In your own way

Men and Women in Gender and Development: A Conversation with Andrea Cornwall (University of Sussex)

“Compassion and love should underpin everything we do in the name of ‘development’”

The recent US election that has resulted in the victory of an openly misogynist and racist man has drawn our attention to the rise of right-wing movements in democratic countries. One of the many causes of the results of the US election and Brexit may derive from economically marginalised people using the only voice they had – their voting power – to speak out against their frustration. It is time to examine the inequality within countries in the Global North as part of the development agenda.

The field of Gender and Development has attempted to highlight inequality within development by using the lens of gender and intersectionality. These perspectives are needed more than ever to take into account the voice of the marginalised groups. Say for Development spoke to an expert of Gender and Development, Prof. Andrea Cornwall, the Head of the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex (UK). 

Her research interests include anthropology, democracy, participation, empowerment, gender and sexuality, and masculinity. In this conversation, we asked how her personal background has aroused her academic interests, the challenges of ‘women’s empowerment’ and engaging men in gender issues, as well as the need to decolonise education, which has became a movement in the UK during recent years.

Say for Development: Can you share with Say for Development about your background? Why are you interested in feminism and gender issues in the first place?

Andrea: As a child, I had experiences that made the unfairness of the gender order visible to me, and it made me very angry. I have a strong sense of justice and I’ve always found anger an amazingly powerful motivator. I have a chequered academic background. I began a degree in science, but realised early on that I wasn’t cut out for the lab so I switched to philosophy and German, the language I was brought up speaking. The reek of privilege at the elite university where I was studying overwhelmed me. I dropped out. I got swept up in anarchist activism and ran away to live on a bus with a street theatre group. Britain was a really depressing place to be at that time. I got a job in a restaurant, saved up and went travelling alone. My plan was to start in Zimbabwe and go on an adventure until my money ran out. But this being the 1980s, Zimbabwe was a place of idealism, a radical post-colonial socialist republic. My short visit turned into almost two years of working as a teacher in a remote rural area, living in the shadow of colonialism and challenging myself with my whiteness. It’s there that I discovered participatory research and anthropology. I went to back to university as a mature student to study social anthropology and stayed on to do a PhD. These days I’m undisciplined, I collaborate with people from lots of different disciplines and my own writing is a hybrid of gender studies, anthropology and politics.

Say for Development: Throughout your education and career, how did you see gender and development studies evolve from time to time?

Andrea: I got involved in Gender & Development when I joined the Institute of Development Studies in 1998. I was very critical. I found the binaries and essentialisms really problematic. I was from the generation brought up on Judith Butler and queer theory and I’m an anthropologist, so the idea that women everywhere are subordinate to men just didn’t wash with me. I found Gender & Development very normative, and often also heteronormative. It was in reaction to all this that I came up with the idea of holding a conference called ‘Gender Myths and Feminist Fables’ that would inspect and bring into question some of those myths and normativities. I enlisted Buzz Harrison and Ann Whitehead, and we were able to create a space for critical reflection on how ideas about gender from feminist research in particular places had come to be taken up by development organisations as axiomatic generalisations. This led to developing the Pathways programme ( with leading feminists from the global south, using the idea of ‘women’s empowerment’ as an entry point for feminist activist research aimed at making a difference to policy and practice. Looking back, the gender agenda from this period was more sophisticated and nuanced than what we have today with ‘investing in women and girls’.

Say for Development: Within gender issues, the famous notion is that personal is political (everything that happens to our personal life is connected with what happens in society, national and global level, and vice versa). How has learning about gender issues from an anthropological perspe­ctive changed your life personally? Also, since you have a daughter, how do you think your expertise in the studies had made a difference in how you raise your children?

Andrea: I’ve learnt loads about life and living from my research. The most important lessons of all have been about how important economic and sexual autonomy are for women. I lived in Nigeria for a couple of years doing research with women for my PhD. I came to see the constraints that marriage placed on Yoruba women. They’d talk of ‘enduring’ their marriages, dream of building their own houses and ‘packing out’ once their children had grown. They sighed as they spoke of ‘facing my children and my work’ and having to put up with the ‘useless men’ in their lives.

Working with female sex workers in India more recently, I came to see marital relationships from a different vantage point. Many of the sex workers had not had husbands but long-term lovers, who they called their malaks. The ideal malak was someone who cared for a woman, doing things like heating water for her bath after she returned from work, or cooking her delicious food. Many malak had wives and families, and those I interviewed spoke of having little opportunity for this kind of caring in conventional heterosexual marriage. Sex workers spoke of wives as ‘domestic women’, with sympathy that bordered on pity. Some told me of how they’d helped their malak to marry, as that’s what society expected of men. One told me of how she’d refused to have sex with her malak until he’d made his wife pregnant, as it wasn’t fair on the wife to not have her part of the marital bargain.

I found this all really interesting. So many people are so miserable in marriages, yet social arrangements constrain women and men and keep them there – because they lack the economic means or the courage to create an independent existence, because society makes it so difficult for women to live alone, because they’re prisoner of their own beliefs and cultural norms. I guess what all this taught me is to appreciate the lesson my mother taught me: to never be economically dependent on a man, and to count myself extremely lucky for being able to enjoy the freedom of non-marriage.

