Exchanges on Gender Policies and Development Practices in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Astrid Blystad, Haldis Haukanes, Mulumebet Zenebe. Africa Today. Volume 60, Issue 4. Summer 2014.


During the last decades, gender equality and women’s rights have become key issues in global development aid policies and a main concern in the millennium effort to eradicate poverty. One may say that efforts to put gender on the development agenda-originally coming from a “minority of politically motivated [feminist] advocates for gender change” (Cornwall, Harrison, and Whitehead 2004:1)-have been a success. But how are global discourses on gender equality understood by people involved in gender equality work in different settings? And how do these actors perceive key achievements and challenges in the field of gender and development? This article explores discourses on gender in development by examining the ways that members of what is often called the gender expertise in Addis Ababa relate to the global discourses, and how they reflect upon the current approaches to gender equality and women’s rights in their country and work. Ethiopia is an interesting case in point: in line with many other African countries, it has made “tremendous progress in the ratification of regional and global treaties affecting women” (UNECA 2009:200). Partly as a result of the push from abroad, and partly stemming from Ethiopian political mobilization (see below), the country has reformed laws and developed new policies to enhance women’s rights. Although incorporating most of the global policy goals on gender, the Ethiopian state has, however, in contrast to many other countries (True and Mintrom 2001), made substantial attempts to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to policy implementation, and there seems to be an uncommonly strong will to control the civilsociety sector (Yeshanew 2012).

Anthropologists’ encounters with international development aid have been long and close, but little attention has been given to the knowledge practices at the top. The rich anthropological literature on the effects of development interventions has thus not been matched by accounts of the internal dynamics of development regimes, nor by accounts of the production of professional identities (Lewis and Mosse 2006; Lie 2011, 2013; Mosse 2011:2). This article, based on discussions with gender experts in Addis Ababa, represents a modest attempt to address this void. Framed within a critique of current approaches to gender in development and in the light of debates around the study of the upper levels in the development chain, we examine the experts’ assessment of global gender-related policies, as well as their reflections on success and failure in their own work and within the larger field of gender in development in Ethiopia. Throughout the article, we moreover seek to reflect upon our own roles in the construction of knowledge during the research encounters. Before we present the study and its setting, we briefly look at a few relevant critiques of global gender policies and their transmission through the aid or development chain.

Gender in Development and Aid: Hegemonic Discourses and Traveling Rationalities

Postcolonial feminists and feminists of color have over the last decades put forward a number of critiques against western feminism, starting with its inclination to presume a universal category of women (Mohanty 1991, 2004; Narayan 2000; Oyewùmí 1997). In parallel to this critique, gender has been taken on board in development discourse to an extent that it has today almost become taken for granted (Cornwall, Harrison, and Whitehead 2004:1). While “gender talk is everywhere” (Pearson 2006:157), it is commonly argued that the broad incorporation of gender into development has led to a depoliticization and a technicalization of the gender agenda, stripping it of its original feminist content (Biseswar 2011; Eyben and Napier-Moore 2009; Lewis 2004; Smyth 2007). Several scholars have argued that it is the liberal technologies of gender that represent the real challenge to nuanced and contextually rooted models of thought, not academic, western feminism, which, from the 1980s on, has attempted to accommodate and adjust to the critiques coming from third-world feminism (Bakare Yusuf 2002; Salo and Mama 2001).

A related point concerns the way women in the global south are represented in the development discourse. According to Win, women tend to be portrayed as “poor, powerless, and pregnant,” in a position so weak that “only development can rescue them” (Cornwall, Harrison, and Whitehead 2004:6). Others have argued that the tendency to essentialize the identities of the poor is not found solely among global policy makers: it also takes place within nations of the south, between women differently positioned in terms of class and education. A critique similar to the one raised by postcolonial feminism against western liberal feminism has thus been voiced against the politics of representation within nations of the global south, where elite women are accused of patronizing less-privileged women in the name of gender liberation (Abu Lughod 2009; Merry 2003). In the process, culture- commonly emerging in the development discourse as static rules governing behavior-is often presented as the key obstacle to change. Urban elites stand out as “progressive and noncultural,” but their rural and uneducated counterparts appear governed by ancient traditions, “riddled with patriarchal culture” (Merry 2003:962).

