling States and inter-governmental
organizations (IGOs) to turn to some feminist NGOs as "experts on gender"
rather than as citizens’ groups advocating on behalf of women’s rights.
Governments and IGOs increasingly seek out the more professionalized sectors
of the feminist field to evaluate "State policies with a gender perspective"
and execute targeted social service and training (capacitación)
programs for "at-risk" poor and working-class women—potentially distancing
NGOs from their key societal constituencies, compromising their ability
to critically monitor policy and advocate for more thoroughgoing (perhaps
more feminist?) reform.
recent developments deeply trouble many NGO activist-professionals and
have infuriated their militantly "autonomous" feminist critics. Many in
both camps worry that growing numbers of feminist organizations seem to
have been driven to focus their energies and resources on more technical,
less contestatory activities, to the actual or potential detriment of more
effective national or international policy advocacy and other modalities
of feminist cultural-political intervention. I will conclude by suggesting
that the trends propelling the feminist NGO boom are neither inevitable
nor irreversible and that current debates surrounding NGOization within
the Latin American feminist field may well point the way toward revitalized
feminist rights advocacy as we enter the new millenium.
essay draws on fieldwork conducted in Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Colombia
during the summer of 1997, as well as my previous research on Latin American
participation in the preparatory processes for the recent string of UN
Summits—especially the Fourth World Conference on Women (see Alvarez 1998
for an analysis of the Latin American Beijing process). I should make clear
before I go any further that I am directly implicated in the story I’m
about to tell. During the three years (1993-1996) I served as Program Officer
in Rights and Social Justice for the Ford Foundation in Rio de Janeiro,
Brazil, I evaluated, selected and funded gender-related research and advocacy
projects, worked closely with a wide variety of feminist NGOs, and found
myself—as never before in my fairly lengthy career as a US feminist "internationalist"
activist and student of Latin American women’s/social movements—smack in
the middle of transnational flows of feminist ideas and resources. The
ensuing analysis therefore constitutes more than an academic exercise or
an effort to solve a "social scientific puzzle." It also grows out of my
abiding concern as a hybrid Latina/Latin American/Latin Americanist activist-scholar
to interrogate critically our always changing, multifaceted, and
sometimes-contradictory cultural-institutional-academic practices
and the Reshaping of Latin American Feminisms
Latin American activists practice their feminism has changed significantly
in the 1990s. Feminism—like many of the so-called new social movements
that took shape in the region during the 1970s and 1980s—can today more
aptly be characterized as an expansive, polycentric, heterogeneous discursive
field of action which spans into a vast array of cultural, social and
political arenas. As I have argued elsewhere (Alvarez 1998), Latin American
feminisms have experienced a notable process of decentering and diversification
over the course of the past decade. That is, the reconfigured feminist
movement field today spans well beyond social movement organizations or
SMOs, conventionally conceived. The 1990s saw a dramatic proliferation
or multiplication of the spaces and places in which women who call themselves
feminists act, and wherein, consequently, feminist discourses circulate.
After over two decades of struggling to have their claims heard by male-dominant
sectors of civil and political society and the State, women who proclaim
themselves feminists can today be found in a wide range of public arenas—from
lesbian feminist collectives to research-focused NGOs, from trade unions
to Black and indigenous movements, from university women’s studies programs
to mainstream political parties, the State apparatus, and the international
aid and development establishments.
diverse women who transit in this wide-ranging movement field interact
in a variety of alternative and official publics and through a number of
media. New, more formalized modalities of articulation or networking
among the multiple spaces and places of feminist politics have been consolidated
during the 1990s. These range from regionwide identity and issue-focused
networks, like the Red de Mujeres Afro-Latinoamericanas y Caribeñas
and the Comité Latinoamericano de Defensa de los Derechos de
la Mujer (CLADEM), to networks focused specifically on impacting the
UN process, such as the Regional NGO Coordination established in preparation
for the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW).
have played a central role in setting up and sustaining these various forms
of formal articulation among a vast range of actors in the feminist field.
In producing and circulating numerous newsletters and publications, organizing
issue-focused conferences and seminars, establishing electronic networks
and a wide gamut of other communications media, professionalized NGOs also
have functioned as the key nodal points through which the spatially dispersed
and organizationally fragmented feminist field remains discursively articulated.
They have been crucial to sustaining what I call social movement webs—the
capillary connections among feminists and their sympathizers who now occupy
a wide variety of social locations. During periods when movements experience
mobilizational lulls (in fact, the most common social movement condition
under situations of politics-as-usual), such webs—maintained principally
by NGOs with professional staff dedicated to "outreach" and articulation—have
played a key role in keeping feminist issues "alive," at least among policy-makers,
IGOs and donors—if not always as successfully keeping them "hot" in the
larger public debate (see Alvarez 1997a and b).
just what exactly are feminist NGOs? What distinguishes them from non-feminist
NGOs and from other actors in the broad-ranging feminist field? Though
the concept of non-governmental organization is sometimes indiscriminately
deployed in development discourse to refer to any social actor not clearly
situated within the realm of the State or the market—from peasant collectives
and community soup kitchens to research-oriented policy think tanks—among
actors in the Latin American feminist field, the term "feminist NGO" has
come to denote particular kinds of groups with distinctive orientations
in recent years, feminists in some countries (such as Brazil) have ever
more commonly drawn a sharp distinction between NGOs and "the movement."
The former are typically characterized as having functionally specialized,
paid, professional staff and, sometimes, a limited set of volunteers, receive
funding from bilateral or multilateral agencies and (usually foreign) private
foundations, and engage in pragmatic strategic planning to develop "reports"
or "projects" aimed at influencing public policies and/or providing advice
or "asesoria" to the movimiento de mujeres and varied
services to low-income women. Though sometimes engaging in similar asesoria
and policy-oriented activities, the latter is commonly understood to be
made up of "militant" feminist groups or collectives that have largely
volunteer, often sporadic, participants (rather than "staff"), more informal
organizational structures, significantly smaller operating budgets, and
whose actions (rather than "projects") are guided by more loosely defined,
conjunctural goals or objectives. But such a stark distinction between
NGOs and "the movement" underplays the hybrid character of most
feminist NGOs, ignores important differences in the timing and degree of
movement NGOization in different countries, and obscures the diversity
of NGO activities and practices.
characterizations of NGOs—in both social movement and scholarly discourses—often
fail to capture the specificity of those operating within the feminist
field. The academic literature most commonly defines NGOs as "intermediary
organizations" that "are typically composed of middle-class, educated and
professional people who have opted for political or humanitarian reasons
to work with (or on behalf of) the poor and the marginalized" (Pearce 1997,
259). These grassroots support organizations (GSROs) "channel international
funds to [member-serving grassroots organizations or] GROs and help communities
other than their own to develop" (Fisher 1998, 4).
feminist NGOs in most Latin American countries are typically made
up of university-educated, middle-class (and most often white or mestiza)
women and many do work in some capacity with poor and working-class
women’s groups, they are distinct from non-feminist GSROs in at least two
key respects. First, most feminist NGOs do not see themselves as working
only "help others" but also to alter gender power relations that circumscribe
their own lives as women (see also Lebon 1993 and forthcoming). In a comprehensive
survey of 97 Mexican feminist NGOs, María Luisa Tarrés found
that "a strong identitarian component . . . marked the logic of women’s
NGOs . . . the space created by the NGO stimulates a reelaboration of the
identity of its members as social and political subjects" ["un fuerte componente
identitário . . . marca la lógica de ONGs de mujeres . .
.el espacio creado por la ONG da lugar a una reelaboración de la
identidad de sus integrantes en tanto sujetos sociales y políticos"]
(Tarrés 1997, 4).
the vast majority of NGO activist-professionals also view themselves as
an integral part of a larger women’s movement that encompasses other feminists
(in other types of organizations or "sueltas") as well as the poor
and working-class women for or on behalf of whom they profess to work.
As one interviewee affirmed, "In Peru, NGOs have a double identity . .
