Feminism in the Global South: Why do Countries Continue to Invest?

Written by Anushka Brito, GPI Undergraduate Fellow

Non-governmental organizations, also known as NGOs, are autonomous organizations with varying levels of reliance on the state. They engage in both political advocacy and social service provision. They can apply to a wide range of social issues, but a major area of focus for many NGOs includes feminism across the globe. NGOs form the core of feminist civil society. However, while they are necessary for feminist progress, they dilute feminist interests. Over the years, their feminist advocacy has become more service-oriented rather than advocacy-oriented, with low levels of regional feminist mobilization.

These organizations are key to global feminism, and allow the term feminism to take on different meanings. A common understanding of feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes. That being said, what rights are the primary focus changes the definition of feminism between countries, and is defined by NGOs. While feminism and women’s rights movements exist across the globe in both developing and developed countries, developing countries are generally further behind in their struggle for women’s equality.

To showcase this point, feminism can be explored in multiple countries. Feminism within the US explores race, colonialism, and empire within a corporatist system. Feminism in Poland focuses on decriminalizing abortion and working with police on how rape cases are handled. Feminism in Pakistan works towards providing all girls the right to an education, regardless of religious and income background. The more developed the country is, the broader the range of feminist topics that can be explored. NGOs determine the breadth and the focus of feminism in developing countries, which erases the struggles and feminist issues of local feminist groups. Instead, as many of the largest NGOs are based in developed countries, Global North ideology is promoted.

Global South feminism is diluted by NGOs, and the aid the Global North provides is not necessarily wanted. NGOs tend to focus on short-term solutions, which leads to an increased dependence on developed countries. This brings up the question: why does aid flowing from the Global North to the Global South continue to persist? What reasons do developed countries have for providing aid to women in developing countries?

Beyond the promotion of ‘developed’ ideals, a primary interest of a state is the economy. With an increase in investment in the Global South, there is an increase in promarket development on the global scale. This promarket development involves an increase in the number of global consumers, new entrepreneurs that do not rely on the state for help, and an increase in the labor force. For-profit corporations and philanthropic foundations enter the field of development and through education create people who can contribute to labor for their companies. A more educated and wealthy population can purchase more expensive products, and become part of the labor force. This is an immense return on investment for states.

This is not the only return on investment states receive. There are also social and political reasons to invest in women in the Global South. Investing into education increases the state’s literacy rate. With an increase in literacy in a state’s population, the state becomes more democratic. Democracy requires an educated and participating population, which can only be achieved through universal education. Education is a means to progress. But why would a state want another state to become more democratic? A common theory states that democracies are hesitant to engage in armed conflict with other identified democracies. When two democracies are in conflict, they rarely use the threat of force. This means that the more democratic another state is, the less likely it is that a conflict occurs, there is an increase in trade and relations, and in the case of a conflict there is a safeguard against violence. This promotes the safety of the developed state’s citizens.

Investing into women in the Global South can be beneficial to them, however their well-being is not the primary concern of developed states. States receive a return on investment economically, socially, and politically. Their increased sphere of influence allows them to increase trade with other nations, mitigate the risk of conflict, as well as promote the global economy. Their short-term solutions in the Global South represent long-term benefits for the Global North. While the flow of money should have only one meaning for local feminist groups, it is interesting to see how much farther that dollar investment goes than simply for the education of women.

The views represented herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Policy Institute.