Monday, September 26, 2005

Paul Wolfowitz: Liberal Feminist

One of the more irritating aspects of politics is the tendency to criticize individuals, parties, or certain organizations pre-emptively before they even have time to screw up or establish a record. When Paul Wolfowitz became head hocho at the World Bank the left went absolutely nuts with anger. But as this Financial Times article shows, not so fast left, he may be just what the doctor ordered. Besides talking bluntly about corruption to Africa's political elite combined with the amazingly leftish debt relief agreement that was just passed, Wolfowitz has taken up the mantle of women's rights in developing and underdeveloped nations. Here's a large excerpt from the Financial Times story.
An important part of this agenda is a focus on what the bank can do to help empower women in developing countries. Education and healthcare will remain priorities for the bank, but Wolfowitz is likely to focus its efforts on girls and women. “The role of women is something that has hit me very hard pretty much since my time in Indonesia, where you have a reasonably liberated female population in a predominantly Muslim country. And you can see that the country as a whole is the better off for it... It seems to me that it is an almost arithmetic equation that if half of the population is held back, then your development is going to be held back.”

Bank insiders say his thinking on this issue may have been influenced by Shaha Riza, a bank employee, Middle East expert and specialist on gender issues, with whom the divorced Wolfowitz has had a relationship for the past couple of years. “I have sympathy for someone who says that the Swedish model or the American model of relatively far-advanced feminism is not necessarily something that even women of other countries want,” he says. “But there is a point at which it is more than just a cultural thing and that is a fundamental violation of human rights and a fundamental denial of equality of opportunity, and when you do deny equal opportunity you are trying to run a race with one leg tied, sort of. And often your best leg.

In Pakistan, last month, Wolfowitz heard a better analogy: at a meeting in the Punjabi village of Dhok Tabarak, a woman told him that development is like a cart: it has two wheels, and if one of the wheels is not turning you will not get very far. Wolfowitz was so taken with the metaphor that during the rest of his visit to Pakistan he quoted the woman on 20 or more occasions. After the first few times, he added a horse to the story, to represent economic growth. “If the cart does not have something strong to pull it - the horse is growth - then it does not matter how fast the wheels can turn.”

Of the three full days Wolfowitz spent in India, one day was spent talking to assorted groups of rural women about bank-sponsored development programmes. Women were also notably present at all his meetings in Pakistan and India and when I asked him if this was a deliberate policy that he intended to continue, he said that it was. “We can empower people simply by meeting with them; I think there’s a tendency to think that if the World Bank president meets with people then they must be important.”

Wolfowitz told me one day that someone had just described him as a feminist. He laughed, and said: “It is the first time in my life I’ve been called that, I certainly don’t think of myself in that way. Look, we are not talking about a particular cultural way of male-female roles, but you can tell when women are denied equal rights or equal opportunities and that is not only unfair to them, it is unhelpful to the whole society.”
So I'm sorry to break with the left again, but Paul Wolfowitz is not the demon you make him out to be and he may just be the antidote needed to clean out the kelptocracies throughout Africa and enhance the rights of the small business and middle classes needed to create functioning democratic capitalist countries.

Can anyone argue that a democratic, yet capitalist, Africa is better than the failed continent it is now?

P.S. I'm also aware that Africa got that way because of Western imperialism, but that still doesn't invalidate my argument.