. we are centers and we are movement" [En el Peru, las ONGs tienen una
doble identidad. . .somos centros y somos movimiento"]. Not all NGO professionals
I interviewed, however, shared in this hybrid identity. Some understood
NGOs as providing "a critical voice of a technical and professional character
that contributes to the movement" ["una voz crítica de caracter
técnico y profesional que aporta al movimiento"].
extent or degree of NGOization of the feminist movement, of course, varies
significantly among countries in the region—reflecting the distinctive
political environments in which feminisms unfolded, the country-specific
priorities and preferences of international donors, and the particularities
of feminist movement development in a given locality. In Brazil, for example,
a sharper contrast between NGOs and "the movement" is today drawn by many
activists because early feminist groups were mostly of the more informal,
feminist collective variety. Relatively few early groups received external
funding or had paid administrative or professional staff. The process of
institutionalization of the feminist movement in the form of more formal,
professionalized groups—which only in the late 1980s came to refer to themselves
as NGOs (Landim 1993)—accompanied the pace of Brazil’s protracted and "phased"
political transition process. Thus, both feminist and non-feminist NGOs
"multiplied in the 1980s (50 percent of Brazilian NGOs were created between
1980 and 1990)," partly, as Lebon suggests, due to "the expansion of international
cooperation and the emphasis on privatization by neo-liberal governments"
(1997, 7). But the gradual liberalization of the political environment
in which social movements operated and the "gendered political opening"
promoted by some opposition-controlled state governments in the early to
mid-1980s also prompted growing numbers of feminists to formalize their
organizations and develop greater policy expertise by the end of that decade
(Lebon 1993; Heilborn and Arruda 1995; Alvarez 1990 and 1994; Soares et
similarly emphasizes that "in the case of Mexico, the weight of the context
is fundamental" ["en el caso de México el peso del contexto es fundamental"]
in accounting for the proliferation of feminist NGOs (1997, 25). She argues
that while the post-1977 political reforms ultimately absorbed some sectors
of the opposition into the institutional party system, "there were activists
who, in not accepting this arrangement, were left without a political organization.
A kind of market of activists without parties is thereby created" ["hubo
militantes que al no aceptar este arreglo se quedaron sin organización
política. Se crea así una especie de mercado de militantes
sin partidos. . ." ] (1997, 51). She further maintains that:
members of NGOs come from this market of activists without party. Their
previous participation experiences, the relationship to feminism, a certain
disillusionment with the authoritarianism that surfaces when incorporation
into an institutional party is debated, and the offer of importan financial
support for NGOs from the year of earthquake forward, constitute the factors
explaining the increase and diversity of organizations dedicated to transforming
women’s condition. [Las integrantes de las ONGs provienen de este mercado
de militantes sin partido. Su experiencia de participación previa,
la relación con el feminismo, un cierto desencanto con el autoritarismo
que sale a flote cuando se debate la incorporación a un partido
institucional y la oferta de importantes apoyos financieros para ONGs desde
el año del terremoto en adelante, constituyen los factores que explican
el aumento y diversidad de organizaciones dedicadas a transformar la condición
de la mujer] (1997, 52).
found that after 1980 and especially after 1984, the previously slow and
stable growth in NGOs dedicated to women’s issues—which formed at the rate
of one per year—accelerated significantly, with over ten a year being founded
in 1984, 1987, and 1990 (1997, 12).
contrast, most Colombian feminists I intervieweed concurred with Maruja
Barrig’s assessment that "as compared to other countries in the region,
the feminist movement has not expressed itself principally through NGO
channels," but rather "small activist organizations prevail . . .which
participate as such in various activities of the movement, in a volunteer
capacity", ["a diferencia de otros países de la región,
el movimiento feminista no se ha expresado principalmente por el canal
de las ONGs. . . se presentan [organizaciones de activistas] de dimensiones
pequeñas, que . . . participan como tales en varias actividades
del movimiento, voluntariamente. . ."] (Barrig 1997b, emphasis in
the original). Context matters here as well. The clientelism, corruption
and "narcodemocracia" that permeate the Colombian regime, the historically
weak presence of the State in much of the national territory, and the endemic
political violence that flows from the above would hardly seem conducive
to setting up specialized NGOs aimed at influencing public policy. As Barrig
further notes, the over 3,000 NGOs affiliated with the Colombian Confederation
of NGOs are less professionalized than their counterparts in other countries,
incorporating significant numbers of volunteers among their staff (1997b,
10). Still, the post-1986 political decentralization, coupled with the
1991Constitution (which mandates State consultation with civil society
in development planning), have fueled a process of increased institutionalization
in various Colombian social movement fields. And as I shall discuss below,
there also seems to have been a marked increase in State sub-contracting
of NGO services for policy execution and social services delivery. Several
feminist activists I talked with emphasized that, "there are two types
of NGOs here: some are ‘historic,’ others more recent, which emerge after
the Constituyente process, and are sometimes narrowly focused, opportunistic,
and very nepotistic" ["hay dos tipos de ONGs aqui: algunas históricas,
otras recientes que surgen despues del proceso constituyente, algunas veces
puntuales, oportunisticas y muy nepotistas"].
Chile—whose heinous 17-year dictatorship and shock-treatment-induced poverty
made opposition movements favored recipients of international humanitarian
aid and liberal foundation monies—many second-wave feminist groups, who
formed an integral part of that opposition, appear, by contrast, to have
been able to institutionalize their organizations fairly early on. Given
State repression and government indifference to the hardships neo-liberalism
heaped upon poor women, many of those early NGO-like feminist groups centered
their attention on supporting the survival struggles of women of the popular
classes and organizing with them against the Pinochet dictatorship (Frohmann
and Valdés 1995; Gaviola 1994; Chuchryk 1994; Schuurman and Heer
1992). Since the return of civilian rule and a new "post-social democratic"
brand neo-liberalism in 1989, many Chilean feminists I talked with suggested
that those links to the "base" have been largely severed, for reasons that
I shall explore further below.
any given context and over time, the types of activities prioritized by
feminist NGOs also have varied significantly. As in the Chilean case, most
if not all NGOs emerging early in Latin American feminism’s second wave
focused their activities on popular education and women’s empowerment or
provided services and asesoria to poor and working-class women’s
organizations. Some still do. MEMCH—an umbrella organization of popular
women’s groups "gone NGO" since the return of civilian rule—continues to
view itself as a "bridge between feminism and the popular classes" ["puente
entre el feminismo y las mujeres populares"] and offers a variety of training
courses and other services to women from the urban periphery. Tierra
Nuestra runs an Escuela de Capacitación para Mujeres Lideres
in Santiago’s Southern zone and promotes the "autonomous organization"
of the 64 grassroots women’s groups with whom they continue to work. Similarly,
Colombia’s current post-Beijing coalition, coordinated by the Bogotá-based
NGO, Dialogo Mujer, proclaims its intention to foster a "feminismo
popular de la diversidad". Tarrés found that fully 90 percent
of Mexican feminist NGOs provide direct services to their targeted publics
and "the mayority claims to be oriented toward women of the popular sectors,
whether they be urban residents, peasants or indigenous women" ["la mayoría
afirma orientarse hacia mujeres de los sectores populares, sean estas urbanas,
campesinas o indígenas"] (1997, 19, 18).
feminist NGOs, such as CFEMEA in Brazil and Casa de la Mujer in
Colombia, today also center their work on promoting and monitoring gender-related
legislation. The latter group, for example, has worked closely with Afro-Colombian
Senator Piedad Córdoba and other women parliamentarians on both
"women’s issues" and non-gender-specific public policies so that they might
"integrate gender to their general programmatic agenda" ["integrar el género
a su agenda programática general"]. Still others seek to articulate
grassroots work with policy-focused or more macro forms of cultural-political
intervention, pursuing "rights advocacy" not just to promote more progressive
policies but also to engender cultural change. Themis, a feminist
NGO based in Porto Alegre, Brazil, for example, offers legal training courses
for grassroots women community leaders and organizes specialized workshops
on gender and the law for judges and other legal professionals, while also
engaging in litigation to advance feminist jurisprudence. The regional
feminist legal rights network, CLADEM—of which Themis forms part—claims
to work to develop a radical critique of the law, to be more than a pressure
group, to intervene in the cultural, and promote empoderamiento.
They are currently spearheading a transnational Campaña de la
Declaración Universal de los Derechos Humanos desde la perspectiva
de género, organized to mark the December 1998 on 50th
anniversary of that UN declaration, for example, but their stated objective
is not merely to impact the UN. Rather, they view "the process" to be as
important as "the final objective"; the campaign is being primarily waged
as "tool for education of women’s human rights" ["una herramienta de educación
en los derechos humanos de las mujeres."].
many feminist NGOs continue to struggle to provide asesoria and
promote conscientización among popular women’s organizations
and strive to push gender policy beyond the narrow parameters of Latin
America’s actually existing democracies, however, the material resources
and political rewards for doing so appear to be drying up. The global and
local premium is increasingly placed on NGO gender policy assessment, project
execution, and social services delivery. Amid the heterogeneous actors
that today constitute the expansive feminist movement field, specific
types of NGOs and NGO activities have attained particular prominence. And
it is this shift—and not a proliferation of feminist NGOs as such (which,
as I’ve noted, varies considerably from country to country)—that marks
what I call the boom in Latin American feminist NGOs. I now turn to the
factors—largely external to the feminist movement field—which have
propelled this change.
