Gender, Global Governance, and the Limits of Expertise On Women: A Feminist Critique of Postconflict Statebuilding1

A feminist critique of postconflict statebuilding1

Audrey Reeves


This chapter considers the enabling effects of the construction of gender expertise as expertise on women in global governance processes. Global governance has been described as “an ongoing process of competition for the authority to define what is governed, how, and why” (Sending 2015: 4). This authority is typically conferred to expert knowledge, the generation and circulation of which enables the government of populations, including on a global scale (Larner and Walters 2004). Although gender expertise has been defined in various ways, 1 understand it as the recognized expert knowledge that informs what counts as gender inequality and how to overcome it through targeted interventions. Since these two points are contested, including within the diversity of feminist movements, gender expertise is “intrinsically political” (Kunz et al. 2019: 23). The struggle over the definition of who counts as the expert on gender, and what counts as reliable knowledge, is an attempt to establish power (Harrington 2013).

Over the past two centuries, and as efforts to govern populations increasingly articulated themselves around notions of globality (see Busse’s and Hamilton’s introduction to this volume), transnational women’s movements gained power through the production and circulation of knowledge about women (Harrington 2013: 47). Their distinct knowledge became increasingly recognized as a form of expertise within global knowledge networks. Simultaneously, they successfully established women as a transnational category of person worthy of dedicated attention on the part of national and international agencies invested in global governance. The construction of women’s knowledges as valuable and trustworthy is undoubtedly a feminist success, as is the widespread commitment to gender equality within a wide range of agencies involved in governing social relations on a global scale (Harrington 2013). The ostensible pursuit of women’s empowerment, and a related need for what is now called gender expertise, has become a frequent feature of foreign aid, development, and security policy globally. According to the most optimistic observers, this has come along with the emergence of feminist

Post conflict statebuilding 145 governance, or the multiplication of places where “feminism is running things” through legal projects, institutional policies, and activism (Halley 2008: 21).

The rise of gender as an object of government nonetheless came along with the cooptation of feminist knowledge in service of international institutions’ other agendas. For instance, in the 1980s, demographers and economists became interested in gender as a set of social relations “through which women’s reproductive and productive labor could be reorganized, manipulated and rendered more efficient” (Repo 2015: 106). This came with limited concrete gains for women and girls on the ground (True 2003: 379). Although gender experts have “achieved small victories against considerable odds” (Kunz and Priigl 2019: 5), the pragmatic need to compromise often strips gender of its critical potential, and turns it into a new management strategy in international bureaucracies (Whitworth 2004: 17; Squires 2005: 374: Reeves 2012).

I want to suggest that the apparent contradiction between the rising profile of gender expertise and the lack of improvement in the condition of a vast majority of women and girls globally can be better understood by paying attention to tacit understandings of gender expertise in global governance networks. More specifically, this chapter argues that, while enabling important feminist victories, the establishment of expertise on women as the primary form of gender expertise still recognized by globally oriented agencies has not been accompanied by the recognition of feminist critiques of androcentric concepts and practices. I illustrate this argument with reference to statebuilding initiatives targeting conflict-affected states in the Global South in the years 2000 2010. From the 1990s onward, statebuilding initiatives have been launched ostensibly to bring peace, development, and gender equality to conflict-affected countries where state institutions were perceived to be deficient. In devising statebuilding, policymakers integrated forms of gender expertise, defined narrowly as expertise on individual women’s rights. While such expertise is certainly important, I argue that its impact is limited without a consideration of feminist critiques of the liberal state. The latter reveals that, in its very structure and values, statebuilding promotes the globalization of an unequal gender order (Shepherd 2017: 37-65). Considering this important limitation helps explain why statebuilding programs struggle to realize their declared gender equality goals. Indeed, the masculinized design of the project itself cannot be resolved by mere attempts to include more individual women in plans for implementation.

My analysis progresses in the following way. First, I provide a working definition of gender and an overview of the rising importance of expertise on women in global knowledge networks. Second, I show how, in the context of international statebuilding, gender expertise was reduced to an emphasis on the political rights of individual women. Third, I turn to feminist knowledges not normally invoked in the context of statebuilding policy, namely feminist critiques of the liberal state (e.g., Pateman 1988). I conclude that treating concept-focused feminist critiques as important forms of gender expertise opens new possibilities for a critical réévaluation of key governance projects such as statebuilding as vehicles for progressive gender relations on a global scale.

My approach builds on insights from governmentality-inspired feminist research on global governance. I understand governmentality in its most general sense - as a way of governing that shapes human conduct “by working through our desires, aspirations, interests and beliefs” (Dean 2010: 11). It entails the regulation of social relations through suggestion and encouraged self-discipline, as well as more coercive forms of control (Lipschütz 2005: 15). Although Foucault himself “never specifically examines the subordination of women,” his work is useful to investigate the power exercised over women’s lives through subtle and diffused channels (Hekman 2004: 200, 205). Governmentality scholars see attempts to govern as coming from multiple actors and agencies organized in fluid networks that overlap with but exceed nation-states (Lipschütz 2005: 14: Dean 2010: 228-229). They share with most feminists a conceptualization of politics as reaching beyond the formal sphere of legislatures, ministries, diplomatic meetings, and other male-dominated parts of the state apparatus, and into social spaces and everyday locales (McLaren 2002: 167; Hekman 2004: 200), such as tourist resorts or art museums (Enloe 2000; Sylvester 2006). A diffused understanding of power undermines the gendered hierarchies of public/private and global/ local, the naturalization of which invisibilizes women’s oppression (Hekman 2004: 204).

Moreover, a governmentality lens helpfully supports a feminist project that goes beyond a liberal stance for respecting women’s choices, however important these may be. A more ambitious feminism pays attention to how social environments orient individual practices. This includes the availability of “woman” as a political subjectivity one can perform (Butler 1999). Drawing on Foucault, Judith Butler famously theorized that the category of sex is a social construct, and more precisely “a regulatory ideal” that produces the bodies it governs through organized, repetitive practices (Butler 2011: 2). As this argument suggests, many feminists also take interest in how gendered practices shape the social world, including when these may inadvertently entrench gender inequalities (Bartky 1990). Women (and people of any gender) nonetheless also express resistance to sexism (McNay 1992: 49; McLaren 2002: 60), and occupy shifting forms of agencies wherever gender discrimination intersects with race, sexuality, ability, age, citizenship, and other identity markers (McNay 1992: 64-65). Governmentality frameworks are able to account for this diversity of individual experiences and responses because they cast the modern subject as creatively navigating different subject positions. They recognize that attempts at managing populations around the globe are not totalizing but clash “with the messiness of actually existing places, with localized power structures, accumulated historical legacies, and pluralities of peoples and identities” (O Thuatail and Dahlman 2004: 138).

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