A final point we wish to point out concerns the language of the key global policy documents in the field. Particularly dominant liberal definitions of women’s rights underpin documents such as the UN instruments of the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform (Merry 2006). Abu Lughod, following Asad (1986), argues that these dominant definitions have gained territory to an extent that they have been turned into what she calls a strong language, “one into which others must be translated” (Abu Lughod 2009:84).

The seeming consensus found within the field of gender in development is not unique; it is an example of what Craig and Porter (2006) at a broader level call vertical disaggregation, the delegation upward of rule making and policy framing from poor-country governments to the international stage, where the line between domestic and foreign policy is getting increasingly porous (De Sousa Santos 2005; True and Mintrom 2001). Despite the rhetoric of a “new architecture of aid” (Lie 2011:1ff.), where partnerships and bottom-up approaches are supposed to be key elements, both the structures for and the content of policies are defined in realms outside the control of national policy makers and practitioners, and decentralized knowledge-power regimes work through an increasingly globalized language (Lie 2011; Rai and Waylen 2008). We are talking about traveling rationalities with general applicability, in which “the universal [is asserted] over the particular, the travelled over the placed, the technical over the political, and the formal over the substantive” (Craig and Porter 2006:120). Mosse and others have argued that expert ideas seem remarkably resilient in the face of contrary evidence (Mosse 2011), and Mosse asks whether “actors in development devote their energies to maintaining coherent representations regardless of events” (Mosse 2005:2).

Our empirical analysis springs out of interviews or discussions with people involved in gender work at high levels in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, who are to act as mediators of global and national policies and regulations. We explore in what ways the consensus and elitism scenarios sketched above emerge among these actors, and the extent to which they frame their work within global universalizing guidelines. A sole exploration of the apparent homogeneity of powerful universalizing gender discourses should, however, be avoided when studying actors in the upper levels of the development chain, as we may run the risk of missing the interpretative work that mediators in development are engaged in. Inspired by Lie (2007) and Mosse (2005, 2006) we have thus sought to maintain an actor-oriented approach throughout the process of research and analysis. Lie details how actor-oriented approaches ease research on “how particular texts are consumed by development organizations and agents, … and how these influence and interact with project practices as communicated by local development agents” (Lie 2007:57). In the present study, an actor-oriented approach facilitates ways of approaching critiques of development as expressed by our interlocutors. Just as importantly, it has increased our level of reflexivity concerning the research process itself, and has heightened our awareness of factors at play in the research encounters.

The Study

This article is based on findings from a substudy carried out within a larger social-science project based at the University of Bergen, Norway. In addition to interview-based studies among people involved in gender-equality work in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the larger project consisted of documentary reviews of central gender-policy documents (Norwegian, Ethiopian, and Tanzanian) and of ethnographic field studies carried out at various levels in the aid chain in Norway and Ethiopia. The present substudy draws on findings from documentary reviews, as well as on interview-based material (including informal discussions with university colleagues), with an emphasis on interviews with gender experts. In addition, we briefly refer to findings from one of the ethnographic studies from Ethiopia carried out within the frames of the umbrella project.

The interviews were conducted in March 2011 and January 2012. We met with twenty individuals working in different institutional contexts (ministries, international NGOs, donors, and national NGOs). Follow-up interviews were held with six individuals. A few of our interlocutors worked as individual consultants, and one may be defined as a political activist involved in opposition against the sitting regime. Most of the interviewees were middle-aged and held high-ranking positions, and several had master’s degrees in gender and/or development studies. Many had occupied different positions in the gender and/or development sector over time, and movements from positions within the government to the donor sector, from the university to consultancy, and from the UN system abroad to Ethiopia were common. Quite a few were part of the same networks and met at irregular intervals within the Donor Gender Group, a forum established to coordinate development assistance within the gender field.

Doing fieldwork among gender experts means studying at the top, or maybe even studying up, to use Lauder Nader’s concept (1972:284-311, in Lie 2013:206). Studying at the top implies shifting the focus from the “culture of the powerless” to “the culture of power” (Lie 2013:206), a move that has remained a challenge for anthropologists. The reasons for the incompatibility between classic ethnographic research and studies at the top are complex; the formal, bureaucratic, and sometimes political character of the state or international organizations produces restrictions that prevent access and limit what informants can say. Furthermore, studying highly educated individuals who are operating within similar fields as the researcher and who have a similar mastery of academic vernaculars and discourses, may challenge the emicetic divide, as the interlocutors may employ the same perspectives and vocabulary as the researcher in their representation of the subject matter (Lie 2013).