Expansion of Local and Global Demand for Professionalized Feminism
the 1990s, I want to suggest, more purportedly "gender-friendly" national,
regional, and global policy environments have directly fueled a growing
demand for specialized, policy-relevant, expert knowledge about
women and gender—expertise increasingly supplied by more techinically
skilled, professionalized feminist organizations. The heightened feminist
focus on policy advocacy, monitoring, and assessment must also, of course,
be understood as a pragmatic, proactive response to changed Latin American
and global political-policy contexts that claim be to more receptive to
gender equity claims.
be sure, all actors in the Latin American feminist field have been
pushed to revisit the practices they originally developed to confront the
decidedly "gender-hostile," authoritarian political conditions of the 1970s
and 1980s. The range of political options available to feminists was then
far narrower and working in and with the opposition to authoritarian regimes
or national-security democracies was a foregone conclusion. It was simpler,
if hardly easier, "back then" to be "united in our goals," several of my
interviewees declared, and many recognized that sometimes "the women’s
movement was united as opposition but not necessarily in relation to feminism
as such" ["la unión del movimiento era en cuanto oposición,
no necesariamente en relación al feminismo en si"]. But democratization
(or, minimally, "civilianization") processes have complicated that strategic
picture considerably. One Chilean feminist succinctly captured the strategic
quandaries facing many in stating, "I so long to be opposition" ["yo añoro
tanto ser oposición."].
assessing the new political landscape, Peruvian feminist and Regional NGO
Forum coordinator for the Latin American preparatory process for the Beijing
Summit, Virginia Vargas, sums up a view currently shared by many among
the more professionalized, transnationalized NGO sectors of the feminist
field, who are no longer always self-evidently in "the opposition":
movement of the 1990s—already facing transition or democratic consolidation
processes—has changed its form of existence, its logic, its dynamic and
has launched new emphases. One of the significant changes has been the
modification of an anti-statist posture toward a critical-negotiating posture
in relation to the State and formal international arenas. This has also
meant a change from a defensive sort of autonomy and a confrontational
dynamic (necessary, without a doubt, in the early stages both due to a
necessity for political affirmation and the existence of dictatorship on
the region) toward a logic of negotiation, but from a strong and proactive,
and therefore, dialogical autonomy. [El movimiento de la década
del 90—enfrentado ya a los procesos de transición o consolidación
democrática—ha cambiado de forma de existencia, de lógica,
de dinámica y ha comenzado a levantar nuevos énfasis. Uno
de los cambios significativos ha sido la modificación de una postura
antiestatista hacia una postura crítica-negociadora en relación
al Estado y a los espacios formales internacionales Ello ha significado
también el cambio de una autonomía más bien defensiva
y una lógica y dinámica más bien de confrontación,
(necesaria a todas luces en las primeras etapas tanto por necesidad de
afirmación como por la existencia de las dictaduras en el continente)
hacia una lógica más bien de negociación, pero desde
una autonomía fuerte y propositiva y, por eso, dialogante]."
many governments now brandish more democratic discourses and there has
been a veritable deluge in "políticas públicas con perspectiva
de género" in recent years. At least rhetorically, most Latin
American States have embraced some version of "gender equity" promotion
and adopted an impressive number of policies, programs and plans putatively
aimed at improving the status of women. So even feminist activists who
don’t share Vargas’ view that the movement must adopt "a critical-negociating
posture in relation to the State" ["una postura crítica-negociadora
en relación al Estado"] have been pushed as never before to position
themselves vis-à-vis formal national and international political
arenas. As one member of the Grupo Amplio para la Liberación
de la Mujer, a feminist collective active in Cali, Colombia, for over
20 years, explained, "we were anti-elections, anti-State. . . we don’t
know the State, especially those of us who come from the Left . . . until
a few years ago, we refused to deal with the State . . . but now it’s not
a matter of whether we should deal or not, [the State] is simply there"
[fuimos anti-electoreras, anti-Estado…no conocemos al Estado, especialmente
las que hemos sido izquierda . . . hasta hace pocos años, nos negabamos
a lidar con el Estado. . . pero ahora ya no es si sí o si no, ya
it is hard for feminists not to "deal" or contend with States that now
appear to be speaking their language. Colombia’s "White Book on Women"
(Libro Blanco de la Mujer)" asserts the Samper administration’s
avowed commitment to "Pay Society’s Debt to the Colombian Woman" (Pagar
la Deuda de la Sociedad con la la Mujer Colombiana) (Presidencia de
la República de Colombia 1994). And the Chilean government proclaims
in its "Equal Opportunities Plan for Chilean Women, 1994-1999," that "The
current administration considers overcoming discrimination against women
to be a political imperative of the utmost importance" (SERNAM 1994, 5).
National leaders from Fujimori to Cardoso to Zedillo have echoed such pledges
to enhance gender equity and have similarly declared their intention of
"promote women" and "incorporate" them into "development." During the regional
preparatory process for the Beijing Summit, a wide gamut of long-standing
feminist-inspired reforms—ranging from more equitable participation in
public and family life to reproductive rights—made their way into the language
of the Latin American and Caribbean Platform for Action and were thereby
elevated to the status of norms of regional governance.
appear to have begun to translate some of those norms into legislation.
Laws establishing quotas to ensure women’s representation in elected office
have been passed in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Peru and are
presently under discussion in Chile and Bolivia, for example. Sixteen States
have adopted legislation and some have set up specialized police precincts
or promotorias to deter "intra-familial violence" (Americas Watch
1991; Blondet 1995; Nelson 1996). More widespread still has been State
promotion of social programs targeting the poorest of poor women, such
as those aimed at female heads-of-household (Jefas de Hogar) in
Chile, Colombia, and Peru or temporary agro-export workers (temporeras)
virtually all countries in the region, specialized State machineries charged
with proposing and monitoring (though seldom implementing) such programs
and policies have been created (Waylen 1996; Lind 1995; Schumaher and Vargas
1993; Friedman, 1997). In some cases, such those of Chile’s SERNAM (Servicio
Nacional de la Mujer) and Brazil’s CNDM (Conselho Nacional dos Direitos
da Mulher), significant sectors of the feminist movements actively
advocated the creation of State women’s machineries—though the ultimate
mandate, design and performance of the specialized agencies actually created
typically fell far short of feminist expectations (Valenzuela 1997; Schumaher
and Vargas 1993). In other cases, such as the Consejería
para la Juventud, la Mujer, y la Família established in Gavíria’s
Colombia or Fujimori’s recently created PROMUDE (Ministério de
Promoción de la Mujer y del Desarrollo Humano), the founding
of such women’s State institutions appears to have been motivated by more
pragmatic, when not outright opportunistic, considerations—such as the
fact that bilateral and multilateral grants and loans now often require
evidence of government sensitivity to "women’s role in development."
several countries, a considerable number of NGO activist-professionals
have gone to work in these specialized machineries. The current Sub-Directora
of Chile’s SERNAM, for example, was a member of one of the country’s most
prominent feminist NGOs, as are the present directors of Colombia’s recently
established Dirección Nacional de Equidad para las Mujeres
and Brazil’s CNDM. And as I shall elaborate below, these State institutions
have increasingly employed professionalized feminist NGOs to execute and
evaluate gender programs and policies.
feminists in most countries continue to passionately debate the relative
merits of denouncing the new specialized machineries as co-optative political
shams or selectively collaborating with them to advance gender justice,
the possibility of "advocating feminism" from within the State has become
the regional norm. Indeed, despite the manifold contradictions and limitations
of Latin America’s actually existing democracies, it is today far more
conceivable to pursue feminist-inspired policy reforms than under
earlier conditions of unbridled State terror and more brazenly exclusionary,
Latin American feminisms can surely claim credit for this change. The many
local feminists who chose to focus their energies on promoting women’s
legal rights consequent to democratization certainly had a major hand in
fostering this apparent gendered political opening. And the proliferation
of specialized women’s machineries, programs, and policies, in turn, prompted
other individuals and organizations within the feminist field to similarly
reorient their activities and develop new competencies in State and policy
transnationalization of Latin American feminisms has also induced many
local NGOs to develop new organizational forms and policy skills in order
to advocate for gender justice in regional and global policy arenas (see
Alvarez 1997a and 1998). Since their unprecedented participation in the
Earth Summit on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in
1992, Latin American feminist involvement with the "global women’s lobby"
has grown steadily—culminating in their expressive presence in preparatory
processes for the FWCW in 1995.
transnational women’s lobby has been instrumental in fostering what feminist
international relations scholars have dubbed an "emergent international
women’s regime" which "has redefined gender norms as reflected in
international instruments for action" (Kardam 1997, 2). Growing numbers
of Latin American feminist NGOs have developed expertise in these new "international
instruments for action" and have successfully summoned changed global "gender
norms" when advocating local gender policy reform (Alvarez 1997a; Sikkink
1995; Keck and Sikkink 1998). And the increased gendering of international
regimes, in turn, has brought new pressures to bear on local States, which
helps account for the flood of gender-targeted policies and programs described
above. As Chilean one interviewee put it, "globalization requires that
the State demonstrate sensitivity to gender . . . resources come tied to
that" ["la globalización exige que el estado demuestre sensibilidad
al género. . . los recursos vienen atados a eso"]. Several
Colombian and Peruvian feminists I talked with similarly stressed that
international pressures have been key in the adoption of seemingly progressive
State gender discourses and policies.
