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Gender and rural community development I: an analysis of policy approaches to development

Dr Chrissy King

PO Box 621 (BC), Toowoomba, Qld, 4350


This paper provides a critical analysis of different policy approaches to development that are particularly useful in understanding gender and rural community development in Australia; (i) the welfare approach, (ii) the equity approach, (iii) anti-poverty approach, (iv) efficiency approach, and (v) the empowerment approach. The paper concludes with a number of key features that need to be considered when using policy approaches as guides for project planning and implementation in rural communities. This is the first paper of a three paper series for this conference on Gender and Rural Community Development. Paper II illustrates gender issues that exist within the Australian rural community development domain. Paper III highlights a variety of tools for undertaking gender analysis in projects and organisations.

Background literature

It is becoming increasingly realised that community development cannot separate itself from women. The UN decade for women (1976-1985) highlighted the importance of women in the development process, establishing that women perform two thirds of the world's work, receive only ten percent of the world's income, and own only one percent of the means of production (Mosse, 1993). Considering that three quarters of the world's population receives only about one fifth of the world's income, the magnitude of the dispossession of the world's poorest women comes into focus.

Prior to 1970, development was assumed to benefit women through a 'trickle-down' process of the benefits from economic growth. Since then, however, the detrimental impact of development activities on women has been recognised, where benefits are commonly unequally distributed. Women have had relative powerlessness in decision making about development and in many cases workloads and problems have increased due to development activities (Gabriel, 1991).

'It is strange that when people think about 'a community' they often think mostly about women and children and when people think about 'development' they often think mostly of men....In both urban and rural communities in the developed and developing world, not only is it the women who usually care for both the young and the old, but also they procure key resources such as water and fuel and are involved in agriculture and livestock production, and trading activities.....all which are necessary for the survival of the family unit' (Lovel et al, 1985).

Rural community development programs in the past have been based on a variety of policy approaches, but many have not addressed women's roles as producers, carers and reproducers. Women's work, priorities and lives have not been incorporated into development agendas and policies, and as a result many development projects have failed. A number of policy approaches have been identified, including (i) the welfare approach, (ii) the equity approach, (iii) anti-poverty approach, (iv) efficiency approach, and (v) the empowerment approach (Moser, 1991). A personal analysis of these approaches is presented below, including a general description of the approach, its objective, strategy, impetus and rational, and finally a critique with an emphasis concentrating on rural women. This analysis has been influenced primarily from the work of four main authors, including Ostergaard (1992), Mosse (1993), Price(1993) and Moser(1991), unless otherwise stated. This paper endeavours to analyse these policy approaches addressing development and women and attempts to put forth a number of key practices that should be considered when planning development projects.

The Welfare Approach

The Welfare Approach (1950's and 60's) is grounded in the model of 'modernisation'. It involves the transformation of 'backward' economies by industrialisation, urbanisation, technology transfer, financial aid and the integration of 'third world' economies into the capitalist world market system (March et al., 1999). The actors involved in this approach are the government and voluntary charities. The government's role is to create a policy to support natural market process, while voluntary charities carry out the social welfare with some minimal assistance from government departments. The focus of this approach is as follows:

Objective: to eradicate poverty through economic growth (ie. trickle down effect),

Strategy: development assistance takes the form of financial aid for economic growth and relief aid for the 'socially vulnerable' when normal market structures breakdown,

Motivation: governments exist to maintain law and order and allow the market to operate,

Rationale: women are passive recipients rather than participants, and motherhood and child rearing are the most important roles for women.

Critique: History has shown that the welfare approach has not always been beneficial to rural women. New technology introduced for improved and more efficient farming practices has often replaced women's productive roles. In many cases time-saving mechanisation replaced the more laborious tasks in which women were involved (Gabriel, 1991). As these new innovations were introduced, men took over the tasks because they were less tedious and the operation of new innovations seemed to have some sort of prestigious 'look'. In parts of Africa, replacing women's hoeing by the plough has enabled men to take on an increased ploughing role (Boserup, 1986). In addition, Boserup suggests that work formerly undertaken by women such as water carrying, rice husking, wheat grinding, spinning and livestock feeding have all been replaced by mechanisation and this has resulted in rural women losing a useful source of income. This type of development, then, has driven women out of a productive economic activity.

Not only has mechanisation and new technologies had a detrimental effect, but imported and manufactured good have replaced local hand-made items for local exchange (Gabriel, 1991). Here, women have lost a source of income and have had to part with cash to purchase more expensive (and more prestigious) replacements of their hand-crafts. There are many examples where the welfare approach has been unsuccessful. In this approach, planning is top-down rather than interactive and it tends to encourage dependency rather than self-reliance and independence. Although these problems are evident, this approach is still very much in use, because it is seen as being 'politically' safe. It does not question the 'status quo' in terms of values, economic status, or the established sexual divisions of labour where women are only associated within the private sphere.