Webs of challenges confronting researchers in studies at the top were experienced during our fieldwork. For anthropologists with substantial ethnographic experience (from Tanzania and East Central Europe), the format of the fieldwork in Addis Ababa was rather new, entailing encounters with prearranged and decontextualized talks. The Ethiopian context was not entirely new to us, nor was research with development actors, but the Addis gender-in-aid landscape was. During the first interviews, we indeed experienced moments of embarrassment when we exposed our lack of knowledge and revealed that we were hardly fulfilling the position of “cosmopolitan expert” (Mosse 2006:22). However, as feminist scholars with commitment to values of social justice, we simultaneously felt that we had substantial common ground with our interlocutors, which facilitated vivid and engaged conversations.

We employed a predesigned interview guide, developed to elicit our interlocutors’ work experiences and their views on global and Ethiopian gender policies. Working from an inductive exploratory design, we asked open-ended questions, which, being informed by feminist and other critiques of development, implied particular twists to the manner in which we asked about global-local relations, the cultural dimensions of gender relations, and so forth, thus guiding us into particular debates and away from others.

Gender Equality in Ethiopia: Recent Developments, Initiatives, and Critiques

As indicated above, Ethiopia has seen its gender-equality agenda substantially expanded during the last few decades (Mulugeta 2008), but mobilization around women’s rights is not new in the country. Women’s associations existed before and during Mengistu’s military regime, in power from 1974 to 1991. Better known and more important, however, is Ethiopian women’s strong contribution to the armed struggle against that regime, the Derg; women fighters took up arms and played a critical role in the success of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, transgressing patriarchal boundaries and fighting for “political development and a social progress that included gender equality” (Tsegay 1999:vi, in Mjaaland 2013:39). After the fall of the Derg, a new constitution was developed (adopted in December 1994), which includes a specific paragraph on women, mandating “affirmative action policies to ensure that women will be able to enter society on an equal status with men” (Narrowe 2010:134) and trying to remediate the “historical legacy of inequality and discrimination suffered by women in Ethiopia” (Ethiopian Constitution 1995, paragraph 35). The Ethiopian federal government has introduced measures over the last twenty years-both institutional and legislative-to promote women’s rights (CEDAW 2009; MOWA 2006, 2010; Mulugeta 2008). The civil-society sector has contributed to propelling the changes. A revealing example is the role the Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association (EWLA) played in the revision of the criminal code and family law (Biseswar 2011; Desta 2008; Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia 2000).

At the institutional level, the Women’s Affairs Office, established in 1991 at the prime minister’s office (Sosena and Tsahai 2008) in 2005 was turned into a full-fledged federal ministry, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (WAO 2005), currently the Ministry of Women, Children, and Youth Affairs. Furthermore, all sector ministries have a gender unit, women’s affairs bureaus have been established at the regional level, and we find women’s- affairs offices at zonal and district levels (WAO 2005:101). Most of the large international donors represented in Addis (USAID, CIDA, DFID, and so forth) today have their own gender advisors, or even their own gender units. A large number of gender- or women-focused initiatives and institutions are thus in place, both within and beyond the state system.

Regarding Ethiopian policy documents in the field, the first National Policy on Ethiopian Women was issued by the present government in 1993 (The Transitional Government of Ethiopia 1993). It was quite comprehensive, and contained fourteen strategic and well-specified areas where efforts should be made, including raising awareness to “eliminate prejudices against women” (Sosena and Tsahai 2008:97). In the early 2000s, the first National Action Plan on Gender Equality was prepared with the intention of speeding up implementation of the national policy from 1993, and in 2005 a second National Action Plan on Gender Equality (2006-2010) was issued. A comprehensive discussion of the relationship between international trends and guidelines on gender and Ethiopian women/gender policies goes beyond the scope of this article. There seems, however, to be an increasing tendency to pay close attention to international guidelines when domestic policies are formed. The action plan from 2001 was “not strictly in line with women’s policy [the National Policy on Ethiopian Women]; rather, it was an instrument to implement the BPA [Beijing Platform of Action]” (Sosena and Tsahai 2008:100). Reviewing the second action plan (2006-2010), we find that this similarly reflects the main global gender guidelines. The plan is organized in almost total accordance with the “critical areas of concern” defined in the Beijing platform’s paragraph 44 (United Nations Fourth Conference on Women 1995); all the subheadings in the Ethiopian National Action Plan’s description of the country’s gender gaps find their equivalent among the critical areas listed in the Beijing Platform: poverty and economic empowerment, women and the environment, education and training, reproductive rights, health and AIDS, human rights, violence against women, and so forth.