Citizens or Gender Experts?
to further suggest that what some have called a "New Policy Agenda"—"driven
by beliefs organised around the twin poles of neo-liberal economics and
liberal democratic theory" (Hulme and Edwards 1997a, 5)—coupled with the
"modernizing" aspirations of the region’s restructured States and the technocratization
of Latin American politics in this era of open markets and eroding State
social policies—also have contributed to the booming NGOization of Latin
American feminisms as well as other social movement fields. As Isebill
V. Gruhn argues, "[N]ot only is marketisation and democratisation the current
fad in development thinking but non-governmental organizations . . . have
come to be regarded as the vehicle of choice—the Magic Bullet—for fostering
currently fashionable development strategies" (1997, 325).
targeting women are among those "currently fashionable" strategies advanced
by Latin American governments seeking to realize their aspirations to "modernity"
through global markets. The Chilean government—the putative "jaguar" of
development in the region—professes that "overcoming discrimination against
women . . . has been necessitated by the government’s three fundamental
guidelines for the current period—strengthening democracy, national economic
development and modernization" (SERNAM 1994, 5). Similarly, Samper’s Libro
Blanco de la Mujer invokes modernity in declaring: "Since the
rights of man which provide the foundations of modern democratic societies
were formulated and promulgated, the notion of the equality of all human
beings from birth has gradually been converted into a powerful rhetoric
about equity" ["Desde cuando se formularon y promulgaron los derechos del
hombre que fundamentan las sociedades democráticas modernas, la
noción de la igualdad de todos los seres humanos desde su nacimiento,
se ha ido conviertiendo en una poderosa retórica sobre la equidad"]
(Presidencia de la República de Colombia 1994, n.p.).
the local and global feminist lobbies’ central role in advocating for the
changed international gender norms that help foster this brand of modern,
gender-friendly State discourse, however, the terms of such "incorporation"
are not necessarily feminist-inspired. One Colombian local government official
neatly summed up how feminists’ political indictment of women’s subordination
is too often translated or tergiversated by State bureaucrats: "now things
have changed, it’s no longer that radical feminism of the 1970s, now its
gender perspectives" ["ahora la cosa cambió, ya no es aquel feminismo
radical de los años 70, ahora es perspectiva de género"].
Among some staff members of the specialized government machineries I interviewed,
"gender" seems to have become part of the lexicon of technical planning,
a power-neutral indicator of "modernity" and "development" rather than
a power-laden field of unequal relations between women and men. As the
Director of SERNAM in the Santiago Metropolitan Region emphasized in our
conversation, "our work is as technical as possible . . . and there is
a great deal of work to be done on the operational side of gender" ["hacemos
un trabajo lo más tecnico posible . . . y hay mucho trabajo que
hacer en la parte operativa de género"].
new globally stylish imperative to "incorporate gender" into development
planning may be leading States and IGOs to "consult" local and transnational
feminist NGOs and networks more for their technical capabilities and "gender
expertise" than in their "hybrid" capacity as feminist movement organizations
advocating for more meaningful citizenship for women. The director of the
women’s office of ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the
Caribbean), for example, stressed the important role of feminist NGOs in
providing her with asesoria and stated she regularly counts on them
for input on policy given the budgetary and staff limitations of her office.
Though SERNAM—with its over 350 employees—is perhaps the largest of the
region’s specialized State machineries, it too regularly turns to the more
"technically competent" of feminist NGOs to conduct research on indicators
of gender inequality, draft policy statements, or evaluate the effectiveness
of its various targeted social programs.
specialized State machineries in most of the rest of the region typically
lack staff with expertise in "gender matters" and are generally understaffed,
underfunded, and often marginalized from centers of power within the State,
professionalized NGOs with trans/national policy experience have in many
cases become their privileged interlocutors within the feminist movement
field. Though in countries such as Brazil, advice or asesoria are
still often offered free-of-charge by NGOs anxious to influence the direction
of State-policies-with-a-gender perspective, global pressures and the technical
exigencies of "gender planning" may lead other specialized machineries
to increasingly subcontract data gathering, policy assessment and other
forms of project management to select feminist NGOs (Lind 1995, 145; see
also Friedman 1997; Schild 1998 ; Frohmann and Valdés, 1995).
turn towards feminist NGOs is also inspired by "modern" governments’ professed
intention to promote "the incorporation and participation of all civil
society in the task of generating new gender social relations" (SERNAM
1994, 7). And, among the diverse organizations that make up civil society,
NGOs are now often proclaimed to be the key "partners" of local and national
governments in advancing social and economic "modernization."
the preparatory process for the recent string of World Summits—particularly
Cairo and Beijing—many Latin American governments called on select feminist
NGOs, along with gender specialists from the academy, to prepare studies
evaluating progress on gender equity over the last two decades. And in
keeping with the New Policy Agenda’s view of NGOs "as vehicles for ‘democratisation’
and essential components of a thriving ‘civil society’" (Hulme and Edwards
1997a, 6), a veritable UN-Summits bonanza of grant funds was channeled
from Northern-based private donors and bilateral and multilateral agencies
to those feminist NGOs willing and able (and judged to be technically competent)
to work as "intermediaries" in promoting the involvement of "female civil
society" in the official and parallel preparatory processes for these World
Conferences. In most countries, those NGOs already skilled in the art of
lobbying—who possessed policy-specialized staff, had previous experience
in the UN process and earned handsome foreign funding—were the ones who
orchestrated national and regional Beijing-related events, defined the
larger women’s movement’s Beijing agenda, and organized the pre-FWCW coordinations
governments’, donors’ and IGOs’ professed zeal for encouraging a "thriving
civil society," however, the criteria adopted in determining which NGOs
will be consulted or funded seldom prioritize the extent to which such
organizations actually function as intermediaries or conduits for the larger
civil society constituencies officials presume them to represent. Rather,
which NGOs can best "maximize impact" with the monies allotted or which
have the technical/professional capabilities deemed necessary for project
execution or gender planning appear to be determinant (Lebon, forthcoming;
Barrig 1997a; Motta 1995).
non-membership organizations, most feminist NGOs are, of course, acutely
aware of the fact that they don’t "represent" anyone. Yet for local States
and IGOs alike, professionalized NGOs appear to have become convenient
surrogates for civil society. In the Chilean case, María
Elena Valenzuela argues that "SERNAM has privileged interlocution with
institutions made up of experts and professionals which have contributed
through evaluations and studies to design the themes and options of public
policy" ["el SERNAM ha privilegiado la interlocución con las instituciones
conformadas por expertos/as y profesionales que han contribuído
a través de diagnósticos y estudios a diseñar los
temas y opciones de políticas"] and further maintains that through
this strategy "SERNAM has tried to make up for its lack of interlocution
with grassroots women’s organizations, whose demands are expressed in mediated
form through the knowledge produced by NGOs" ["el SERNAM ha intentado suplir
su falta de interlocución con las organizaciones [sociales de mujeres],
cuyas demandas son expresadas mediatizadamente a través del conocimiento
producido por las ONGs"] (1997, 22).
