The unbearable whiteness of international development

The SDGs and decolonial feminisms

Keya Khandaker and Lata Narayanaswamy (University of Leeds) question the SDGs white, liberal feminist myopia, which focuses on the fiction of the ‘Third World Woman’ in need of saving or ‘empowerment’, rather than tackling structural inequalities. They propose a decolonial feminist approach to address the intersectional challenges we collectively face on the path towards global justice. 

The invitation to contribute a ‘feminist’ perspective on the SDGs has come at a politically explosive time. The police killing of George Floyd in the US has sparked a worldwide reckoning within ourselves, in our personal and professional relationships, and in the institutions that govern our lives – guided by the light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Whether #BlackLivesMatter is getting the justice it deserves in these reckonings, is another question. But it has forcefully highlighted why it is always necessary to foreground thinking around race, (anti-)racism, and (de)coloniality.

White, liberal feminism takes centre stage

‘Race’ has always been the elephant in the room in International Development, and this is no less true for the formulation and implementation of the SDGs, leading, we would argue, to the privileging of certain types of ‘female’ experiences over others. In the SDGs, it is white, liberal feminism that takes centre stage. 

The use of the term ‘white’ draws definitional clarity from Gurminder Bhambra’s conceptualisation of ‘methodological whiteness’, which “fails to acknowledge the role played by race in the very structuring of that world … [where] white experience .. [is] a universal perspective … [and] treats other perspectives as forms of identity politics explicable within its own universal (but parochial and lesser than its own supposedly universal) understandings.” 

The SDGs set aside race as supplementary to other agendas and measures in the framework. ‘Race’ is packaged with other modes of marginality, while ‘whiteness’ is the universalised norm. This is reflected in the diversity of identity categories by way of promoting ‘inclusion’ into this dominant frame: “… irrespective of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, disability or other status”. 

The individual ‘woman’ versus structural inequalities

The SDGs’ vision of change targets only the individual ‘woman’, an archetypal cisgender, straight, essentialised ‘Third World Woman’ who requires white saviourism to rescue her from her violent marriage by sticking a smartphone in her hand so that she may be ‘empowered’. There is no consideration of the power imbalances embedded in the institutional contexts that cause and maintain intersectional inequalities

The SDGs fail to tie structural inequality to the power held by, for instance, transnational corporations, international banks, and the neoliberal state. This leaves us instead with ‘theories of change’ attempting to operationalise ‘local’ challenges to unspecified, but presumed to be ‘harmful’, ‘gender norms’, placing the optimal locus of action amongst individual or small groups of women. 

‘The Third World woman’ as victim or heroine 

We must question whose feminisms ‘count’ in the SDGs. There is no denying that the intent of the SDGs is both positive and hopeful, a global-level statement of how we might strive collectively for a better world. But it is nonetheless crucial to interrogate who gets to decide what ‘better’ looks like, and the terms and actions through which this world comes into being. 

The SDGs’ commitment to ‘Leave No One Behind’, in reality, enacts all sorts of erasure and invisibilisation, with, for instance, an over-emphasis on girls and women of reproductive age in mostly heterosexual relationships. In this formulation, the ‘Third World Woman’ becomes a passive, essentialised figure for liberal feminism to impose racialised and gendered ideas of women in the Global South as victims and heroines, with no regard for what ‘she’ actually wants. 

Many facets of her life are ignored by the SDG framework: What about social and economic precarity, or improvements to employment conditions? What are the effects of the extractive practices of transnational corporations? What are the implications of institutionalised discrimination against minorities in her context/country/world? 

The SDGs also erase the very existence of queer modalities or LGBTQ+ people, sex workers, and reproductive health needs like abortion. We see the emergence of what Richa Nagar terms a ‘gender hegemony’, whereby some ideas such as violence against women or microcredit gain purchase, ‘compromising radical politics … [and] serving the interests of global capital’. The ‘Third World Woman’ thus becomes the symbol of  ‘marginality’ and ‘difference’ as compared to what liberal feminism centres as the norm: ‘the White Western Woman’.

Decolonial feminisms

Gender justice cannot be delivered with the SDGs’ embeddedness in liberal feminist ideologies. Rather, we need to consider ‘gender’ and ‘race’ as modes of power and knowledge that are intrinsically tied up with coloniality. Unlike white liberal feminisms, post/de-colonial feminisms seek to re-orient the West as the centre of (development) theory and praxis – in both ‘whom’ we think about and ‘who’ is doing the thinking. Decolonial feminisms are heterogenous and encompass pluriversal realities and ontologies across geographies, genders, sexualities, race, and class.

These decolonial perspectives bring to light the top-down nature of a universal agenda such as the SDGs, which  undermines the pluralities of approaches to development, particularly those that run counter to popular development rhetoric. Within SDG and mainstream development discourse there is no room to recognise the very basic reality that, beyond the ‘West and the Rest’, we occupy differences within geographies, nationalities, races, genders, sexualities, classes, belief systems, ableness, to name but a few. 

In the SDGs, the benchmarks for progress are so contrived that there is no marker of recognition for hierarchies within our marginalities, such as colourism, wealth, migration status, or anti-Blackness. To challenge only one systematic oppression – gender – is ineffectual when it is the convergence of systems of oppression that maintains global gender inequity. 

Addressing intersectional challenges beyond the SDG approach

We could question whether a radically intersectional and decolonial approach to gender and race is even possible in a UN-led development agenda.As Mia Kristin Häckl and Julia Schöneberg argue, the SDGs are characterised by standardisation and rationality, whereby processes of societal change are outlined as predictable and subject to planning that is demonstrable by the modernist targets and indicators format. These attempts at ‘measuring’ gender equality fall flat under a rubric that fails to provide an intersectional lens to systems of oppressions and inequity.

When faced with the real, global emergency presented by #BlackLivesMatter, the SDGs are useless in the pursuit of reparations and justice over our global histories of colonialism, slavery and the violence of enforcing gender binaries. Are these insurmountable or irredeemable flaws? Absolutely not. It would be a mistake to underestimate the solidarities that have been forged at local, regional and global levels around shared endeavours in pursuit of the SDGs. 

But without action on structural inequality, we will forever be tinkering around the edges of the intersectional challenges both created and nurtured by how we frame ‘development’, which is intrinsically both a gendered and a racialised construct. 

Keya Khandaker is a PhD Student at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds (UK). Her project is in collaboration with the Overseas Development Institute’s GAGE Programme. Her research interrogates the mobilisation of gender norms and adolescent agency in the pursuit of the SDGs.

Lata Narayanaswamy is a Lecturer in International Development at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds (UK). Her interdisciplinary, feminist research problematises how knowledge is actualised as a driver of development in both discourse and practice. 

The Dutch version of this blog is published on MO*Magazine.