Impressive amendments have been made at the level of policy and legislation, but critiques have been raised against the Ethiopian women’s movements and general approaches to gender issues in the country. Biseswar, for example, holds that Ethiopia has become an island lagging behind in most questions concerning gender equality and women’s rights (2008, 2011; Meaza 2009). She maintains that the lack of radicalism and innovative views can be partly explained by the hierarchical organization of Ethiopian society and the country’s long history of political repression, including the dominant role of the Orthodox Church. We shall return to a discussion of political challenges facing people who work for gender equality within the development apparatus. It suffices here to point out that, along with a willingness to put women’s issues on the agenda and accommodate international standards and global trends, the Ethiopian state seems to be increasingly preoccupied with controlling civil society. One fairly recent policy initiative has particularly serious implications for Ethiopian women’s movements. In 2009, a law regulating the activities of NGOs was passed. It states that NGOs working in the fields of human and democratic rights and the promotion of gender equality cannot receive more than 10 percent of their funding from foreign sources. Organizations choosing to remain local and thus to rely on funding mainly from Ethiopian sources, have since the proclamation had to struggle to finance their activities (see below). On the basis of this apparently ambiguous scenario, we move to our discussions with gender experts in Addis Ababa to learn about their thinking regarding gender in development.

Reflections on Gender Policies and Projects

As we move to our encounters with the gender experts, we draw upon the critical thinking outlined in the first sections of this article pertaining to the field of gender and development, as well as to the production of knowledge within this field. An overarching question guiding our analysis concerns the homogeneity of the globalized development discourse (Lie 2011), and more specifically to what extent the language of global gender policies is made manifest in our discussions with the Addis experts. In the process, we reflect on the manner in which questions were posed and responses provided, and on the potential implications for directions that our conversations took.

Relating to Global Policies

The interview sessions commonly started with a round of introductions when we presented ourselves and the study, and learned about the study participants and the previous and current positions they held within and beyond the gender apparatus. We then directed the discussion toward opinions on global policies by making reference to the seeming similarities between these policies and their Norwegian and Ethiopian counterparts. Most of the participants were well acquainted with the content of conventions and declarations, such as CEDAW, the Beijing Declaration, and the related Ethiopian policy documents. A key issue we wished to discuss during our talks was to what extent the content and priority setting of the gender agenda generated at the global level was perceived as meaningful in Ethiopian contexts.

With close to a unison voice, the discussion partners held that global policies bring to the fore the most critical gender-related challenges in Ethiopia. Discussing more concretely the particular emphasis placed on education, economic and political empowerment, and the eradication of harmful traditional practices focused in the global policies, a study participant from the donor group summed up her stand thus: “They are the crucial areas, and I think that if you look at our national policy guidance, it is in line with those… It is the same thing.” To the question of whether the global guidelines were perceived as relevant, a common reply, given here by a representative of a donor, was “I think they are relevant. I think they are the core things, so I don’t think we will deviate in any way on what has been stipulated.” When discussing whether certain areas of particular relevance for Ethiopian contexts were missing, a typical response, again from a donor, was: “Personally, I don’t think that there is a huge gap; really most of these policies are very comprehensive and broad.”

Several argued for the importance of the role that global policies play in pushing the gender agenda in their own country. This can be understood as an example of support for “vertical disaggregation” (Craig and Porter 2006) in the manner discussed above. Global policies were indeed cited in terms of enforcing local policies. A government representative who had been involved in reporting to the international gender systems emphasized the importance of global frameworks for strengthening the Ethiopian policies, and in “enforcing our own interventions.” A male leader of an international NGO with vast experience from development work in various African countries similarly said:

International policies should be there to support your grassroots efforts, and to put pressure on the government to come up with policies that are compliant with the international standards. [They should] pressure governments to open their doors for institutions that will help initiate change at the grassroots level.