Neo-liberal States and the Boom in NGO Sub-contracting
the most striking local examples I found of the growing global tendency
to favor more "technocratic" of sectors of civil society was the "Concertación
ONG’s-Estado" discourse of the Alcaldia de Santiago de Cali under the
administration of Mauricio Guzmán Cuevas. In a brochure entitled,
"El Rostro Social de Santiago de Cali," the local government celebrates
"the existence of a great number of non-governmental organizations" ["la
existencia de un gran número de organizaciones no gubernamentales"]
in the city while stressing that
the years, the work of many of these NGOs has become more complex. To their
initial ideological convictions, they have incorporated an ever more technical
professional dimension in approaching their work, such that along with
promoting the development of social subjects, they are equally interested
in generating new institutional forms." [A lo largo de estos años,
el quehacer de muchas de estas ONG’s se ha vuelto más complejo.
A sus convicciones ideológicas iniciales han incorporado una dimensión
cada vez más técnica profesional para abordar su trabajo,
de manera que junto con impulsar el desarrollo de los sujetos sociales,
están igualmente interesadas en generar nuevas formas institucionales]
(Alcadia Santiago de Cali 1997, 6).
same document goes on to state that "NGOs are professionalizing themselves
and they are beginning to introduce effeciency critieria in their work,
which allows them in their contractual relation with the Administration
to develop and execute social projects directed as the most vulnerable
populations" ["las ONG’s se profesionalizan y empiezan a introducir criterios
de eficiencia en su trabajo, lo cual les permite en su relación
contractual con la Administración desarrollar y ejecutar los proyectos
sociales dirigidos a las poblaciones más vulnerables. . ."] (Ibid.,
to David Hulme and Michael Edwards, such discourse is fully in keeping
with the shrinking State role in the realm of social policy—a key feature
of the New Policy Agenda:
and private initiative are seen as the most efficient mechanisms for achieving
economic growth and providing most services to most people . . . because
of their supposed cost-effectiveness in reaching the poorest, official
agencies support NGOs in providing welfare services to those who cannot
be reached by markets . . . . NGOs have a long history of providing welfare
services to poor people in countries where governments lacked the resources
to ensure universal coverage in health and education; the difference is
that now they are seen as the preferred channel for service-provision in
deliberate substitution for the state" (1997a, 6).
interviews with Cali public officials, I learned that NGOs had become a
kind of panacea in the city government’s efforts to become "more than an
executor . . . a coordinator and orienting force in/of social policies"
["más que un ejecutor. . . un organismo coordinador y orientador
de politicas sociales"] (Alcadia Santiago de Cali, 6). The local Secretary
of Social Welfare and Community Action raved about how efficient it was
to hire NGOs to execute government programs: "I could contract 1,000 public
servants" ["yo podria contratar 1,000 funcionários"] but instead
"I hire 200 NGOs . . . There are no resources . . . and that way we can
do more in the social realm" ["yo contrato 200 ONGs . . . No hay recursos.
. . y así se puede hacer más en el area social"]. The head
of the División de Mujer y Género of this
same municipal department stressed, "We don’t execute/implement anything
. . . we work with NGOs, but not will all of them ["Nosotros no ejecutamos
nada . . . trabajamos con ONGs, pero no con todas" ].
most feminist groups in the city don’t have a technical profile suitable
to the city administration’s needs, Alcaldia officials have turned to GSROs
with "women’s programs," as well as the local university’s women’s studies
center for technical assistance on gender matters. The Division of Women
and Gender contracted three GSROs—charged with assessing poor women’s health
needs, promoting community participation, and training health personnel
in "perspectivas de género"—to set up its Programa de
Salud Integral de la Mujer. Other NGOs were hired to train "vulnerable"
female-heads-of household in hotel and gastronomical services and the care
of children and the elderly, for the Alcaldia’s Programa de Capacitación
para el Trabajo.
faculty at Cali’s Universidad del Valle complained that cuts in State funding
for public universities also have pushed them in the direction of services
provision. "The university is becoming ‘ngo-ized’" ["La universidad se
‘onganiza’"], one frustrated feminist scholar affirmed. The women’s studies
center has a standing contract with the Alcadía in the areas of
"advice and training in gender" ["asesoria y capacitación
en género"]: faculty have authored many of the progressive-sounding
municipal documents on gender equity and set up a number of gender-training
courses, mainly for public servants. University researchers maintained
that this contractual relationship with the local State had made it difficult
to undertake more critical rather than technical studies of gender politics.
feminist and "mixed" NGOs in Cali also have established convenios
with federal government ministries and IGOs. Fundación Sí
Mujer, for example, offers capacitación to health workers
and educators as part of a national sex education program established by
the federal government in 1993. And the women’s program of the Fundación
FES coordinates two IGO- and State-funded gender projects: one on Famílias
con jefaturas femeninas, which operates in 24 cities and subcontracts
the services of 26 NGOs; the other a IDB-funded program dubbed "Capacitación,
Promoción y Desarrollo Integral de la Mujer." Both combine job
training with the now requisite "capacitación en desarrollo
personal." Cali Alcaldia-sponsored job training training programs for
at-risk women as well as several mounted by the Consejería de
la Mujer, in the Gobernación of Antioquia, also generally
include a "desarrollo personal" component.
I found this "personal development" emphasis to be rampant in programs
targeting poor women in both Chile and Colombia. Verónica Schild
provides a compelling explanation for the widespread adoption of such programs,
arguing that they provide a "measure" of the "cultural effect of the women’s
movement," whereby "the days when women could be appealed to by political
parties and governments alike as homemakers, wives, and mothers . . . are
gone. Women in Chile today are appealed to as individuals, selves with
their own needs and rights." She goes on to suggest that "government programs,
party-based foundations, and other related initiatives [aimed at women]
all contain a version of the curriculum first developed by NGOs. (1998,
findings suggest that many NGOs in fact continue to offer various capacitación
courses for women in grassroots organizations; only now increasing numbers
are doing so under government contract. Schild notes that "the content
of personal development varies from program to program" (Ibid.)
and one could surely hypothesize that it might matter a great deal whether
such programs are administered by local governments such as that of Cali,
the "gender division" of "mixed" GSROs, or women’s NGOs with a "hybrid"
professional-feminist movement identity. It might make considerable difference
whether feminist NGOs design and administer training programs or
merely execute or implement ready-made ones, moreover. We are in desperate
need of in-depth, ethnographic studies that critically examine the different
methodologies and concrete, medium-to-long term effects of the wide gamut
of capacitación programs conducted by State, private consulting
firms, non-feminist GSROs, and feminist NGOs throughout Latin America today.
It seems imperative to assess comparatively the content and consequences
of diverse programs lumped under seemingly similar rubrics, such as women’s
integral health or personal development. At present, most follow-up
assessments or evaluations of the effects of varying capacitación
programs are most often quick-and-dirty, quantitative ones, often conducted
by many of the same NGOs contracted by governments or IGOs to offer such
courses in the first place.
interviews in Chile, in particular, suggest that, despite similar nomenclature,
the political effects of capacitación may vary quite widely.
Members of Tierra Nuestra, the small NGO that works with popular women’s
groups in Santiago’s poblaciones, claimed that their programs for
women differed markedly from those of PRODEMU (Fundación para
la Promoción y Desarrollo de la Mujer), a para-state/private
foundation created in 1990 by Christian-democratic sectors of the governing
coalition which offers a variety of craft workshops and other (often sex-typed)
training programs for low-income women—typically accompanied by a required
dose of "personal development." When asked how exactly their own capacitaciones
and talleres for neighborhood women differed from PRODEMU’s, Tierra Nuestra
staff stressed that, when "solicited by a local women’s group," PRODEMU
simply responds to "demand" and provides "narrow or focused and individual
support" ["apoyo puntual e individual"] for a specified period of time
(a 2-4 week course on hairdressing or cuisine, with a required personal
development module, for instance), whereas "we’re always here, responding
to the needs and accompanying collective struggles of these women," helping
in organizing on-going local activities.
might suggest, drawing on Nancy Fraser (1989), that such differing cultural-political
interventions, while collapsed under the label capacitación,
could have radically divergent consequences for how women of the popular
classes interpret and articulate their "needs" in the first place. Women
leaders of a popular women’s group in Santiago’s urban periphery insisted
that "the PRODEMU people aren’t interested in organizing or mobilizing
women, they’re interest in the courses" ["a la gente de PRODEMU no les
interesa la organización y mucho menos la movilización de
las mujeres, les interesan los cursos"] and noted that, whereas this para-state
foundation "works/departs from the family and works toward women, we work
from women toward the family" ["trabaja desde la familia hacia la mujer,
nosotras trabajamos desde la mujer hacia la familia"]. These women, who’d
been active in their neighborhood Casa de la Mujer since the early 1980s—set
up by a GSRO during the dictatorship—were now working as personal development
monitoras for PRODEMU. But they assured me that their work was "subversive"
of the curriculum developed by that quasi-State agency, that the content
of their class discussions was more like that of courses offered by their
own grassroots organization.
seems that in Chile "capacitación con perspectiva de género"—offered
by feminist and non-feminist NGOs, women’s GROs, private consulting firms,
and many government agencies—has become a major growth industry. Much of
this involves courses on "desarrollo personal" and job training programs
aimed at the poorest of the poor, particularly women heads-of-household,
in an effort to keep them from slipping through the holes at the bottom
of the bottom of the neo-liberal economic barrel. As one former feminist
activist who now coordinates the Oficina de la Mujer in one of Santiago’s
poorest comunas told me, Chile’s Estado Subsidiario tries
to promote "people with entrepeneurial capacity" ["gente con capacidad
emprendedora"] to compete in the free market; those deemed to be lacking
that capacity are simply further economically marginalized or disenfranchised.
