Nick Kristoff, a NY Times opinion columnist who writes like a Unitarian minister and pens self-serving articles urging liberals to give more money (his wife is in the philanthropy business), has come up with a long piece advocating a “Crusade” on behalf of women all over the world.
In the article, Kristoff and his Chinese wife, Sheryll WuDunn, give us a glimpse into the minds of international power brokers:
There’s a growing recognition among everyone from the World Bank to the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism. That’s why foreign aid is increasingly directed to women. The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.
So what we have is a concerted global effort to help “women and girls,” probably along the lines of the decades-old campaign to do so here at home, which has resulted in the collapse of traditional marriage and boys being increasingly marginalized in school and the workplace.
One of the tools used to promote women in less developed parts of the world is “microfinance” — essentially small scale credit extended to women through World Bank programs and such. An example Kristoff gives is that of a Pakistani housewife with an unemployed husband (who is, naturally, described as a deadbeat and a wife-beating villain):
Saima took out a $65 loan and used the money to buy beads and cloth, which she transformed into beautiful embroidery that she then sold to merchants in the markets of Lahore. She used the profit to buy more beads and cloth, and soon she had an embroidery business and was earning a solid income — the only one in her household to do so. Saima took her elder daughter back from the aunt and began paying off her husband’s debt.
So here we have a success story, in which wealth is being created through light industrial production of apparel.
Of course, we should all cheer the change in circumstances for Saima, who has now turned the tables and become domineering toward her husband:
Today, Saima is a bit plump and displays a gold nose ring as well as several other rings and bracelets on each wrist. She exudes self-confidence as she offers a grand tour of her home and work area, ostentatiously showing off the television and the new plumbing. She doesn’t even pretend to be subordinate to her husband. He spends his days mostly loafing around, occasionally helping with the work but always having to accept orders from his wife. He has become more impressed with females in general: Saima had a third child, also a girl, but now that’s not a problem. “Girls are just as good as boys,” he explained.
OK, microfinance works in some cases, but the real question is whether the following statement is really accurate:
Perhaps the lesson presented by both Abbas and Saima is the same: In many poor countries, the greatest unexploited resource isn’t oil fields or veins of gold; it is the women and girls who aren’t educated and never become a major presence in the formal economy. With education and with help starting businesses, impoverished women can earn money and support their countries as well as their families. They represent perhaps the best hope for fighting global poverty.
No, I don’t think so. Countries that successfully raised themselves out of poverty following WW II did not do so through small businesses run by women. Certainly, they put women to work, particularly in Asia, but these jobs were part of a state-planned emphasis on light industry that exploited country girls by making them the low-wage workhorses in factories, i.e. sweatshops. For Korea, China and Thailand this has worked out pretty well, but it didn’t have anything to do with “liberating” women; in fact it was all about control and exploitation. And once the sweatshop model outlived its usefulness, countries like Korea have switched to higher value-added products rather than footwear. These high-end products are manufactured and designed overwhelmingly by men.
Kristoff (who is actually a supporter of sweatshops) is getting it wrong. The countries that most successfully lifted themselves out of poverty did so through patriarchal authoritarianism and strict control and exploitation of women. Of course, once the hurdle was cleared, women were given increasing freedom and opportunity, after which most voluntarily switched from production to service jobs.
So Kristoff’s crusade is doomed. Any effort that encourages female independence and dominance as a means to lift a society out of poverty is working against its own stated goal, as we can see from our own ghetto failure here in the US, where women are clearly socially dominant, and yet have not managed to lift themselves out of poverty without paternalist carrot and stick type incentives from above.
We should beware of crusades advocated by pompous elites like Kristoff, who think they can solve the world’s problems despite having only a contrived understanding of the world, honed to very narrow specifications in detached, exclusive institutions.