Issue 21.1, February 2006


Essay Excerpt

Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle: Women's Empowerment, Neoliberal Governmentality, and State (Re)Formation in India

by Aradhana Sharma

On a sunny Friday morning in November 1998, I accompanied an all-woman team of staff members from Mahila Samakhya (MS), a women’s “empowerment” program initiated by the Government of India, to the block office in Nizabad, a paddy-growing region of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.1 Meena Rani, a field-level MS employee, led the group in its mission to introduce local officials to the MS program.2 It was the scheduled day for weekly meetings between the block office staff and local residents about development-related matters, and the office was abuzz with activity. A clerk helped us navigate through clusters of people to a meeting room where we were joined by the Block Development Officer (BDO) Sukhdev Singh and his male assistants.

The MS team began its presentation with a song describing women’s participation in local elected bodies.3 The theme of this song had been chosen with care because singing about gender inequality would have alienated the men present. The BDO nodded approvingly, and Meena Rani asked him to describe what his office was doing to address the needs of the poor women in his area. Sukhdev Singh replied that poor women needed training in literacy and skills for generating income. He had previously implemented state-run training programs for women in midwifery and pickling, but the women who had participated had failed to transform their newly acquired skills into income-generating work. “It is [the women’s] responsibility to do the work,” the BDO complained, “and not the government’s responsibility. But they are not doing [anything].” He asked the MS team to raise women’s awareness so that “they can move ahead on their own.”This was the perfect opening for Meena Rani’s introduction: “MS is a [program] of the Human Resource Development Ministry of the Government of India . . . that attempts to empower women, raise their awareness, and make them self-reliant,” she stated. One of the BDO’s assistants interjected, “What do you mean by sashaktikaran [empowerment]? It sounds suspicious.”4 Meena Rani clarified that empowerment meant “giving women information, helping them to move forward, and raising their awareness.”

Meetings between development program functionaries and local-level government officials are a commonplace occurrence in rural north India. This particular exchange caught my attention for several reasons. First, the BDO’s insistence that women be responsible for their own development raises interesting questions in relation to neoliberal notions of competitive entrepreneurialism and self-developing social actors. Second, his assistant’s distrust of women’s empowerment raises the question of why the term empowerment is more threatening for some state representatives than more technical (and apolitical) discourses of development (Ferguson 1994). What intrigued me most, however, was Meena Rani’s identification of MS as a government program in front of block officials. A few days prior, she had introduced MS as a nongovernmental organization (NGO) to a group of village women who were potential program clients. When the women asked Meena Rani what they would receive in return for their participation, she answered that they should not expect any material benefits other than information, knowledge, and support. MS was a sanstha (NGO) and not a sarkari (government) program that distributed goods.

Meena Rani was not alone in these vacillations. I had observed other field staff resorting to the same shifting identification of MS, which posed an interesting conundrum. Were they simply unclear about MS’s identity? I asked Sunita Pathak, a senior government administrator of the program, who explained: “[MS] is partly governmental, and it is also nongovernmental....The national level [program in New Delhi] is strictly governmental....[But] from the state level onwards, [MS] is an autonomous organization.”5 In the world of development agencies, MS would be considered a government-organized NGO (GONGO)—an entity, as I argue below, that is perhaps only apparently contradictory.

Although Pathak’s elucidation cleared up some of my perplexity regarding the program’s hybrid identity, it did not explain why MS’s field staff chose to identify it as an NGO in some contexts and as a government program in others. In this article, I pursue this question by examining the program’s organization and its work practices. An analysis of how MS’s GONGO structure and empowerment goals articulate with neoliberal ideologies of self-rule and self-care and how transnational neoliberalism and the MS program’s everyday practices construct and engender the neoliberalizing Indian state will help us to explore both the potentialities and challenges of feminist-conceived, partially state-initiated programs for subaltern women’s empowerment.6

The era of neoliberal governmentality is witnessing the emergence of new mechanisms of rule and a proliferation of innovative institutional forms that take on governance functions formerly assigned to the state. Following the theoretical work of Michel Foucault, I use the concept of “governmentality” to signal the diffusion of self-regulatory modes of governance such as empowerment beyond the bounds of the state and the imbrication of all kinds of social actors such as GONGOs in the project of rule.7 The emphasis of empowerment programs on capacitating individuals and communities to take care of themselves, when combined with the GONGO form, offers an especially interesting vantage point from which to explore how deeply development discourse is enmeshed in governance and how states and governance in the postcolonial world are being reconfigured through the ideologies and practices of neoliberal development.8 (60-62)

Sharma, Aradhana. "Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle: Women's Empowerment, Neoliberal Governmentality, and State (Re)Formation in India." Cultural Anthropology 21, no. 1 (2006): 60-95