Another feminist argued that "the Chilean State has begun to work only
with social pathologies" ["el Estado Chileno ha empezado a trabajar solo
con patologias sociales"]. It, like other "modern" Latin American States,
has recodified policies toward women by treating the consequences of uneven
gender power relations and market-induced exclusion as though they were
"extreme situations" ["situaciones extremas"]. Violence against women is
thus seen as a pathological condition rather than as an expression or consequence
of women’s subordination; and while "jefas de hogar" have always
existed, their "situation" is now framed as a social disease that must
be combated to achieve "modernization."
feminists I talked with in Santiago were acutely aware of the problematic
motives driving the burgeoning local capacitación market,
but many also noted that diminishing funding from private donors and bilateral
and multilateral agencies has pushed NGOs to increase their supply of training
programs and other sub-contracted services. Indeed, the Chilean government’s
much-touted economic success story has led many donors to redirect funds
away from local NGOs towards others in "needier" societies in the South.
And those agencies that still work in Chile now often channel funds for
"gender programs" into SERNAM, which in turn contracts NGO services, while
reserving some (relatively limited) funds to distribute to NGOs and researchers
through grant competitions. Schild maintains that "[o]ften, NGOs are put
in the position of having to compete with SERNAM for funding . . . . As
a result of . . . changing priorities of foreign and domestic funding,
most women’s NGOs, and indeed most local or community-based NGOs, are either
scrambling to survive or disappearing altogether. Those that remain are
increasingly dependent on government-funded programs to survive" (Schild
1998, 105). Barrig estimated that State funds today account for between
10 and 25 percent of the operating budgets of many Chilean feminist NGOs
the case of Colombia, Barrig found that "depending on the size and mission
of the institution, as well as its technical profile, 40-50 percent of
the budget of NGOs comes from State sources" ["Dependiendo de la dimensión
y misión de la institución, así como de su perfil
técnico, los presupuestos de varias ONGs estarían cubiertos
de un porcentaje del 40 a 50% por sus recursos provenientes del Estado"]
(1997b, 10). In Brazil, this trend is as yet less accentuated. As of 1993,
"only 3.2 percent of [feminist NGO] monies came from Brazilian government
sources" (Lebon, forthcoming, 19). But there, too, sub-contracting may
be on the rise: diminishing international funding has also led many Brazilian
feminist NGOs to strike convenios with state and local governments.
At the federal level, the Cardoso administration’s Comunidade Solidária—a
"social adjustment" program similar to those recently established in many
countries in the region "targeted to those groups most clearly excluded
or victimized by structural adjustment policies" (Alvarez, Dagnino and
Escobar 1998, 22)—has proclaimed a desire to work in "partnership" [parceria]
with NGOs to improve social services and provide job training for the poor.
growing erasure of the State from the realm of social policy in Latin America
(Benería 1996; Barrig 1996), then, has directly contributed to a
significant shift in the kinds of activities undertaken by growing numbers
of feminist and non-feminist NGOs alike. And donors also have had a strong
hand in this turn toward more technical, less "activist" kinds of activities.
My interviews (and my own experience at the Ford Foundation) suggested
that funding for projects centered on feminist mobilization and "concientizacíon"
has become more difficult to secure. The global donor community or what
the NGO world dubs "international cooperation" has changed its priorities
over time: "The 60s were a the decade of development and the green revolution,
the 70s of one of solidarity. The 80s was the partnership decade, and now,
in the 90s, what prevails is professionalism, impact, results." ["A década
de 60 foi a do desenvolvimento e da ‘revolução verde,’ a
de 70 foi a da solidariedade. A década de 80 foi a da parceria,
e agora, nos 90, o que predomina é o profissionalismo, o impacto,
os resultados"] (Reich 1995, cited in Lebon forthcoming, 10). The factors
behind this reorientation are well beyond the scope of the present paper.
But again my experience as part of the "donor community" confirms this
heightened emphasis on visible impact and discrete project results. In
insisting on measurable outcomes and national or even transnational "policy
relevance," donors (however inadvertently and sometimes reluctantly) have
helped reorient the activities and internal dynamics of many NGOs (Hulme
and Edwards 1997a and 1997b; Lebon forthcoming; McDonald 1996; Barrig 1997a).
Also, the modes of social-political intervention and issues prioritized
by the donor community are understandably mirrored in the NGO world. That
is, donor demand seems to drive project supply more often than the other
way around: "the privileged themes are determined by moneis from international
cooperation and the State" ["los temas privilegiados los determina el dinero
de la cooperación y el Estado"].
stress at this point that I’m not trying to argue that there’s something
intrinsically wrong with feminist NGO’s sub-contracting their services
as experts or executors of government programs, especially when organizational
survival and personal livelihoods are increasingly at stake. One needn’t
resort to what one Colombian interviewee referred to as the "democrateria"
or facile populism that often pervades social movement discourse—wherein
some unilaterally invoke radical egalitarian ideals to proclaim it immoral
and anti-democratic for other actors to play specialized roles within heterogeneous
movement fields—however, to suggest that such trends may increasingly threaten
to "dehybridize" the heretofore dual identity of most Latin American feminist
NGOs. It is precisely that hybrid identity that up to now has formed the
mainstay of feminist NGOs’s critical ability to contest "pathologized"
versions of State-policies-with-a-gender-perspective, advocate for alternative
understandings of women’s rights, and promote women’s empowerment.
Growing Chasm between Feminist Activism and Professionalism?
competitive local and global "gender projects markets," coupled with the
shifting exigencies of international cooperation, may make it increasingly
difficult for Latin American feminist NGOs to maintain the delicate balance
between movement-oriented, contestatory activities and their expanding
technical-advisory relationship to donors, States and IGOs, however. Executing
State programs for "at-risk" women or evaluating the effects of State-policies-with-a-gender-perspective
still brings many feminist NGOs into regular contact with the poor and
working-class women’s organizations that were once their core constituencies.
But the nature of those linkages seems to be changing. Professionalized
feminist groups are now perhaps more typically present in Santiago’s poblaciones
or São Paulo’s favelas to administer short-term training courses
or conduct surveys to assess the poverty levels of female-headed households.
And as several interviewees noted, this has worked to distance feminist
activist-professionals from "las mujeres."
movement face of NGOs is challenged by the increased premium placed on
policy-relevant activities and by their contractual relationships to States
and donors who expect visible, short-term "results" on gender projects.
Such exigencies may undermine NGOs ability to pursue more process-oriented
forms of feminist cultural-political intervention—such as consciousness-raising,
popular education or other strategies aimed transforming those gender power
relations manifest in the realms of culture and daily life—forms of gendered
injustice that defy "gender planning" quick-fixes.
argue that donor privileging of NGO preparations for the UN Summits, for
instance, led many professionalized feminist groups to neglect their work
with the base. As one Colombian NGO activist-professional proclaimed, "during
the Beijing process, we abandoned grassroots women for over two years"
["durante Beijing, dejamos a las mujeres durante 2 años"]. In encouraging
feminist NGOs to develop new professional skills in transnational policy
advocacy and funding them to organize specialized seminars and conduct
studies aimed at impacting the UN process, some in the NGO field felt "the
[UN] conferences entertained or distracted feminists, who stopped intervening
in civil society" ["Las conferencias entretuvieron tanto a las feministas
que dejaron de incidir en la sociedad civil"].
hybrid identity of most feminist NGOs was aptly captured by the Beijing
NGO Coordination’s slogan that perparations for the FWCW would serve the
movement as both "text and pretext." The aim was to develop skills in national
and international policy advocacy which would enable feminists to influence
the texts of regional and global Platforms for Action, while simultaneously
using the FWCW as a pretext for remobilizing women’s movements and fomenting
public debate on remedies to gender inequality. Even when many of the UN-focused
activities sponsored by NGOs involved multiple forms of outreach to grassroots
women’s groups and other actors in the heterogeneous women’s movement field,
however, many women I talked with maintained that technical efforts to
influence texts sometimes overrode efforts to use the UN process as a consciousness-raising/educational
pretext. As one Chilean put it, "professionalization has taken over all
of the space. . . the concientization part has been practically forgotten.
