Through Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn repeat that there is no “silver bullet,” no magic remedy that will fix gender inequity in the developing world. With nearly every potential solution they posit, they point out flaws, even major failures in that approach. Further, they make clear that the complications affecting aid stem in part from issues in developing nations receiving aid, but also from issues in the Western nations providing that aid. What’s more, the problems that aid intends to address are so manifold and so systemic, and humans so complicated, that aiding developing countries is a complex, often fraught, endeavor.
Within developing nations, the issues are often far more complex than an outsider can conceive. For instance, “Rescuing girls from brothels is the easy part,” the authors write. They then go on to explain that emancipating female slaves takes much more than just undoing their shackles and sending them home. Often their captors force slaves into a drug addiction, which pulls freed slaves back to a nightmarish situation. Further, even if girls do return to their families, they are often ostracized and blamed for being “impure,” and are met with further violence instead of a joyful welcome. Also, the psychological trauma from years of numbing rape can be, of course, debilitating. Another profoundly tragic outcome is that, since so many prostitutes contract HIV/AIDS, the health consequences can last their lifetimes. Put bluntly: When a woman escapes slavery, she has not escaped its severe effects.
More broadly, the authors explain that while women’s empowerment in developing nations is a shining goal, when achieved it’s not always welcome. When women advance, men (and other women) often greet it with resentment, mockery, and violence. As an example the authors tell the story of Neth, a young woman they rescued from a brothel in Cambodia, who went on to open a shop in her hometown, at first bringing success she couldn’t have imagined. But soon after, men in Neth’s family abused the business and finally raided the shop, leaving her destitute—all because the men couldn’t respect her as a financially empowered woman. Because cultural codes withhold respect from women, the authors explain, even the most determined efforts can fail.
At the same time, the authors make clear that just as much of an issue contributing to the complexity of aid is a legacy of failed Western intervention in the developing world. The authors explain how Western aid efforts, despite good intentions, often ignore the nuances of a culture’s customs and religions, so what might seem harmless to Americans could be scandalous to others. For example, in Afghanistan an outside aid group gave soap to Afghan women, unaware that the gesture would suggest sexual promiscuity, a deeply offensive implication. Not only does such ignorance alienate the very people aid groups try to help, it can even stoke anti-aid sentiments from those who find the efforts patronizing and destructive. The authors further explain how political differences within Western nations can thwart attempts at aid. For instance, American debates over abortion often lead to women’s health clinics in developing nations getting their funding blocked. The resulting loss of women’s clinics means that women with fistulas—holes in organs that often result from rape or other brutalities—which are common in the developing world, have no facilities to go to for treatment. The health effects are devastating. More broadly, the book shows that when Westerners make assumptions and try to proselytize Western values to the developing world, the residents of those nations, including victimized women, can feel patronized and violated with the result that the intended aid proves unsuccessful or even detrimental.
The book doesn’t only condemn insensitive aid efforts, however. It also shows models of success. The book is written for a Western, largely American, audience, so it aims to persuade readers that they can and must take action. For instance, the authors tell the story of Tostan, a group that works to end female genital cutting in West Africa. The group was founded by a Midwesterner who has engaged deeply in Senegalese culture, and has only hired West Africans to dismantle the fraught system of genital cutting. Through such examples, the book makes the case that successful aid requires a combination of effort from both the West and the developing nation, in which the West offers some level of support but also listens to and earns the participation and buy-in of citizens who understand their culture’s nuances.
Ultimately, the authors want their readers to understand that, despite the complexity and subsequent problems of aid in developing nations, and despite the lack of “silver bullet” solutions, mitigating the oppression of women is both worth it and achievable. The book details the difficulties of providing aid to make clear that steps should be taken with caution and sensitivity, not to dissuade anyone from contributing to such aid, but rather to ensure that aid is given in ways that make a real impact.
The Complexity of Aid ThemeTracker
The Complexity of Aid Quotes in Half the Sky
People always ask how they can help...A starting point is to be brutally realistic about the complexities of achieving change. To be blunt, humanitarians sometimes exaggerate and oversell, eliding pitfalls. They sometimes torture frail data until it yields the demanded ‘proof’ of success.
The tools to crush modern slavery exist, but the political will is lacking. That must be the starting point of any abolitionist movement.
Rescuing girls from brothels is the easy part, however. The challenge is keeping them from returning. The stigma that the girls feel in their communities after being freed, coupled with drug dependencies or threats from pimps, often lead them to return to the red-light district. It’s enormously dispiriting for well-meaning aid workers who oversee a brothel raid to take the girls back to a shelter and give them food and medical care, only to see the girls climb over the back wall.
“We sometimes think that Westerners invest too much effort in changing unjust laws and not enough in changing culture, by building schools or assisting grassroots movements. Even in the United States, after all, what brought equal rights to blacks wasn’t the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments passed after the Civil War, but rather the grassroots civil rights movement nearly one hundred years later. Laws matter, but typically changing the law by itself accomplishes little.”
“Behind the rapes and other abuse heaped on women in much of the world, it’s hard not to see something more sinister than just libido and prurient opportunism. Namely: sexism and misogyny. How else to explain why so many more witches were burned than wizards? Why is acid thrown in women’s faces, but not in men’s? Why are women so much more likely to be stripped naked and sexually humiliated than men? Why is it that in many cultures, old men are respected as patriarchs, while old women are taken outside the village to die of thirst or to be eaten by wild animals? Granted, in the societies where these abuses take place, men also suffer more violence than males do in America—but the brutality inflicted on women is particularly widespread, cruel, and lethal.”
“In short, women themselves absorb and transmit misogynistic values, just as men do. This is not a tidy world of tyrannical men and victimized women, but a messier realm of oppressive social customs adhered to by men and women alike.”
“So lifetime risk of maternal death is one thousand times higher in a poor country than in the West. That should be an international scandal.”
Religion plays a particularly profound role in shaping policies on population and family planning, and secular liberals and conservative Christians regularly square off. Each side has the best of intentions, yet each is deeply suspicious of the other—and these suspicions make it difficult to forge a broad left-right coalition that would be far more effective in confronting trafficking and overcoming the worst kinds of poverty.
Westerners sometimes feel sorry for Muslim women in a way that make them uncomfortable, even angry... Americans not only come across as patronizing but also often miss the complexity of gender roles in the Islamic world.
So was it cultural imperialism for Westerners to criticize foot-binding and female infanticide? Perhaps. But it was also the right thing to do. If we believe firmly in certain values, such as the equality of all human beings regardless of color or gender, then we should not be afraid to stand up for them; it would be feckless to defer to slavery, torture, foot-binding, honor killings, or genital cutting just because we believe in respecting other faiths or cultures. One lesson of China is that we need not accept that discrimination is an intractable element of any society. If culture were immutable, China would still be impoverished and Sheryl would be stumbling along on three-inch feet.
Incredibly, it looks as if [grassroots activists] will make female genital cutting in West Africa go the way of foot-binding in China. That makes the campaign against genital cutting a model for a larger global movement for women in the developing world. If we want to move beyond slogans, we would do well to learn the lessons of the long struggle against genital cutting.
We like to think of aid as a kind of lubricant, a few drops of oil in the crankcase of the developing world, so that gears move freely again on their own.