Women's Worlds 2011 interview: Devaki Jain

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Women's Worlds 2011 is a major international conference taking place in Ottawa-Gatineau from July 3 to 7, 2011. It is 'a global convergence to advance women's equality through research, exchange, leadership, and action' with speakers and performers from a diversity of backgrounds and countries. In the weeks before WW2011, interviews of some of the main participants will be published in rabble.ca. We are proud to be the exclusive online media sponsor.

"Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test: Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man or woman whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him."

- Mohandas Gandhi

Feminist economist Devaki Jain quoted Gandhi in a paper she delivered in Bonn in 2004 to illustrate a simple framework for tackling and addressing the very complex issues and fragmentation around poverty and social justice in the South. It is, no doubt, this simple philosophy that has made Jain unique in her ability to cut through the intricate web of political and economic interests to present a starkly truthful analysis of economic development, women's poverty, and its impact on the rights of women and their children.

Born the daughter of a high-ranking civil servant in Mysore in 1933 -- 14 years before the Partition and Independence of India -- Jain showed early promise as an academic in the male-dominated field of economics. Following a degree in Mathematics and Economics from Mysore University in 1953, she completed a Masters degree in Economics at Oxford University in 1962, and went on to teach Economics at Delhi University for several years.

While editing and publishing her book Women in India (1975), Jain began to apply feminist theory and principles to her research into issues of poverty, economic development, South-to-South economic cooperation, and the rights of women.

Jain and the UN

Jain's take on global economics, in particular her criticism of "a unipolar world where economic power is concentrated uniquely in a club which is also identified with the European and Christian traditions and shows conservative leanings in the field of women's rights," has been both informed by and has contributed to her body of work with the UN.

Jain's experience with the UN is extensive. As a member of the advisory panel set up by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Jain loaned her expertise to the preparation of the 1997 Human Development Report on Poverty and the 2002 Report on Governance. She has also been involved in Peace of the UN as a member of the Eminent Persons Group of the Graca Machel Study Group appointed by the UN to study the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children.

She wrote in 2004: "From being a guardian of sovereignty and a place where great ideas were born or allowed to flower, (the UN) has become a social service organization, a humanitarian aid conduit. Nothing more and nothing less." This almost wistful observation seems less a criticism of what the UN has become than it is a desire to see the UN generate new and original ideas of how to solve issues of economic inequality, instead of merely lurching from one humanitarian crisis to another with no plan to address the fundamental causes.

She has also criticized the UN for caving to corporate interests, whose entire motivation is profit that, by current definition, does not create anything like a level playing field. She has been highly critical of the UN's support for the militarism of the U.S. Against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Jain felt that the UN Secretary General should have resigned over the issue, "to show that the United Nations cannot be bent to serve the interest of just one or two powerful countries."

In a 1998 interview with Share International, Jain talked about the need for new approaches to the age old problems of poverty and inequity under a new political economy of growth. "One way is serious theory-building by those of us like myself. It can't be that only some of us economists are thinking of alternative paradigms. The discussion should enter the arena of political legitimacy. Another idea," she said, "which I've often mentioned in the U.S., is that American citizens have to be more political. They are so politically lethargic. In India, for example, politics is taken very seriously. People really debate issues."

Jain and Gandhi

At the age of 33 (quite late by Indian standards) Devaki married the late Gandhian economist Lakshmi Chand Jain. The two shared the belief that the Gandhian philosophy of economic parity through equity of consumption was the key to a new model of economic growth.

While socialism addresses inequality based on ownership of means of production, Gandhi focused on the inequality of consumption. He felt that if you can see the global inequity of consumption as a root cause of the inequity of the world's resource distribution, then you can bring about a transformation in production. "Imagine," says Jain, "if we all had a deeper view of consumption -- some kind of austerity, some kind of anxiety about over-consumption and waste -- it could change the model of growth."

To put it in practical terms, if you provide the poorest with a private-sector income that will allow them an increased ability to consume and produce, you will have what Jain calls "the bubbling up theory of economic growth," the polar opposite of the neo-liberal "trickle-down" theory that has been effectively keeping millions -- now more than 1.3 billion people -- in grinding subsistence poverty without hope of escape. Alleviating poverty, thereby allowing many more individuals to participate in the local and global economies, contributes to the benefits of economic growth to all, regardless of class, colour or gender.

Mass mobilization for change -- The fragmentation of global feminism

In order to enact the change you seek, you must have a mass mobilization of the people who are most in need of change. In terms of global poverty, it comes down to the feminization of poverty.

"'Feminization of poverty,'" Jain explains, "is used to describe three distinct elements: that women have a higher incidence of poverty than men, that women's poverty is more severe than that of men, that a trend toward greater poverty among women is associated with rising rates of female-headed households." Clearly, mobilizing women globally is central to poverty reduction, but the fragmentation of feminism, the disparity of North and South -- the perceived white liberal feminism of the North vs. the feminism of the South, keep women divided and, in turn, keep women from effecting change.

Jain is concerned that what many have called "identity politics" prevent women from forming rich coalitions that "celebrate diversity, pluralism, affirming of identity based on colour, caste, class, gender, as well as multiple identities, and analyzing the intersections as well as the distances." Jain is critical of "building solidarity on ethnic, religious and similar identities and using them for political articulation and power," and suggests that solidarity based on deprivation undermines the ability of the fragmented global women's movement to reach critical mass.

In Jain's, Globalising women's rights: Confronting unequal development between the UN rights framework and the WTO trade agreements, she states, "fragmentation of identity based on sex has also led to some slight withdrawal in the UN from emphasizing gender as a superseding identity over race, class and other stratifications. This trend also leaves room for expressions of cultural relativism -- an unwelcome trend."

Devaki Jain is advocating for women's coalition-building along the lines of similarities and shared goals, while recognizing and celebrating differences. The real work of addressing poverty and economic inequality has to be done together, and not as disparate entities using identity as a tool for access to political power.

It is Jain's unique understanding of how people work together -- or fail to -- and of the international elite's control over the economy to further their own narrow interests, that sets her apart from many other economists. She is a powerful, rational voice for the South, for the self-determination of women through economic stability, and for people everywhere who are looking for guidance that will take them forward into a more certain future for themselves, their children, and their communities.

For more information on Women's Worlds 2011, click here for the website, and here for the Facebook page.

Meg Borthwick is one of the moderators of babble, rabble.ca's political discussion forum.

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