Summary of Gayatri Spivak’s talk to the World Bank 1999

[This is not mine, but I thought it would be useful to make a stable link for this short summary that was both the impetus for my 15 years with Spivak’s work, and that has also served me well as a heuristic in my own brief forays into the international development arena. So here’s a readable version that still deserves a wide readership outside academia, the developmental attitude is perhaps only even more present now than then. I first saw this on the postcolonial list, and a quote ridden forward is the only surviving document I can find, I’d be happy to take this down and replace with a link to a better source if the Bank or the anonymous author would host it, please let me know! – db]


Date: Tue, 20 Apr 1999 12:50:13 -0400
Subject: [Gender-Law] Summary of Gayatri Spivak’s talk

Summary of the Talk to the Gender and Law Thematic Group by Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, New York

On April 12, 1999, Professor Spivak gave an illuminating and challenging presentation regarding working in the field of gender. She opened by stating that she did not come with a prepared paper, but was, rather, more interested in learning how to speak to Bank staff and how to have the Bank respond to what she would say. She pointed out that her remarks were being offered seriously and expressed the aspiration that they would be so taken. She noted, too, that her speaking at the Bank was a challenge to herself, and she considered her time here to constitute important field work for her.

Professor Spivak summarised her background as being a literature teacher as well as an activist for the past 10 years. She stated that during the last ten years, she has gone below the NGO level in working with communities in India, Algeria, and Bangladesh in the field of education – training teachers. She noted that if the goal of development work is indeed people, then one of the hardest lessons to learn, is that some of virtues of human existence will be found at the very bottom of society, which is the target area for change for development organisations. A question which emerges then, is, How do we approach the bottom? How can we learn from below?

The professor stated that as workers in the field of development, we should not proceed from the conviction that where we are is inherently better. If one internalises and accepts this position, then, organisations such as the Bank cannot continue to do what it does in the development field because learning from the bottom has to take priority. She realised that this position may be impractical or inconvenient for the Bank, but it was a realistic one. She questioned the definition of gender, especially approaches previously used by the Bank, but did not go further into the issue as she was informed that the Bank is working on a new gender strategy.

Professor Spivak emphasised that her remarks were being made from her experience as an activist. She stated that in her work she teaches the dominant national language and the principles of a living democratic culture within the fabric already existent in that society. She noted that in these societies where the people have learnt to manipulate incredibly complicated life systems, given also the systematic destruction and stagnation of the fabric of their societies over many centuries, often, there is more possibility for empowerment than may be realised by external workers.

Professor Spivak noted that women are the power in tribal groups. She questioned the validity of the public/private or inside/outside dichotomy in analysing issues among such groups, arguing that while this may be applicable to the middle class, this analysis did not work well at the grassroots. She also said that conventional approaches that emphasise legal rights for women may address issues of middle class or better-off women but do not touch on the problems faced by those at the grassroots. Gender is a field that goes beyond reason, and can not be analysed within the paradigm of rational expectations.

However, she stressed that tradition is not necessarily good, and change is imperative. However, assistance for such change should not take away what people have and replace it with top down schemes. Professor Spivak urged the need to look and see if there is not already a starting point within the present in the society itself, from which one can begin one’s work. One must not approach the work with the “supremacist’s assumption” that anything that exists must be bettered. The idea is to enter into and learn the traditions from inside, see what traditions can be worked with to slowly make the situation better and accepted from the inside, and to ensure that new developments are initiated from the inside. The need was to do “invisible mending” of the native fabric by weaving the different positive threads existing in the fabric. She stated that if people and not economic growth, are the motivating factor for working in gender, then we have to also realise that the change will not happen fast. Patience, she said, was critical.

Professor Spivak stated that living culture is always ahead of us. One should not think one is learning or being sensitive to another culture, but rather, one should try to forget that there is difference in culture for the time, and in this way some of one’s convictions can be changed and oneself can be open to that change. Professor Spivak also made reference to the role of using one’s imagination, as is done in literature, to envision the avenues for creating sustainable change and underscored the importance of placing one self in the other person’s (the person who is being changed) shoes – the process of “othering” as she described it.

In conclusion, the practical lessons that Professor Spivak would have for the Bank are that:

– sustainable change must come from within;
– work in this area must be approached with humility and respect avoiding the tendency to “do good with contempt in your heart” and the belief that we are in all respects better than them;
– those who seek to change must be fully prepared to be changed themselves;
– the patient learning from below must replace impatient imposition of change from above and outside; and
– sustainable change takes time, like “drops of water changing a stone, drop by drop.

In her closing remarks, the professor stated that she was interested in engaging the Bank in dialogue and that with sufficient lead time to prepare, she would be willing to return to the Bank to dialogue on issues relating to structural adjustment and gender and development.


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