A Feminist Critique of Postconflict Statebuilding

While expertise on women matters, the example of statebuilding suggests that it is insufficient to deliver substantive equality. Feminist critique exposes statebuilding as an already gendered program of government structured by androcentric principles. Taking feminist critique seriously would entail redefining statebuilding’s definition and priorities in a way that embraces both masculine and feminine activities and subjectivities, and not simply men and women. The notion of the political subject inherent to the statebuilding project is a masculinized subjectivity inherited from European social contract theory. Indeed, the social contract, as the World Bank and the UN recognize, “is central to the discourse on statebuilding” (Ingram 2010: 6). As previously mentioned, social contract theory constructed the realm of the state as a space where men interact with other men (Phillips 1991: 3; Carver 2004: 154). In so doing, contract theory naturalized what we take for granted today as the public- private divide. The domestic sphere, contract theorists argued, should remain beyond the scrutiny of the state apparatus. As a result, liberal democracies emerged as systems where individuals are granted their primary rights in the public sphere, not in the realm of reproductive labor, where women’s labor and primary identity have historically been anchored (Brown 1995: 182; Carver 1996: 676). Relatedly, women’s demands for bodily autonomy within one’s home, for control over when and with whom one has sex and children, for a secure livelihood while parenting, for accessible childcare or for fair compensation especially in female-dominated sectors, have historically been harder to establish as worthy of political attention.

Concerns relating to marriage, parenting, sexuality, and fair remuneration similarly remain imperfectly addressed in statebuilding policy, in at least two ways. First, statebuilding policy inherits from social contract theory a greater concern for violence in the public sphere and a relative neglect of violence in the private sphere. In classic social contract theory, a man could set and enforce his own rules and use violence in his private household (Phillips

Postconflict statebuilding 155 1991: 30; Moller Okin 1998). This made sexual and domestic violence not only possible, but relatively unquestioned at least until the 1960s and 1970s. Statebuilding policy did recognize women in fragile state as affected by “early marriage, domestic violence, obstacles to educational opportunities and discriminatory family laws” (OECD/DAC 2008: 8). However, these problems are seen as evidence of state failure, and not in relation to their historical and structural causes, including colonial history and exploitative structures in the global economy. Nor are they a focus of policy implementation. Early statebuilding policy addressed problems of gender-based violence “in an ad-hoc and superficial manner (if at all)” (Schoofs and Smits 2010: 1). The momentum surrounding the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1820 did succeed at making sexual violence in postconflict contexts a major area of postconflict intervention and international attention (Dersnah 2019). However, policy responses focused on creating law enforcement institutions that can better protect women’s physical integrity and bodily autonomy in the public sphere, for instance by tackling assaults perpetrated by security forces. Typical interventions have focused on the creation of responsible police and armed forces (see for instance, Baaz and Stern 2017). Such initiatives leave unaddressed problems of violence inside the home, reproducing historically liberal democratic states’ failure to effectively address such violence by insisting on marking a boundary between the public and private spheres. They also treat gender-based violence as a problem of discipline on the part of the state, and moral failure on the part of individuals, rather than a phenomenon fed by structural problems of economic inequality and disempowerment (True 2010; Baaz and Stern 2017).

In failing to address these limitations, the discourse of statebuilding as a remedy to gender-based violence in postconflict zones cultivates a form of Othering that legitimizes foreign intervention in postconflict contexts without providing effective solutions. This is the case in a range of globally oriented foreign aid, development, and peacebuilding policies that commit to support women’s empowerment. These initiatives often recode former imperialist efforts to “save brown women from brown men” into projects targeted at “women in development” (Spivak 2010: 52), and often rely on simplified representations of “third world women” as lacking in comparison to women from the “first world” - poorer, less educated, and more oppressed by patriarchal traditions (Mohanty 2003). An examination of the feminist critique of the liberal state and its complicity with the perpetuation of gender-based violence in the Global North would allow for a more cautious and critical relationship to statebuilding as a vehicle of women’s empowerment.

Second, statebuilding imagines the construction of liberal states as geared towards the consolidation of aspects of the state linked to security (typically understood in the narrow sense of armed and police forces), electoral processes, and law enforcement, all of which are coded as masculine. Conversely, statebuilding initiatives systematically neglect the consolidation of health, education and social services, coded as feminine (Ryan and Basini

2017; Shepherd 2017: 46). For instance, OECD policy on statebuilding lists the core functions of the state as, in this order of priority, security and justice, tax raising, basic service delivery, economic performance, and employment generation (OECD-DAC 2007). Although statebuilding policy sometimes gestures towards better service delivery in the fields of health care and primary education (OECD/DAC 2008), this has not evolved as a key priority. The UN and the World Bank also treat security sector and law enforcement as “essential capabilities” of the state, while placing the feminized sectors of “service delivery” and “livelihood security” as secondary concerns (see for instance, Ingram 2010: 6-7). In line with such definitions, statebuilding has been said to rely on “the centrality of security through military force” (McMahon and Western 2017: 6). The scholarly literature on statebuilding similarly centers on military, police, and judiciary institutions as sectors that international actors should target “if they are intent on strengthening a targeted country’s state” (McMahon and Western 2017: 6). The emphasis on statebuilding as primarily security sector reform locates statebuilding within the most masculinized domains of state power (Shepherd 2017: 49). As such, it relegates social programs of health, education, and welfare - the feminized realm of reproductive labor and care work - beyond the scope of its priority sphere of intervention.

