Friday, August 10, 2012

It's all happening back home in Bray...

Katie in the Olympic Final

At times, the Olympics seems largely a matter of tallying the amount of medals that one's country wins. Being from Ireland, that was never much fun. 

This year however, the country became immersed in the fortunes of Katie Taylor, a boxer from my hometown bray, as she took down every opponent in her way to win gold in the first year of Women's Boxing in the Olympics. 

The 4 time World Champion, 5 time European Champion - probably the most dominant Irish athlete ever - has enthralled the nation with not just her sheer class, her supremity and her humility but through the struggle she has endured to give her sport the recognition it deserves. Katie played a key role in helping women's boxing into the olympics by participating in show fights when needed, in order to show the olympic powers that be what they were missing out on.

And while her fellow gold medalists at the olympics have access to state of the art facilities and highly paid coaches, Katie fought for years without financial support, coached by her father and (as the NY Times has noted) trained in an old tin roofed gym without even a lavatory. Instead she had to use the facilities of the local pub, the Harbour Bar (which happens to be my local, and I can tell you, the bathrooms really are not the place's strong point).

An unbelievably proud moment to be Irish and share the great hometown of such a hero.

Bray Celebrates

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Case for Quotas

Yesterday, with my voice competing with the clanger of the monsoon rain on the tin roof of the Planning Division’s office, I presented my final report to the Gross National Happiness Commission. Twenty-five people were in attendance at the meeting. More important than the number however, was its composition. It included key decision makers from the GNHC: Department Heads and the Secretary of the Commission – one of the most respected leaders in Bhutan’s civil service. After weeks of worrying whether my time here would leave any lasting impression, this was my opportunity to play a small role in influencing the people who drive the country’s policy agenda.
When I first arrived, I had been asked by the Secretary to work on designing a framework for implementing policies that allowed the government to actively engage in pursuing ‘GNH Development’ (by focusing on fostering indicators like uptake of meditation and volunteering). It was important, interesting work and the Secretary had a keen interest in it – the ideal way for a student to spend an internship. After familiarizing myself both with the various dimensions of the GNH framework and the scope of the project however, I realized my work would do very little to address the growing problem of inequity faced by women Bhutan as the country modernized – something I had come to Bhutan to work on. (Gender is an important component of many aspects of GNH, but doesn’t feature strongly in others). So I decided to work on a parallel project independently, focusing specifically on empowering women in politics through the introduction of quotas. I would conduct the research, write the report and present the findings alongside the original assignment, relying on occasional advice from senior figures in the GNHC who had an interest in the area.
The plan worked. Though the issue of gender was not something that anybody had much interest in me working on here, it created by far the greatest stir of the presentation. The Secretary, who opposed the introduction of quotas (like many in the senior ranks of Bhutanese government), changed his mind on the issue. Speaking on the subject after the presentation, he described his “180 degree turn” and decided to use the report to engage the issue with members of parliament. That afternoon, I left the office triumphantly, feeling that a slight of pressure had been added to the arc of justice in Bhutan.
But was I right? Was that the case at all? Are gender quotas fair? Are they effective? Are they the kind of policy that furthers the pursuit of justice? Or are they some misguided interference with natural liberty, nothing more than an undemocratic placation, a re-enforcement of the insidious stereotype that there is something innate in the character of women, unsuited to the vocation of politics, which makes them incapable of making the tough decisions of statecraft?
Since introduced to the idea back in college, I have always known quotas to be controversial. As an undergraduate student, I was involved in a debating society with some of the most articulate women I have ever met - students who were amongst the very best debaters in the world – nearly all of whom were liberal and most of whom opposed their introduction. Indeed, I have been surprised to find that their disapproval is often more virulent in women than in men. I realized however, that what is important to know about quotas is that they are opposed for wide variety of reasons; some are sincere concerns regarding their legitimacy and effectiveness, others on the other hand, are often grounded in misogyny. Reflecting upon the issue, I tried to make sense of some of these common complaints?
Arguments grounded in bigotry – like the notion that women are somehow intrinsically incapable of leadership in politics - are not worth discussing.