The picture revealed a strong and close to unanimous support for the global gender policies. In fact, it was expressed that these guidelines were so broad and general that they were difficult to disagree with. Some of our interlocutors reflected on how these documents had been made their own, for example, by pointing to the way the Ethiopian federal constitution had incorporated issues from the CEDAW report and the Beijing platforms, based on Ethiopian assessment of the reports. Others pointed to ways that the policies were narrowed down, and that the international documents provided mere frameworks. As a representative of a donor phrased it:

For our issues, the international team may give us shape; it may give us a kind of framework. But you know when you are trying to implement it, trying to translate it into your own local situations, it doesn’t necessarily mean a kind of copying. We always try to be critical… Women are not a homogeneous group.

With the exception of a young state employee who mentioned the problem of international policies superimposing their language and idioms on Ethiopian contexts, few participants raised questions or critiques against the global policies, nor did they specify more concretely the ways that these policies were made more Ethiopian and more their own. The discourse we encountered thus seemingly emerged as an exemplary case of strong language, in which rationalities had traveled through the development chain in a manner where the fundamental presumptions and principles had been retained (Craig and Porter 2006; Mosse 2011)-in this case, from UN policies to the level of gender experts operating in Addis Ababa.

Reflecting in retrospect on the interview exchange, we see that there is a possibility that our ways of introducing the research topics, phrasing of research questions, and requests for opinions about them laid grounds for particular types of thinking and responding. Did we sufficiently manage to open up for potential alternative reasoning during the discussions? Probably not. What is more, in line with our interviewees, we find that in the broad call for socioeconomic and political empowerment, the global guidelines are indeed somewhat difficult to disagree with. As researchers, we hence felt partly captured within the same discursive boundaries as those which set the agenda for the gender experts in Addis Ababa. With regard to the next theme, the situation emerged as somewhat different, as our ways of thinking seemed to diverge more from the viewpoints of our interlocutors.

Approaching the Field of Gender: On Elitism and Culture

In extension of our discussions of global gender policies, we wished to learn more about the study participants’ views on the role of local cultural ideas and customs in shaping women’s position in society. Our ways of addressing these questions were inspired by feminist and anthropological critiques of how culture in development discourse has been viewed as an obstacle to change (Abu Lughod 2009; Merry 2003), and how patriarchal cultural traditions seem to frame the lives of less privileged women, while the elite remains supposedly cultureless and free. In preparation for the interviews, we had reviewed Ethiopian gender policy documents, which seemed to confirm the tendency of viewing custom and culture as hindrances to gendered progress. The Ethiopian CEDAW report from 2009, for example, states in an introductory section: “Although discriminatory laws and policies have been abrogated over time, the challenge to fully and effectively realize gender equality still remains, due to the deep-seated attitudes and stemming from outdated cultural legacies that customarily look down on women” (CEDAW 2009:12). Reflections on the role of culture cropped up during the interviews, both when discussing the study participants’ own experiences and during the more specific questioning. Most of the participants confirmed that patriarchal cultural ideas and institutions remain key obstacles to gaining an understanding of women’s rights and to secure change. An activist phrased the point by stating that gender work “challenges the attitude that women can only give birth and make injera [a staple food, made from local grain].” A person working with an international NGO commented on the best approach to the problem of gender by saying: “the thing is, whenever you work in the gender circle, you have to really work with the mindset of people, and that does not come overnight, and it really needs a change.” Along the same lines, an individual gender consultant stated: “The hierarchical and pastoral ways are ingrained in our mindset at the household level, in our religion, even at university level.” The voiced need to change culturally embedded mindsets thus implied a call for a transformation of gendered norms and attitudes. An emphasis was placed on creating a critical mass to facilitate more tangible changes in people’s perceptions and practices, discussed in terms of the pressure needed to secure change. As a representative from a donor explained: “It is good to have pressure, because without that, people will be-they won’t deliver. The dilemma is the level of pressure.”

To challenge our study participants to go beyond the culture-as-obstacle viewpoint, we had formulated a question based on the postcolonial critiques mentioned above, pointing to critical African feminist scholars who problematize the image of oppressed African women. We asked whether they could think of cultural resources promoting women’s rights found within local Ethiopian contexts. Some appeared to become slightly puzzled by this question, and did not seem to understand it well, but for others it opened up a discussion about customary artifacts (e.g., the Oromo sinque) and institutions (e.g., the communal funerary societies, eddir, or self-help groups) that enhanced women’s rights and positions within their local communities. Others mentioned cases of particularly strong women who had inspired them. Interestingly, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front fighters were not mentioned, whether as examples of uncommonly strong women or as examples of women who had transgressed customary patriarchal boundaries. The only person who spoke at length about women’s contribution in the overthrow of the Derg regime was the interviewee who had herself been a fighter in the struggle of the 1970s and 1980s.