The identification of security as the most essential public service reproduces a hierarchy, whereby masculine activities and values prevail over feminine ones. This has important political repercussions. Social programs and economic redistribution help ensure that responsibilities for care work are more equally distributed and better valued and remunerated. Gender experts at the North-South Institute pointed out that statebuilding could redress situations where women disproportionately suffer from “weak social services” (Baranyi and Powell 2005: 2). However, statebuilding as a program of government remained de facto committed, in continuation of the social contract, to an idea of the state as first of all an instrument of pacification between men. It remains blind to the “gendered power relations” that structure this ideal and enable the domination of women by men (Shepherd 2017: 63). This entrenches a hierarchical binary between supposedly essential masculine activities (law and order) and less essential feminine ones (social services that guarantee what is sometimes framed as a fuller form of human security). Without collective arrangements and investments in education, childcare, and health care, women are often expected to provide these on an individual, and therefore unequal and precarious, basis. By locating care services as secondary rather than essential to a functioning polity, statebuilding is entrenching the notion that this labor is less valuable and can be left to the care of private entities.

A feminist critique therefore helps explain the extent to which statebuilding has repeated, rather than resolved, the democratic deficit of the “good governance” agenda that emerged as a dominant approach to global development and security in the 1990s. Efforts to support “good governance” in what

Postconflict statebuilding 157 was then called the developing world have previously been critiqued as a way through which “the North maintains and legitimizes its continued power and hegemony in the South” (Abrahamsen 2000, ix). As noted by Abrahamsen, a key problem of the good governance agenda is that democratization efforts rarely progress beyond the electoral stage, as social reforms to reduce inequalities are often ruled out from the outset (Abrahamsen 2000, xiv). As previously noted, statebuilding developed in the 2000s as an extension of the good governance agenda (Chandler 2008). Statebuilding consolidates and entrenches, among Northern donors, a reliance on masculinized state logics as an imagined resource for the solving of global security and development problems. Investments in security institutions can be presented as an effective approach to managing undisciplined states in the global periphery - because the myth of the social contract posits that this is how “functioning” states emerged in Europe. Meanwhile, the feminization of global health and social programs contributes to make it seem legitimate to ignore them.

The implicit naturalization of women as the informal and unpaid providers of health, education, and other forms of care is supported by a tendency in statebuilding policy to cultivate expectations around women’s supposedly natural ability to provide care with selflessness and docility. These expectations apply to women’s interventions in the public sphere. In the Global North, arguments in favor of including women in political parties, elections, and government often state that “women would bring to politics a different set of values, experiences and expertise” (Phillips 1991: 63). Similarly, the OECD stated that women “can do much to reduce fragility and strengthen social cohesion by maintaining services, supporting social cohesion and negotiating a safe space between communities in conflict” (OECD/DAC 2008: 32). References to “social cohesion,” “services,” and “safe space,” all borrow from a vision of women as involved in activities of care, comfort, peace, and nur-turance. Women in postconflict states are also expected to bring distinctly feminine qualities to the formal capitalist economy (Griffin 2010: 97). The OECD expects them to “perform effectively as service providers, even when they have been excluded from education and community decision making in the past” (OECD/DAC 2008: 32). The characterization of women as placid and service-oriented troublingly echoes Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s depiction of the obedient wife, who is docile and supportive, and who recognizes “the voice of the [male] head of the house” (Pateman 1988: 98). Like Rousseau’s contract theory, statebuilding policy naturalizes women as subservient service providers - but without noting that economic sectors and roles dominated by women are often underfunded, less paid, and insecure.

Simultaneously, the statebuilding discourse falls short of recommending structural changes that would facilitate women’s participation in the public sphere. Statebuilding draws generously on neoliberal frameworks that, in various contexts, cast women (and people in general) as “seemingly free of [unpaid] care and household work” (Woehl 2008: 70). Such framings lead to an occlusion of public initiatives that would help women as a group, includinglaws to bridge gender pay gaps, social measures for family planning, collectively organized and accessible childcare, and parental leave policies. Instead, “women’s empowerment” is a code word for perfunctory measures focused on small groups of women that favor individualized understandings of economic responsibility (Keating et al. 2010: 165). These include the dissemination of grants to encourage women to start up small businesses or vocational courses (see for instance, Ali 2011: 6). One of the most popular options, microcredit programs, lead women to contract debts without addressing broader economic inequalities (Keating et al. 2010). Measures to integrate individual women into masculinized institutions, such as police forces, parliaments, and entrepreneurship initiatives will remain of limited impact as long as these measures are not accompanied by an equally strong commitment to value and collectively fund health systems, childcare, and measures to ensure that women are equally paid and have resources that better account for the impacts of family life on a woman’s public persona.

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