The claim that women’s preferences might differ in some rudimentary manner to men; that the female disposition is one which desires senior decision making positions less, is one which I don’t buy either. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent article claiming that women have a greater need to be with their children than men sadly echoed this view. Generalizations like this, which attribue women with a more ‘domestic’ character, even if only slight or indirect, risk fostering indifference in the face of injustice. As a starting point in considering gender equity, a much more sensible presumption to make is that the vast preponderance of differences in attitudes toward work, family, and ambition are socially created, rather than naturally imbued. If women don’t run for office, ‘simply because they don’t want to’, policy makers should work from the view that this is because their social environment has caused it to be so and thus should be rectified.
Moreover, this rationalization overlooks the far more important problem with gender inequity in politics and misunderstands the central purpose of a representative democracy. While the right to freely run for public office unheeded by unfair structural barriers is indeed extremely important, it pales in comparison to the right of the polity to be adequately represented. The fact is that most people, regardless of gender, don’t want to run for office. Even if a gender disparity in the preference to run for office does statistically exist, this would not negate the fact that it is unfair that 50% of the world’s democratic polities are represented by parliamentarians, more than 80% of whom share their gender, while the other 50% are left with less than 20% who share theirs. Such is the minuteness of the proportion of people in a country that actually want to run for office that it would be wrong for gender disparities within this tiny group to affect the population as a whole. This is made more immediate in light of the growing body of work, which show women to make different policy decisions to men.
There are other, more measured, complaints worth considering. The first problem often put forward by critics is the suggestion that quotas foster a belief in essentialism, which is the view that women cannot represent men and men cannot represent women, or that all women represent all types of other women. The notion that quotas are grounded in at least some version of this belief is not unreasonable. A large part of their motivation is that issues, which affect women, would be more appropriately addressed by parliaments that were not so oppressively constituted of men.
Taken to its extreme, the idea of essentialism can lead to unappealing conclusions. People assume a plurality of political identities in their lives – based upon race, wealth, age, sexual orientation etc. - and the notion that gender is uniquely important would be difficult to justify. A common complaint of Slaughter’s article, for example, was how disconnected she seemed from the experiences of ordinary women. That being said, most political ideas – from freedom to community to equality - when embraced in their extreme lead to undesirable outcomes. Just because sharing gender with constituents isn’t the only important factor in the effectiveness and legitimacy of a representative, it doesn’t mean that it is nevertheless a very important one. Moreover, our democratic principles implicitly recognize that some aspects of identity are of more importance than others when we conduct elections according to discrete geographical constituencies (rather than having all candidates for parliament or congress run, for example, on a national list system). The notion that Boston might be improperly represented at a national level if it lacked members of Congress is, not unreasonably, rarely questioned. The fact is that sharing specific commonalities with one’s representative is often extremely important, and gender, like geography, is just such an instance.
Other common complaints suggest that quotas are undemocratic because they impose certain candidates on the electorate or that they are against the principle of ‘equal opportunity for all’ (EOFA). The inconsistencies in these arguments largely parallel those of the previous objections. Some formal structure that would guarantee women gender balance in congress would be no more ‘imposed’ than the framework, which currently exists, ensuring that the people of Boston are proportionately represented as compared with those living in New York. Moreover, complaints that quota systems violate EOFA suffer from a problem previously outlined by fetishizing (more often than not) old, wealthy, white men’s ‘equal opportunity’ to run over democracy’s prior concern that the polity is appropriately represented by its politicians.
Even when focusing narrowly on the rights of the candidate however, it should be clear to most people that women, as it stands, are not enjoying this wondrous EOFA. Though women rarely encounter formal constraints on running for office (a horrific exception being Saudi Arabia), they nevertheless encounter a myriad of informal ones. A study in rural India, for example, highlighted one of the most significant barriers that women face when running for office. Because female candidates compete in an environment in which they are already severely underrepresented in politics (and therefore not seen in these public positions), constituents form psychological biases identifying them as unsuitable for office.  Once these informal restraints were alleviated through quotas, the study showed that the barriers began to diminish. Though the experiment itself is not generalizable beyond India, its observations are consistent with findings in the vast literature in the behavioral sciences, and points to something we see every day around us.