. ." ["profesionalización ha abarcado todo el espácio. .
. la parte de la concientización está practicamente olvidada.
. .]. And while recognizing that professionalized groups have done "important
work for the movement," many—including NGO activist-professionals themselves—felt
there was "a very big chasm between some NGOs and las mujeres,"
partly because "they speak a very technical language" ["un desface muy
grande entre algunas ONGs y las mujeres. . . hablan un lenguaje muy técnico"].
technical-professional face of NGOs appears to have been foregrounded as
a consequence of shifting donor and IGO exigencies and State sub-contracting.
While the "policy-relevant" knowledge about gender-based inequities produced
by NGOs has enabled feminists to mount credible challenges to currently
fashionable State-policies-with-gender-perspective, there is growing concern
within the feminist field that "the ability of NGOs to articulate approaches,
ideas, language, and values that run counter to official orthodoxies may
. . . be compromised" and that their willingness "to speak out on issues
that are unpopular with governments will be diluted by their growing dependence
on official aid" (Edwards and Hulme1996, 7). Many feminists maintained
that, regardless of their technical competence, NGOs that refuse to play
by the rules of the game or whose discourses and practices run counter
to the "official orthodoxies" de turno may be losing out in the
gender projects market and are often silenced or marginalized from public
others suggested that, despite official claims to the contrary, less-than-technical
criteria are too often employed by governments and IGOs when sub-contracting
services or hiring NGOs as "gender experts": "the relationship with the
State has been privatized" ["se ha privatizado la relación con el
Estado"], one Peruvian NGO activist bemoaned. When NGOs are critical of
the government, they are, predictably, less likely to get contracts or
grants, which some claim results in a tendency toward "self-censorship
beyond even that which the State requires of you" ["autocensurarte inclusive
más allá de lo que te pide el Estado"]. Resource allocations
and contracts are thus skewed towards those deemed to be "politically trustworthy"
or whose projects have readily visible "policy relevance." Those resources,
in turn, provide some in the NGO feminist field with greater access to
national and global policy microphones than others.
feminists I talked with, including activist-professionals from the very
NGOs most regularly summoned for State or IGO gender consultancies, project/policy
assessments, or capacitación, seemed acutely aware of this
growing bias in favor of particular types of feminist "intermediary" organizations
and activities. Some were critical of the increased "valorization of institutionalized
NGOs" while "the rest are not even consulted" ["valorización de
las ONGs institucionalizadas" while "las demás no son consultadas"].
Recent scholarly analyses of NGOs’ would seem to confirm the bias perceived
by many in the feminist field: "the popularity of certain forms of NGOs
(large, able to absorb donor funding, quiescent) with donors [and local
States] may lead to a widening rift between well-resourced service providers
and poorly-funded social mobilization agencies" (Hulme and Edwards 1997b,
281). Such a rift is increasingly in evidence in the contemporary Latin
American feminist movement field.
the NGO Boom? Manuevering the New [Gendered] Policy Agenda and Rearticulating
the Activist and Professional Dimensions of Feminist NGOs
most vehement critics of feminist NGOs are the feministas autónomas—a
new, relatively small, but highly vocal political current within the Latin
American feminist field who claim that NGOs have "institutionalized" the
women’s movement and "sold out" to the forces of "patriarchy." During the
most recent of the periodic Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentros,
the seventh since 1981, held in Cartagena, Chile, in November 1996, Chilean
autónomas who organized the gathering brought their scathing
critique of "professionalized feminism" into the center of debate within
the feminist field.
explaining the origins of their "autonomous movement" in Chile in the early
1990s, the Movimiento Feminista Autónomo (MFA) maintained:
process of constitution of the autonomous feminist movement coincides with
the process in which feminism finds itself in general with regard to defining
its relationship to the system. In a period where the ideology of neoliberalism
is taking root . . . feminism could not remain at the margin of this historic
problematic and therefore two political currents have assumed clear profile.
One, led from the institutions (la institucionalidad) is represented
fundamentally by women who work for NGOs whose ideology responds from a
gender standpoint to the neoliberal ideology of pragmatism, the endiosamiento
of the system, mystification. . . and the attempt to make invisible (la
invisibilización) and supplant the movimiento social de mujeres
and the feminist movement. The other current, the autonomous one, is the
one that ‘stands on the other corner’ (se ‘para en la otra esquina’),
from the standpoint of the movement and the protagonism of women, questioning
the values of the system and its institutions."
a member of the militantly autonomous Bolivian feminist collective, Mujeres
Creando, NGOs have become "decorative and functional complements of
patriarchal policies" ["complementos decorativos y funcionales de políticas
patriarcales"] and now constitute a "gender technocracy":
we speak of a gender technocracy it stems from their having put their knowledge
to the service of national and international patriarchal institutionality,
be it at the governmental or state level or in some calses also entrepeneurial
and transnational. They are not nourishing the femininst movement and worst
still they want to constitute themselves as ‘expert vocies’ that validate
and legitimate feminists. [En el momento en el cual nosotras hablamos de
tecnocracia de género es a partir de haber puesto su saber al servicio
de la institucionalidad patriarcal internacional y nacional, sea a nivel
gubernamental , estatal como también en algunos casos empresarial
y transnacional. Y no a nutrir y alimentar al movimiento feminista y para
el colmo quieran constituirse en nuestras "voces expertas" que validan
y legitiman a las feministas].
who accuse NGOs of having "indecent relations with the State" ["relaciones
indecentes con el Estado"] do not consider the women the autonomas pejoratively
dubbed "las institucionales" to form part of the feminist movement
field: "we do not think that NGOs as NGOs, that is, as institutions, or
the gender technocracy are constitutive parts of the movement. We believe
there may be feminist women working in these institutions but little by
little the institutionalized and technocratic tendencies will destroy them"
["nosotras no consideramos que las ONGs como ONGs, es decir, en tanto instituciones,
ni la tecnocracia de género sean partes constitutivas del movimiento.
Creemos que pueden haber mujeres feministas trabajando en estas instituciones
pero que poco a poco la tendencia institucionalizada y tecnocrática
las esta destruyendo"]. Similarly, one of the core idealogues of the Chilean
autónoma current, affirms "we maintain that these institutions
are not neutral, that they belong to the system and sustain it, and that
money thereby becomes a political instrument" ["Sostenemos que estas instituciones
no son neutras, que pertenecen a un sistema y lo sostienen, y que el dinero
pasa a ser entonces un instrumento político"].
damning, in this view, has been NGOs’ loss of "autonomy." Autonomy, according
to this radical political current, is determined by the particular location
or space presently occupied by women who are deemed to have left
the feminist fold by virtue of wading too far into patriarchal waters:
"For us, autonomy plays a papel ubicativo [a locational role]. Where
do we want to be, where should we plant the seeds of our work and for whom
do we harvest its fruits?" [Para nosotras la autonomía juega un
papel ubicativo. ¿Donde queremos estar, dónde sembraremos
la semilla de nuestro trabajo y para quién cosecharemos esos frutos]..
this brand of Manicheaistic, iron-law-of-oligarchy discourse is clearly
belied by the heterogeneity of origins, the diversity of practices
and the hybrid identity that still characterizes many feminist NGOs, most
of whose members are quite self-consciously grappling with some of the
very contradictions so vehemently condemned by the autónomas.
Indeed, many women the autonomas identified with "institutionalized
feminism" told me, "there’s a good chunk of reason in what they are laying
out" ["hay un buen cacho de razón en lo que ellas estaban colocando]."
Most expressed concern that elements of the feminist movements’ agenda
had come "too close for comfort" to that of States and IGOs. As one put
it, "the women’s movement’s agenda has been desdibujada . . . it
is not distinguishable from that of the government" ["se ha desdibujado
la agenda del movimiento de mujeres. . . no se distingue de la del gobierno"].