I love talking about gender with my daughter, who is 14. She’s got a really interesting theory of gender, similar in ways to Fausto-Sterling’s 5 genders. She’s very articulate and aware of the restrictive power of hetero- and gender normativity and of the injuries of discrimination against trans and intersex people. 

Say for Development: As development practitioners/scholars, we must be aware not to impose a certain value (usually Western values) in a developing country, to avoid framing women empowerment in a certain way. In relation to this idea, what do you think are the common fallacies that people often have about women empowerment? How can we be sensitive to diverse cultures and way of life if we aim for the universal goal of women empowerment?

Andrea: To be honest, I don’t like the term ‘women’s empowerment’ much. I’d rather talk in terms of the elimination of all forms of discrimination on the basis of gender. This would allow us to think and talk about discrimination against anyone who is gender non-conforming, as well as the way in which men are often encouraged by society to hide their feelings, mimic patriarchal and bullying behavior that they see as ‘normal’ amongst other men, and engage in acts of violence. It would also help us put the spotlight on situations in which discrimination prevents women from exercising economic, sexual or bodily autonomy, all of which are a powerful brake on women’s empowerment. And it would also allow us to think intersectionally about all this. Not all women lack power, nor do women need other people to tell them they need to be empowered. What’s needed is to systematically dismantle the structural barriers that stand in the way of us being able to have a world that’s fairer – and kinder – to us all.

Say for Development: You have written some pieces about men and masculinity, including some books about ‘Dislocating Masculinity’, ‘Men and Development’ and the most recent one is ‘Masculinities under Neoliberalism’. What do you think are the challenges in engaging men for gender equality movement, and what are some practical ways to navigate around those challenges? What can women and girls, do to help challenging masculinity norms that link to patriarchy and harm men?

Andrea: As bell hooks put it, patriarchy is a social disease that affects everyone – including those who would seem to benefit from it. I think if men were able to recognize quite how damaging it is, we’d see some more engagement with challenging and changing the attitudes, values and practices that sustain gender inequalities and heteronormativity in the institutions in which we live our everyday lives. I’ve recently been developing tools for what I’ve called “a pedagogy for the powerful” that can help make visible the effects of toxic masculinity and give men tools to identify their own contributions to it. It’s only when men start holding themselves and others to account that we’ll see real change happening.

Say for Development: Sussex Student Union runs ‘Decolonise Sussex’ campaign that aims for plurality in curriculum and teaching practices at Sussex. You were involved in the campaign. Can you share to us how the campaign works? Why is it important to decolonise education? Do you think University of Sussex, as the no. 2 institution for development studies in the world (QS Ranking 2016), has been ‘decolonised’?

Andrea: Sussex University has a long way to go before we can say it has been ‘decolonised’! The bits of Sussex that do development – Global Studies, SPRU, Economics, IDS, the Centre for International Education, the Medical School among others – are not only predominantly staffed by people from the former European imperial powers. Our curricula privilege narratives that give a central place to Euro-American ways of knowing and framing the issues that we think of as the focus for ‘development’.

For me, decolonizing development is about, for example, insisting on interrogating the ‘we’ and the ‘we should’, ‘we need’ and ‘we ought’ that is so much part of development discourse. And I see decolonizing the curriculum not (just) about adding authors from the global south to our reading lists – although that’s also needed. It’s about taking a critical look at how what we teach and how we teach it reinforces hegemonic narratives and understandings of what counts as knowledge and whose knowledge counts.

I love Walter Mignolo’s concept of pluriversality: the pluriverse is one in which a multiplicity of voices and versions co-exist and inform an understanding of the world that is inherently more democratic than the ones we work with at the moment.

Decolonising the academy is also a matter of looking critically at white privilege as part of the play of power in our institution, and thinking about white allyship and its possibilities and limits. Some people don’t like the language of ‘decolonizing’ and think it sounds hard, or it’s about something that’s in the past. But in my view it’s precisely because it’s uncomfortable that we need to situate today’s ‘development’ not just in relation to the legacy of colonialism, but in the continuing coloniality of the development industry. There are some unbroken continuities between that past and this present. We need to name that, make it visible, own it, do something to unsettle and change it.

Say for Development: Say for Development is dedicated to spreading love and empathy among the development thinkers and practitioners. Do you think love, relationship and compassion are important in development? What are the roles of educational institution in championing love and empathy within development sector?

Andrea: I think compassion and love should underpin everything we do in the name of ‘development’. Rather than see people as the objects of assistance, if those involved in international development work were to see people as human beings just like ourselves and treat them with empathy and kindness – listening to what they want, supporting them, working to clear those obstacles I talked about earlier – the world would be a better place. But it’s not only love that matters. We also need to tap into our sense of justice and, as a Brazilian activist once put it, to ‘wake up a sense of indignation’ about the injustice in this world. If development is to be something positive, then it must also involve fighting for all humans to be treated with dignity, to have the right to have rights and the opportunity to thrive. Love and justice can and should shape our practice as educators.


*Andrea Cornwall is the Head of the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex. She is a political anthropologist who specializes in the anthropology of democracy, citizen participation, participatory research, gender and sexuality.


Say for Development is thankful to Andrea Cornwall for sharing her insights. This conversation was prepared and conducted by Priliantina Bebasari.



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