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Family Planning Summit and the Voice of Poor Women

I decided to edit this piece to start with a video of Melinda Gates talking about her privilege to travel the world and meet women whose voices are not heard on the world stage and so she feels it is her obligation to speak on behalf of them. This gets at the heart of why I wrote this piece so I will let her speak in her own words before I speak mine in response:

Melinda Gates interview on her work as family planning advocate

I work in the development industry. Sometimes. I have worked in the family planning sector a long time. I have worked in safe motherhood a long time. And I have worked in AIDS. (That these are not integrated in the development sector is a topic for another post).

I came to development through childhood experiences with development workers whose ideas were formed in some office far, far away using the most recent data and information on my Jamaican community. They were talented, mulitlingual and well-intentioned. But something about the experience left an indelible mark on me that often has me questioning my own motives and behaviors as I work with women in different countries to make their lives better. I lived in a house where my uncle (who housed these workers) also spent many years with a huge canister on his back spraying anopheles mosquitoes to rid the Caribbean and Central America of malaria. Malaria left Jamaica. Perhaps we are all damaged for the effort (given the eco movements objection to spraying in Africa) but so far so good. When it rains now, my mom puts a speck of kerosene or oil on the standing water and that takes care of that. For some reason, that isn't good enough for Africa. But I digress. (That's another post).

I spend too much time (its part of my job) going to panels and lectures on issues related to the Southern poor (somehow Northern poor are not in need of 'development'). Despite the current theme that 'technology will save the world' and 'health is part of security' and 'we must empower people to do the work themselves', I find this all disingenuous no matter the speaker's intent. And good intentions abound in development.

Technology Will Solve the Problems of the World

There are some problems that technology can fix and others it can't. I can give you technology and you can choose not to use it because you don't want to, don't know how to, or it doesn't suit your needs. But behavior change (to get you to use this technology) is messy and funders want metrics and they want change in the 3-5 year funding cycle and methods must be new and sparkly. And 'technology' seems to be a code for 'new technology' because a lot of old technology works fine.

In family planning we have things like the female condom (which practically no woman in the developed world will use, and for good reason) being pushed on women who live where one can't find a tampon because putting hands or things inside one's vagina is taboo. (It also assumes that sex will be planned).

Perhaps if we can get the old technology to new women there would be no need to spend so many millions on developing new technology when the old ones are working so fine for so many women in the 'rich world' that their low birthrates are wreaking havoc on their present and future demography and economies.

Health as Security

The 'security' argument for health is so offensive to me that I simply wont address it.

Speaking On Their Own Behalf

If we are going to 'empower' the poor of the world, perhaps we can stop visiting them to collect their stories and then be their voice on the world stage. Can that community organizer in Malawi not learn more by visiting the UK or the USA or Germany than a team of aid workers or academics visiting her? Is it not she who needs the knowledge so why are we there?

When we have 'summits' such as Rio+ 20 and the Family Planning Summit, where are the women whose lives we are talking about? Why aren't they on the stage and in the room? Telling the stories and asking the questions? Can't the technology we have Skype them in so they can speak for themselves instead of being an anecdote in a sea of data to 'bring it back to the ground level'? Or to remind us that its about people and not data. So where are the 'people'?

My job requires that I do research and as much as possible I have fought for the rights of the queried to have them be able to speak directly to the audience. I have used quotes and I recently tried using video.  Of course, with 10 minute presentations, the people often get lost in the objectives, methods, findings and recommendations. Thus my often conflicted state as an adult who was a child on who development was done who is trying not to do development to anyone else.

If we really believe in empowering people then we must stop speaking (and doing!) on their behalf when they can speak (and do!) for themselves. I loved Ashley Judd's anecdote at the LSE panel preceding the Family Planning Summit that demonstrated how the intersectionality of AIDS, lack of inheritance rights, sexual trafficking, and lack of contraception made the life of one woman and her children extremely difficult. But how much more powerful would that story have been if told in first person?

Melinda Gates, Family Planning and Poor Women

It is great that Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has finally (after much effort) come around to the family planning story after hearing directly from women about their lives. And then she can retell those stories to the world. But why can't these women tell their own stories to the world (using Microsoft technology perhaps)? And why can't they enjoy the business class flight, 4-star hotel rooms, and chauffeured car rides as they flit about the world telling their stories? Or does that budget line always have to be on our side?

Maybe Melinda could have brought the Kenyan women she was talking to (below) to London. Just like Bloomberg sent in his donation by video so could everyone else. All that back patting is nice but really its the women in the picture below that its all about. And as I searched for images in Google using the keywords 'Family Planning Summit', I could find lots of pictures of dignitaries in London (and in poor countries) and poor women in Africa and Asia. Perhaps there were panels of the women below. I just couldn't find pictures of them.


  1. Hello,

    This whole agenda is for global depopulation.

    Margaret Sanger wanted to sterilise the blacks into extinction too.

    Please join me in denouncing this.

    1. I disagree wholeheartedly. Women in every country of every colour and creed want to be able to control when they have children. That not every woman has that option is a problem. How we go about doing it is up for debate, but whether women have the right to contraception is not open to discussion with me. It's my body. I get to control it.

      And clipping men would be much easier and cheaper if global depopulation was the point.

  2. Reproductive health is 'her' right, hence the need for her voice and choice. I like your view that 1st person narration is better than 'behalf' (bitter truth/half?!).
    It's time we read,recognise, respect and reward women (even domestic workers and homemakers) rightly/rightfully.
    - dr v basil hans

  3. This is a twisted way of using race to trump gender, they exist together, must be addressed together, women all women have the right to control their bodies, and there are many truths inside of their stories, black, while, asian. Academia and it's mandate of truth telling and what counts as valid has long kept many truths about the experience of women from being heard and understood, but even as technology opens avenues for broadcasting these narratives it does not allow then to be heard, it does not allow us to believe that these lives, and the potentials they have are valuable. It is the heart of the issue..

  4. I wasn't using race at all. This is all about gender. It just so happens that the poor women we 'develop' are in the South where people are brown. That is is raced as a field happens to be about geography, history, economics etc blah blah. And yes, the heart of the issue is that local voices can be heard directly now without much cost or effort. That we get to talk about their 'heartbreaking stories' instead of having the audience hear it for themselves is a sign of privilege that I do not want. And yet here I am advocating for us to shut up and let them speak. I hope it did not seem like I am trying to do so 'on their behalf'.


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