Reflecting on the interviews, we realized that the discussion of female strengths and the positive potentials of culture may not have emerged if not for our own research focus. Our vantage point as foreign anthropologists interested in the field of gender and development-and thus by definition perceived to be interested in local culture-was likely to have directed our conversations. And again, during our rounds of reflection, we found it difficult to disagree entirely with our study participants that certain aspects of existing thought and practice emerge as patriarchal and thus problematic in a gender equality context. Some of the interlocutors indeed moved the focus on culture one step further by questioning our assumptions about culture as a resource, arguing that the assumed scale and content of the equality-enhancing dimensions of local artifacts and institutions were at times romanticized and exaggerated.

Reflecting on Achievements, Hurdles, and Hesitations

A substantial part of our discussion with the gender experts revolved around their experiences of making gender-related policies and projects work. Considering that we talked to high-ranking persons with a lot to defend, we expected to meet people devoting their energies to maintaining coherent representations regardless of events, to paraphrase Mosse (2005:2). And in truth, we were presented with positive examples and developments where the interlocutors were sharing their experiences with the successful implementation of gender projects and recently achieved legal rights and institutional frameworks. We did, however, more commonly encounter a more ambiguous scenario.

The many descriptions of and references to projects located within the domain globally called harmful traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation (FGM), seem to illustrate the point in question. An enormous amount of aid-related funds have been directed to FGM-eradication campaigns, and development actors from various parts of sub-Saharan Africa have proclaimed substantial achievements within this field. Among our study participants, opinions about the achievements diverged widely. An interviewee from a ministry confirmed the success story of an FGMeradication campaign:

In Afar region and the Somali region, FGM is common, it is a tradition, and it has religious acceptance. In recent years, the female network, the female association network has worked in the Afar region, and they report no female genital mutilation. The new information we have received from the Afar region is that there is no more genital mutilation. If genital mutilation happens, the person who performs it is arrested. Even the religious leaders now accept FGM as illegal. During the last years, they have accepted it. The religious leaders have found that there is no religiously grounded acceptance for FGM in the Quran.

This interviewee was not the only one who talked optimistically of FGMeradication efforts. An elderly individual consultant with substantial experience from gender work within the state system in a similar vein summed up the progress made by FGM projects by saying that yes, “We have succeeded with FGM.”

These interviewees talked about success and emerged as relatively uncritical in their presentation of the achievements, but others would question the reported success of many FGM projects. A study participant from a donor organization addressed the challenges involved in working with issues such as FGM, stating:

Female genital mutilation in Somalia and Afar, in the pastoral communities in the eastern part of Ethiopia-it is not an issue to be talked about-not to be mentioned. I mean, how on earth do you talk about the FGM issue with these communities? First of all, it is unpacking the issue. Is it religious? Is it cultural? Everybody is saying it is in the Quran, and it has to be practiced. You know, when the community leaders, the elders, the religious leaders were convinced, they said: “It is not in the Quran: it is something cultural.” … The women themselves said, “No, I have to do it because I am not going to get married if I am not getting circumcised.”

A woman recently employed in the gender unit of one of the donor organizations who had worked with FGM-related projects in the same (Afar) region emerged as even more skeptical about the actual outcomes of the large-scale FGM-eradication efforts, stating:

Even if you get the religious leaders to teach people about the side effects, when it comes to practice, you find that these people do the same thing [continue to circumcise]… I don’t know. I am confused. I am always confused about why this happens, because if you know the side effects of those things, will you implement it? But it has been ingrained in the society for a long period of time, and it is related to religion and beliefs… One study tells us that in Afar, 99 percent of the population know about the consequences of FGM, but that 96 percent practice it… Awareness doesn’t necessarily bring about behavioral change.