The Equity Approach

This approach emerged in the 1970's and was influenced by the work of Ester Boserup (1986). Its main idea was to remove inequity in the division of labour between men and women. The main actors came from the 'western' world including, governments, bilateral and multi-lateral aid agencies, and the women's movement. Third world governments found this approach quite threatening with its rhetoric of equality and donor agencies viewed the implicit redistribution of power as an unacceptable intervention in recipient countries' traditions. The focus of this approach is as follows,

Objective: to involve women as active participants in the development process, with both a productive role and reproductive role,

Strategy: recognition of the economic value of women's paid and unpaid work; recognition of the way in which development has affected women adversely; the pursuit of equality in the home and in the market place,

Motivation: challenging the assumption that modernisation automatically increases gender equality,

Rationale: recognition of women's need to earn a living and their right to equality.

Critique: This approach is also a top-down approach that is not about empowering women to bring about change themselves. It requires and relies on government intervention in the form of policy and legislation. Many projects carried out using this approach have been described as having women participants, but the question of what kind of participation was never addressed and neither was the question of control and decision making (Kihoro, 1992). Foreign aid agencies are seen to be playing a vital role in meeting the basic needs of underpriveledged women, but if planners do not see what women are already doing in their societies the projects will fail. In Gambia during the mid 1980's, a rice production project funded by an array of international agencies and charities completely ignored the position and role of women in the project area and based their planning on assumptions form a 'first world' perspective (Kihoro, 1992).

'Planners automatically assumed that household were headed by men who managed resources on behalf of other members. Also assumed was that the rice growers were men. Because of these assumptions, credit and inputs were offered to men and no one bothered to find out that it was actually the women who traditionally grew the rice for domestic consumption and who exchange the surplus. Worse still, the scheme was going to develop irrigated rice production on common lands to which women had secured use rights. With the support of project and government officials, men established exclusive rights to these common lands, pushing women onto inferior plots to continue cultivating traditional rice varieties. Women negotiated everything through their husbands. When finally they were expected to provide labour for free on their husbands' plots the women refused and demanded to be paid in full. The project was a fiasco.' (Kihoro, 1992).

This example shows the weight Western development planners have given to cash crop production (controlled by men) over subsistence farming (done by women) and how planning can be based on a 'western' feminist perspective that is pre-occupied with equality, and often irrelevant to 'third world' women.

The Anti-poverty Approach

The Anti-poverty Approach, better known as the Women in Development (WID) approach, emerged at the end of the 1960's (Moser, 1991). Its underlying premise is that women are members of the poorest of the poor. The approach questions who has control over decision making and as such relies on active participation by women. The anti-poverty approach was a reflection of the World Bank and ILO priorities at the time of its emergence. Support also came from NGO's. The focus of this approach is as follows,

Objective: to improve the incomes of poor women with the aim of meeting the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and fuel,

Strategy: income-generating projects to increase access to productive resources such as land and credit,

Motivation: poorest of the poor were remaining poor and most of them were women; education and vocational training was only benefiting a few,

Rationale: poverty, rather than subordination, as the source of inequality between women and men; and women play a central role in meeting the basic needs of their families.

Critique: This approaches primary downfall is that is takes little account that women are already overburdened with work. In many cases, income generating projects for women have been seen as short-term solutions that assist only a few people (Kihoro, 1992). In fact, income-generating projects have increased the workload for many women, where the 'double burden' of work already carried out by women has been ignored. Also overlooked is the low status of women which limits their access to land, credit, machinery, markets for their products and control over income raised (Kihoro, 1992). Colonialism is largely to blame for the 'double burden' of work carried out by women, as it established a capitalist economy, created urban migration and left women to carry their own workload in addition to that of the departed men in the rural areas. The perceived inferiority of women in most pre-colonial societies was reinforced by the colonists and their religions (Kihoro, 1992). The strategy used by the anti-poverty approach only emphasises and compounds these dilemmas.

In addition to the problems associated with income-generating activities, saving is also difficult if women are not in control of the family budget and do not have freedom of movement. This approach is also difficult to apply if the capacity of the informal sector to generate employment and growth is limited. There is also a tendency to overemphasise the productive side of women's work and labour, ignoring their third role as reproducers (ie. child bearers). If projects are managed and generated by women, however, there is the potential of empowering women and this is beneficial and has long-term effects.

The Efficiency Approach

This approach emerged in the latter half of the 1970's in recognition of the limitations of 'modernisation' (March et al., 1999). It is commonly seen as a neo-marxist feminist approach and is more generally known as the Women and Development approach (WAD). This approach is a reflection of the macro level of development policy pursued by governments and is supported by organisations such as the World Bank and IMF. UNICEF and other NGO’s have also approved its capacity in bringing about program efficiency. The focus of this approach is as follows,

Objective: to increase efficiency and productivity in both development projects and programs of structural adjustment,

Strategy: in line with structural adjustment policies, to shift costs from the paid economy (ie. social welfare payments, food subsidies, free education and health) onto the unpaid economy (ie. women's unpaid labour); increase involvement of women in development projects because they are often more efficient and committed than men,

Motivation: recognition that 50% of the human resources for development (ie. women) were being wasted or under-utilised; money and other resources were failing to make a significant impact,

Rationale: development will only be efficient if women are involved; recognition of women's economic importance and the contribution of the work that they do in their households and communities maintains their societies.

