Academic journal article New Formations

Disrupting Disempowerment: Feminism, Co-Optation, and the Privatised Governance of Gender and Development

Academic journal article New Formations

Disrupting Disempowerment: Feminism, Co-Optation, and the Privatised Governance of Gender and Development

Article excerpt


There will be someone in our century who wins the Nobel Peace Prize for solving the problems of poverty. And in the process that person will become a billionaire.1

Is there money to be made from eradicating poverty? The answer to this question currently animates a movement in global development in which a new generation of philanthropists and investors are racing to innovate an end to poverty. Girls and women play an especially important role in this new movement because they function as the visual and rhetorical centrepiece of a powerful development discourse that encourages the public to see gender inequality as an inefficiency and as a primary obstacle to full productivity. Girls and women, as abstract and idealised targets for anti-poverty interventions, have acquired such a high-profile status in development discourse through the popularisation of the idea that gender equality will be a key driver of national economic growth, private sector profit, and global post-crisis recovery.

The trend to elevate girls and women as solutions to myriad economic problems bears some resemblance to feminist claims about the need to value women's work, enable women to generate independent income, and transform social norms through up-ending male-breadwinner models. But it is not quite the same as feminism - more like its 'uncanny double' which endorses a package of neoliberal reforms in the name of women's empowerment.2 The troubled relationship between feminism and neoliberalism has a long history, of which the current trend for corporate-led global development governance is only the latest incarnation. This article addresses this relationship and feminist frameworks for analysing it, theorising a way to move beyond debates about co-optation.

The article proceeds as such: the first section outlines the changes in the governance of gender and development that form the political and economic context for the analysis. The second section deals with debates about feminism's co-optation by neoliberalism and considers alternative ways to address this question. The third and fourth sections consider concrete manifestations of the convergence between feminism and neoliberalism in the form of Bottom of the Pyramid development, taking the example of the Girl Effect Accelerator, a project of the Nike Foundation and venture capital investors. The article argues that rather than trying to assess the extent to which feminism has been co-opted by neoliberalism, we should instead ask why and how neoliberalism expresses a concern with feminism. Applying this framework to the Girl Effect Accelerator, and Bottom of the Pyramid development more broadly, the article argues that gender has acquired prominence in this field because it functions both as a space for profit-making and as legitimising device for increasing corporate power in the governance of development.


Over the past fifteen years, there has been a profound shift in the terrain of gender and development landscape. This shift is the result of the convergence of three significant trends in development: increased power of corporate actors, increased visibility of women and girls in policy, and a resurgence of interest in feminism. First, this context is shaped by the corporatisation of development: corporations are increasingly powerful actors in global development, as the private sector is a growing source of development funding. In the context of financial crisis and austerity, states are facing intense public scrutiny and criticism of development spending commitments and they therefore welcome opportunities to partner with non-state funders. States and international development institutions also exist in a broader public management context in which states are expected to emulate corporate norms of efficiency and competitiveness. Conversely, corporations are under increasing pressure to demonstrate their commitments to socially responsible business, to demonstrate their positive impact upon the environments in which they operate, and to act as corporate citizens. …

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