The presentations of the actual outcomes of the large-scale FGMrelated project effort could hence be located on a scale from stories of tremendous success of near eradication of the practice to stories indicating little or no change. With poor information and monitoring systems and little research documenting measureable outcomes, several interviewees held that one simply had little knowledge of the actual degree of change taking place. This view resonates with our own students’ ethnographic FGM-related work from Oromia, Ethiopia, and Somaliland, work to which we sometimes referred in interviews. One of our students was engaged in an ethnographybased component (as part of the umbrella project), following in some detail the involvement of religious leaders in an FGM-eradication project among the Muslim Arsi Oromo of Ethiopia. The study encountered a chaotic picture, where the religious leaders’ authority was sharply questioned by lower-level religious leaders, and where the outcome of the efforts emerged as pretended acceptance but continued practice (Østebø and Østebø 2014).

A substantial part of our conversations revolved around the difficulties the study participants had faced in their work. Several stated bluntly that it was easier to talk about the challenges than the successes. The difficulties of ensuring community participation, initiative, and commitment in contexts of top-down approaches were a recurring topic. The experience of being part of a disorganized field was strongly communicated. An international NGO worker said: “[There are many] projects, initiatives, programs, and I see a lot of disconnect between these programs, a lot of duplication of efforts.” The sense of not being able to grasp the potential impact of the gender projects and interventions was encountered beyond the FGM-related initiatives, and doubts about how much of an impact their work-related efforts had actually made ran through many conversations. Discussing the effects of the numerous gendered initiatives, an activist said: “The population is large, and we are not talking about big interventions that can bring about real change.” An international NGO worker concluded by saying: “We have bubbles of change… . I want to be positive, but we are talking about one step forward and two backward.” The relationship between large economic investments in the gender field and limited tangible outcomes was also brought up. An international NGO worker said: “They all do what they do in good faith, but we are talking about misguided allocation of resources … and about interventions missing the target.” An individual consultant simply said: “The amounts of money put in simply don’t match the outputs.”

Indeed, pure success stories among our discussion partners were few, and revelation of work-related accomplishments was usually accompanied by stories of the multitude of challenges confronted in daily work. We encountered experience-based critiques of development, formulated in a language well-known from the critical social-science literature on aid and development. Nevertheless, the extent of the critiques raised and the level of reflection emerging in the discussion surprised us. Although we may have contributed to the elaboration of certain themes (e.g., by sharing our own, our colleagues’, or our students’ related experiences), the connections between our own ways of addressing the topic discussed and the responses elicited from the study participants emerged as far less clear than in the discussions of global policies. The strength of the final theme we wish to shed light on-the place of politics and state control in gender work- emerged in even more unexpected ways.

Political Control and Critiques of Development

Recent political developments emerged strongly during many of our talks, with an emphasis on newly implemented legislation that gives the state stronger control over gender-equality and human-rights work in Ethiopia. A few of the study participants were explicitly supportive of the state’s role, arguing, for example, that more resources and competence should be channeled through the Ministry of Women, Children, and Youth Affairs, instead of through donors, to bring many smaller and disorganized initiatives to scale. Critical voices, however, were far more numerous. The above-mentioned NGO law, and in particular the way it had hit the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyers’ Association (EWLA), was discussed by many. As the organization chose to remain local after the implementation of the legislation, it saw the bulk of its funds disappear. During two visits to its offices in Addis Ababa, we were told that EWLA had reduced its staff by 70 percent, and among its three high-priority areas (legal aid, education, and research or advocacy), it was presently involved only in legal aid because of its financial situation. Although the person we talked to in EWLA did not speak critically of the NGO law or the regime in power, many other interviewees emphasized that the downsizing of EWLA as an independent actor pushing for change implied a substantial loss for the gendered struggle in the country.

What was seen as a problematic articulation between the Ethiopian state on the one hand and the NGO and donors’ landscape on the other emerged in other ways during our discussions. Many talked about the politicization of the official structure of gender offices as a general challenge. The problem of incompetence among lower-level gender advisors was portrayed as particularly problematic, as they were said to be elected on the basis of party affiliation, rather than competence or commitment to the field of gender. Some argued that the distribution of funds and other resources going to community-based organizations took place with substantial attention paid to party loyalty and affiliation. The problem of politicization, however, moved beyond challenges related to interconnections among party affiliation, funding, and lack of commitment among people within the gender machineries. A donor phrased it thus:

This is a highly politically charged environment, as far as I am concerned. The government has its linkages to the kebelle level [the lowest administrative level], and you have representatives who can be articulate and say whatever is required, so I think when you go to the region and to the community, they are always politically right in terms of gender talk, and they will say “Oh, yes we have changed; we are supporting [the policies].”

