“We can’t close the gender gap we all aspire to close, unless we close first the data gap.” With these words Melinda Gates announced at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen that the Gates Foundation is going to invest $80m in gender data “to accelerate progress for women and girls.” This funding, to be distributed over the next three years, will support national statistics offices to collect and refine information “on the contribution women and girls make to society and the barriers they face in fulfilling their potential.” Data, according to the Foundation, will be used to shape programmes and policies aimed at realising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.
John Kariuki Ngethe, a community worker and photographer living in Nairobi, has often mentioned with a tinge of irony that if poor people would get even half of the money spent to study them, things could be much different for them… These words denote a common frustration about the approach adopted by development agents and can provide an entry point to reflect on some critical aspects of the Gates’ millionaire investment in gender data.
Data represent a powerful and often imperialist instrument. Data don’t only picture and represent situations, but also comply with particular visions and research guidelines and shape the development narrative and its means. It is reasonable and also important to ask how and in whose interests these data are going to be used. Data, for instance, can be used to create a variety of products and services for those ‘poor consumers’ who have money to afford them OR to provide publicly available food, clean water, healthcare and education for all. Also the global institutions through which data are gathered and elaborated are important. As Melinda Gates said in her speech, most of the funding will be channelled through UN Women, which means in line with the UN mission and aims. A key question to ask here is how much power is going to be given to grassroots women not just to express their voice, but to be genuinely and fully heard – and not only to be heard to the extent their views comply with the development mission.
The Gates Foundation’s funding for data gaps also aims at shedding light on unpaid work, which according to feminist economist Antonella Picchio comprises “the labour involved in maintaining living spaces, buying and transforming the commodities used in the family, supplementing services provided to family members by the public and private sectors and managing social and personal relationships.” This is very important, as unpaid work is largely performed by women across space and time and it has been neglected for years in mainstream development discourse. However, the value of unpaid work also mentioned in goal 5 of the SDGs and in the report for the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action cannot be simply recognised. The burden of unpaid work on women’s shoulders also needs to be alleviated through a fairer distribution of wealth and responsibilities among and through society. In other words, the aim of gender equality policy should be to make women’s work sustainable for women themselves and not to make women’s work instrumental to sustainable development. We can probably ask in this regard whether it would be more effective to invest in social infrastructures and public services to support unpaid work, instead of investing predominantly in data.
The understanding of gender is often oversimplified to denote hierarchical relations between unitary and universal constructions of women and men. This does not capture the complexity and the historical, social and economic differences that connote gender relations. The evaluation of gender inequality in postcolonial countries is rarely traced back to colonialism and the introduction of the cash economy and to the colonial ordering and moralising rules that favoured heterosexual men, proclaiming them as household heads and breadwinners. It was then that women were relegated to unpaid subsistence agriculture and housework and excluded from employment, finance, land ownership and property rights. Subsequent development measures aimed at re-including women, and all those who had been structurally and legally excluded, have been often conditional to other objectives, predominantly economic growth.
Along the same line, LGBTI people are excluded from the enthusiastically funded plan of filling gender data gaps. Their interests and struggles are generally represented by groups of activists with very limited resources. For instance, in Kenya there are numerous LGBTI Ugandans seeking asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation and there are no resources available to support them: some aid is available only for those with viable business plans. These are important gender issues too and they definitely need more voice, means and protection.
These reflections have aimed at showing that research is important to inform programmes, policies and laws, but equally important is to understand according to whose visions and objectives research is conducted and deployed. Research needs to investigate and challenge the more crucial and imperialistic aspects of gender relations, otherwise gender data would just contribute to reproduce gender inequality over and over again.
I would like to thank my friend John Kariuki Ngethe for having kindly allowed me to use his picture for this article and for his inspiring photography work.