Critique: Many projects designed to support women using this approach have not yielded the anticipated results (Evans, 1985). One of the major reasons is that few of these projects have recognised that entrance into the wage economy does not diminish women's primary responsibility for childcare. This approach relies on the elasticity of women's time without regard for the fact that the cost to women in terms of the time demanded of them may be intolerable. It focuses on income-generating activities and tends to underplay the labour women need and want to invest in family and household maintenance. In rural areas, women work on average ten to fifteen hours per day, a minimum of seventy hours per week (Lovel et al., 1985). Another problem with this approach is that it groups women together without sufficient analysis of class, race and ethnic divisions and under-emphasises the nature of women's specific gender oppression. It is also based on the assumption that women's position will improve as international structures become more equitable, but it fails to address any reform of institutions. Although this approach has a variety of flaws, one benefit is that 'basic' needs that are usually neglected due to inadequate resources for paid workers, can be met through the activities of women.

'The majority of basic services for children anywhere in the world are provided by their mothers. When the mother is overburdened, the child suffers. In simple terms, a prerequisite for the improvement of basic services for children is an improvement in the condition of women' (Development Forum, 1978; In Evans, 1985).

The Empowerment Approach

The Empowerment Approach, known to many as the Gender and Development approach (GAD), traces the roots of women's subordination to race, class, colonial history and the position of 'developing' countries within the international economic order. It is supported by development practitioners working within a feminist framework and is propelled by emergent 'Southern Feminism' and women's organisations. Projects are chosen, designed and implemented by those women who will benefit from them. This approach is often threatening to governments and some NGO's as it challenges the traditional view of development. The focus of this approach is as follows,

Objective: to empower women themselves to work to change and transform the structures that oppress and limit them,

Strategy: bottom-up approach that focuses upon a process of change whereby consciousness-raising and the development of women's organisations help transform private empowerment to political action,

Motivation: challenging the assumptions of the equity approach that development helps all men and women, and that women want to be 'integrated' into 'western' designed development where they have little chance of determining the type of society they want,

Rationale: a perspective on development that goes beyond economic growth and the efficient use of money.

Critique: This approach seems to be the most appropriate approach to date. It improves self-reliance and internal strength by enabling women to define and implement their own approach to development. Many women now see no point in being 'integrated' into a mainstream western influenced development in which they have no say and in which they have been harmed by the existing development strategies (Kihoro, 1992). This can be argued, however that this mainstream 'western' influenced development is really a mainstream 'western male' influenced development and many women in 'developed' countries do not want to be integrated into it either. For this reason, this approach is a global approach to development and women. Gains are long-term and have exponential benefits for children, families and communities, and it addresses the differences in class and race and the interests of different women by focusing on gender interests.

One of the major benefits to this approach is that it does not assume similarity or homogeneity. It is based on the fact that planners need to be clear that references to women, rather than gender, do not assume that there is some universal position that all women occupy in all societies. It also covers both social roles and realises that the relationship between men and women is crucial in determining the position of both and emphasises the fact that any development initiative will affect the lives of both men and women. Perhaps, the only problem with this type of approach is that it is very long-term and this may conflict with the 'corporate' approach of donors that try to emphasise rationalism and clarity and control over their decision paths. For this approach to be effective however, it has to be seen as a long-term solution.


A variety of key concepts can be drawn from analysing the development policies of the past and these can be put into practice when planning extension programs and development policies in the future:

  • Women should have an input in decision-making about overall project objectives, be included directly as participants in the planning and implementation of development projects, and be seen as beneficiaries of project activities.
  • Development needs to address all spheres of development including the needs of women within their own social, political, environmental and cultural contexts.
  • The effects of new technology on women, women's status and society as a whole, should be addressed before carrying out development projects.
  • The impact of policy and project activities on both women and men should be addressed and it is therefore imperative to consider their different interests, roles and the subsequent different consequences any development action may have.
  • Women need to be seen as having the role of producers, carers and reproducers, all being essential for the maintenance of the family and community system.
  • Assumptions that there is some universal position that all women occupy in all societies must be eradicated.
  • Women do not necessarily want to be 'integrated' into a development structure that has emerged through a 'western male' perspective, and as such should have the right to direct their own development.
  • Equality of opportunity for education, resources and credit should be implemented as part of a project's agenda.


There is a need to address the contributions, needs and importance of women in development when planning development policies and projects within rural communities. The contribution of women in development has been neglected in the past and has resulted in considerable project failure. With the incorporation of women, women's needs and agendas into the development process, projects will be more suited to those that are central to development (ie. women). Many approaches to development that have been focused on in the past, fall short of being inclusive of women, their families and communities, however, there are some benefits to be gained by these approaches. This paper has provided an analysis of such approaches, their benefits and pitfalls, in the hope that an integrative approach will be taken seriously by development and extension practitioners and organisations. One that addresses, not only women's needs, but those of the environment, the economy, women, men and children.


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