As with the issue of FGM, the discussion seemed to revolve around the issue of pretended acceptance. Others commented upon an extremely hierarchical political structure and a few presented more fundamental critiques of the power of the state system. One interviewee, a donor, closed his statement about the politicized hierarchical landscape by saying: “You know, in our society the government is considered next to God.”

Concluding Remarks

Our study suggests that the much-debated policy diffusion within the global gender landscape is highly manifest in Ethiopia. Although a political intention to transform women’s roles in society had been voiced by the Derg in the 1970s and 1980s and was intensified by the sitting regime from 1991, key gender policies produced at the global level seem to be increasingly reflected in Ethiopian policy documents. The Ethiopian state’s readiness to assert control thus seems not to be applied vis-à-vis the agenda setters in the international arena. A large majority of the participants in our study supported both the main priority areas and approaches to gender equality established by the global gender-development agenda. On this basis, it seems reasonable to conclude with Craig and Porter that within the landscape of gender in development in Addis Ababa, the universal and formal has taken over for the particular (2006:120). The case, indeed, provides an exemplary illustration of the dynamics of a strong language (Abu Lughod 2009) and traveling rationalities (Craig and Porter 2006). Shifting from talk surrounding policy to talk surrounding practice, however, the uncontested picture that emerged during our discussions of global and national policy changed: as we listened to study participants’ narratives, we learned about a complex, everyday work environment, forged with challenges as much as successes.

Our interlocutors’ critical and reflective accounts on the field they relate to and operate within inspire us to stand with Lie, who calls for a view of development discourse that moves beyond a focus on a totalizing knowledge-power regime (2007:52-56) and sees actors in development as people with “knowledge about the formal order to which they relate, [who] can be reflexive to it and produce knowledge that feeds into the larger whole of development” (2007:52). Such an actor-oriented approach provides us with the possibility of grasping how meanings associated with development are “produced, reworked, and contested in practice” (Lewis et al. 2003, in Lie 2007:56). Solely reflecting on the manner in which the study participants approve of the formal level of written policy and guidelines would clearly prevent us from seeing anything but strong language and the traveling global rationalities to which the global gender establishment adheres. Paying attention to differences between the manner in which the study participants relate to formal policy objectives and goals on the one hand, and the reflection around the strategies and practices of gender work on the other, in a manner called for by Lewis and Mosse (2006:9), opens up the field. Through such a dynamic approach, we can better understand how our interlocutors emerge as knowledgeable about, and with ease relate to and comply with, the formal textual order of global policies while engaging in vocal reflection on the challenges that face them in their everyday practices, as well as in the larger landscape of gender in development in Ethiopia.

Actor-inspired approaches moreover call for reflection surrounding researchers’ situatedness, researchers as actors, and the researcher role in the construction of knowledge. Our study indeed seemed to ask for extraordinary reflection; the research was carried out at the top and was largely based on interview material. The realization that we often found ourselves positioned within at least partly the same developmental and theoretical frames as our interlocutors added to the need for reflection on the co-construction of knowledge. The growing understanding that the classical—or stereotypical—emic-etic divide was challenged in new ways led us to reflect upon how we became increasingly aware of our own roles in phrasing and framing the themes introduced, and in the advancement of the discussions. We have indicated how we were taken by surprise at the turn of certain debates, such as reflection around the scale and scope of gender interventions and around the increasingly manifest measures taken by the Ethiopian state to control civil society and the gender machinery.

Let us close by returning to the issue of elitism and distance in gender work, as addressed by postcolonial feminism and critiques of gender in development, where elite women employed in gender work are accused of lacking commitment and patronizing less-privileged women in the name of women’s liberation (Abu Lughod 2009; Merry 2003). We can obviously neither confirm nor dismiss these critiques based on our limited study, but we suggest that some of these critiques lack nuance. Our interviews implied encounters with a group of engaged individuals who shared with us highly personal motives for their engagement within the field of gender equality. Clearly, more than patronizing top-down attitudes, what surfaced in our discussions was the predicament of people occupying expert roles in development work, that is, the ingrained challenges that follow the job of mediating between diverse and often poorly functioning levels in the development chain.