And some NGO activist-professionals went so far as to suggest that some
organizations are "being functional as NGOs; it’s not good or bad, it’s
just a reality. But we must ask ourselves, functional to an agenda constructed
by whom?" ["nosotras estamos siendo funcionales en cuanto ONG", no es bueno,
no es malo, es una realidad"; "funcionales a una agenda que construye quién?"].
expressed an urgent need to reassess their current practices as feminists,
to rearticulate the two faces of NGOs’ heretofore hybrid identity. Still,
many were distressed that the weight of the new local and global [gender]
policy agenda was forcing NGOs to privilege the technical- professional
activities and to neglect other dimensions of "movement work" so central
to feminist visions of social transformation shared by NGOers and others
in the feminist field.
to submit that feminist NGOs are hardly doomed to become a part of what
some scholars have dubbed the "anti-politics machine" of development (Ferguson
1994) and that "blanket assessments of NGOs as either the Third World’s
salvation or the newest vehicle for Western domination" (Starn, forthcoming,
184) or of feminist NGOs as mere puppets of planetary patriarchy, as the
autónomas would have us believe, are inadequate. The "New [gendered]
Policy Agenda" is neither as monolithic, irreversible or internally coherent
as some of the more dire scholarly and activist forecasts might lead us
to think. Latin American feminist NGOs, for example, have no doubt been
able to use funds flowing from the New Gender Policy Agenda to "make their
voices heard more loudly and more often through lobbying and advocacy"
(Edwards and Hulme 1996, 4)—as they certainly did during the recent string
of UN Summits.
is more room for maneuver (or jogo de cintura, as the Brazilians
might put it—loosely translated as "swing of the hips") in this restructured
late modern, post-transtion, and "post-Beijing" terrain of local and global
gender politics. First, those of us in the North who consider ourselves
part of the so-called "global feminist movement" could take IGOs, Northern
States and donors to task on their professed intention to promote a "thriving
civil society" that would promote "gender equity" and expand democratization.
Many Latin American feminists I talked with stressed there was a pressing
need for NGOs to devise ways of negotiating collectively with "la
cooperación internacional," not just about resources and time-lines
for "projects" but also about longer-term programmatic lines of action
and political priorities. In alliance with our feminist counterparts in
the South of the Americas, we in the North might pressure donors and development
aid agencies to adopt more flexible criteria in selecting NGO projects
for funding—more explicitly call their bluff, if you will.
donors have had as strong a hand in skewing the feminist movement field
toward more technical-professional endeavors as my findings and other critical
studies (Lebon, forthcoming; MacDonald 1995 and 1996) suggest, then they
could surely tilt the scales at least a bit more in the other direction.
Those of us who are social scientists or area specialists could summon
our own "technical expertise" to demonstrate the ways in which increased
NGO competence in service delivery, project execution, and policy assessment
does not exhaust their potential contributions to "strengthening civil
society." Establishing funding criteria that would enhance rather than
obstruct NGOs’ historically "intermediary" roles and "hybrid" political
identities would surely be a step in the right direction. Such measures
might include materially and politically rewarding those NGOs that deploy
innovative methodologies to simultaneously "reach up" into national and
transnational policy arenas on "behalf of women" while "reaching down"
into the grassroots and "across" to other actors in civil society and in
the heterogeneous women’s movement field.
could surely also "encourage" NGOs to more thoroughly involve broader sectors
of movement and civil society constituencies in their "technical" evaluations
of fashionable State-policies-with-a-gender-perspective, allowing them
more time for consultation, genuine interlocution, and critical reflection
than impact- or results-driven project chronograms typically do: agencies
too often "expect contracted outputs to be achieved and are less interested
in a learning process . . . . Time and space for reflection may be reduced.
. ." (Edwards and Hulme 1996, 7). Building genuinely "gender-friendly"
polities and democratic civil societies in the context of historically
highly stratified societies, "illiberal" States, and global economic restructuring,
after all, might require longer-term donor "investments."
the autónomas’ claim that it is feminists’ ubicación
or location in NGOs or the State apparatus that seals their fate as handmaidens
of patriarchal neo-liberalism, I would submit that there is also considerable
room for maneuver within the "institutionalized" feminist field. It is
clearly possible to deploy a wide variety of feminist practices from any
given location, even under the adverse structural-political conditions
I’ve tried to outline. The current capacitación craze is
a case in point. As the case of grassroots women leaders of a Casa de la
Mujer in Santiago suggested, it is certainly possible to "subvert" the
State’s agenda for at-risk women while executing its projects under contract.
And feminist NGOs no doubt do a better job of combining women’s "collective
empowerment" while administering courses in "personal development" than
do non-feminist GSROs with "gender programs" or para-state agencies such
pragmatist in me (like many activist-professionals in NGOs) is inclined
to think that "modern" Latin American States are going to continue sub-contracting
anyway, so why not "just do it" ourselves? Though we need rigorous, scholarly
assessments of the differing effects of various modalities of capacitación
with a gender perspective for unsettling prevailing gender power arrangements,
I have tried to suggest that "hybrid" feminist NGOs which retain solid
linkages to the larger women’s movement field seem to have been able to
strike a balance between feminist transformational visions and the less
than self-evidently pro-equity goals of "modern" Latin American States.
But it is nonetheless incumbent upon us as feminists to reflect further
on the possible political consequences of States and IGOs’ growing
tendency to view NGOs—in Latin America and elsewhere—primarily as expert
service providers and surrogates for civil society.
much room is available for maneuver within the confines of State-policies-with-a-gender-perspective,
moreover, will vary in different global and local political conjunctures
and according to specific characteristics of local States. Barrig’s findings
(1997b), for instance, suggest that Colombian NGOs’ "autonomy" seems to
have been signficantly less compromised, despite a growing dependence on
State funding, in part due to the Colombian State’s own lack of "institutionalization"
and consequent lack of disciplinary or regulatory capacities. Dealing with
the highly institutionalized, legalistic, and rigorously disciplinary Chilean
State may be another matter altogether.
in maneuvering the always shifting terrain of State gender politics, many
NGO activist-professionals suggested that it is possible to retain
a "dual identity" and "do business" with particular governments on "proyectos
puntuales" (specific projects). But most insisted that it is imperative
for feminists to continually evaluate and interrogate their contractual
and political relationship with official political arenas rather than adopting
a rigid, "principled" position. Successfully negotiating such "jogos
de cintura puntuales," however, may be more feasible when NGOs can
invoke collective gendered citizenship claims and seek the support of others
in the feminist field than when they try to "go it alone" in local and
global gender projects markets. This, many women I talked with suggested,
requires enhanced horizontal NGO accountability.
current debates among Latin American feminists surrounding the NGO boom
have gone a long way toward revitalizing what feminist political theorist,
Jane Mansbridge, has dubbed "discursive accountability":
politically active feminists in any country work in occupations, from homemaker
to chief executive officer, whose primary goal is not to advance feminism.
When their work affects women, these feminists often turn for conscious
inspiration to the ‘women’s movement.’ They also, I argue, often feel internally
accountable to that movement. The entity—"women’s movement" or "feminist
movement"—to which they feel accountable is neither an aggregation of organizations
nor an aggregation of individual members but a discourse. It is a set of
changing, contested aspirations and understandings that provide conscious
goals, cognitive backing, and emotional support for each individual’s evolving
feminist identity . . . . If the movement is to maintain its discursive
tension, and if its street theory and working ideals are to remain responsive
to what is going on in women’s lives, it will always involve internal combat
. . ." (1995, 27).
movement fields are constituted by continual contestation—discursive
and strategic. Other actors recognized to form part of or share in the
ethical-political aims of a particular social movement field constitute
crucial referents for all who identify with a given movement. Even when
the feminist "other" is a declared public enemy, then—as the autónomas
are to the so-called institucionales—she remains a silent interlocutor.
Virtually every one of the women I interviewed this past summer in Colombia,
Chile, Peru, and Brazil—women who spanned the full range of locations in
the contemporary feminist movement field—had not only heard about the November
1996 feminist Encuentro. Most also appear to have felt compelled to reposition
themselves along the discursive axes of debate that materialized or were
crystallized there. And each seemed to have critically reconsidered her
own practices and discursive strategies within the general framework of
the debates surrounding professionalization and institutionalization. Rather
than signaling a "fracturing" of a feminist unity that never really existed,
then, current debates may be indicative of the continued vitality of Latin
American feminisms. And, in fostering a kind of discursive accountability
to the Latin American feminist "other" in relation to whom one continually
re-evaluates one’s own feminism and feminist practices, they may well point
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