Moreover, the EOFA argument’s fixation on formal inequality at the expense of much more important social barriers, is inconsistent with how think about electoral fairness in general. We already accept, for example, the use of legal tools to mitigate inherent structural inequalities in electoral politics when we embrace interventions to limit the influence of money. Campaigns require financing, with some candidates often enjoying more access to this than others, depending on personal circumstances, social connections and the polices that they propose. In recognition of the injustice of this phenomenon, most countries restrict the manner in which candidates can fund their campaigns, either through donation caps or by replacing the private donor model with one that relies upon public monies.
Finally, the most common complaint of my undergraduate peers: Quotas create the perception that women are incapable of gaining election on their own merit alone. It would be difficult to deny that there exists a risk this may happen. The primary reason this disempowerment is so dangerous is that if young women are fed the belief that they are unable to compete with men in politics without a head start, it may have serious adverse effects on their esteem and self-efficacy.
This dilemma cannot be considered out of context however. It must be contrasted with the actual alternative, the status quo in many countries without quotas. Indeed, another study gives reason to believe that these worries might be excessively pessimistic, showing that the introduction of quotas for two terms in local politics in India led to a significant close in the gender gap in aspirations, increased educational attainment and less time spent on household chores amongst girls. Moreover, with well supported public information campaigns outlining the real structural barriers faced by female politicians, these beliefs could be tackled and substantially mitigated.
It seems to me that most fears of gender quotas are grounded in varying degrees of sexism; inconsistent views about the nature and utility of representation, and excessive pessimism in the face of change. But just because the reasons not to introduce gender quotas have substantial weaknesses, it does not mean that they should necessarily be introduced.
Some have suggested redressing the imbalance in politics using alternative, less controversial methods like providing more financial aid, making politics more flexible so as to accommodate mothers, introducing training for prospective female politicians. These are all wonderful ideas – some which would rightfully benefit men too or should be used to support other underrepresented groups. The problem with these interventions however, is that they trivialize the problem. Women constitute 19.2% of their national parliamentary bodies worldwide. They make up 16.4% of congress in the United States, and 15.1% of Dáil Eireann home in Ireland. Massive historical culturally entrenched structural barriers have caused this to be the case. They are highly unlikely to be rectified with a couple of workshops in public speaking and an a few thousand dollars added to the campaign budget.
There is one overarching reason however, that I believe that gender quotas should be introduced not just Bhutan, but in Ireland and the United States. There is something unusually striking about the gender equality in the political domain, when compared against other areas in which women have historically faced injustice. 75 years ago, men in the US massively outnumber women in workforce participation, educational attainment and national politics. By the time the Financial Crisis had wrangled its way into the economy however, women had closed the gap and began to outnumber men in the economy (their proportion of the workforce has now fallen to 46.7% - and serious problems persist in leadership positions). In education, girls now spend more time in school and outperform boys in most areas. Yet when we look to politics, women make up only 16.4% in Congress.
The equilibrating force in education and economy (admittedly, imperfect) is almost entirely absent in politics. Urgency in seeking to tackle this is necessary. Proactive intervention is required because the character of this problem is of paralysis and entrenchment.
So in addition to the reasons I have discussed above (the unfair structural barriers faced by female candidates, the need of a polity to be appropriately represented by people who share a particularly salient political identity, the harm that the status quo incurs upon young women), gender quotas are needed because they are the most radical tool we have to fight injustice.*
* This essay has focused on the legitimacy of gender quotas, largely leaving aside questions regarding their effectiveness once implemented. If you have read this far and would like to read further comments on this, suggest it to me in a comment.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Three Hands of Development
Five Centuries of Thinking About
Natural Order and Change in the Economy

      With the other masquerades
      That time resumes,
      One thinks of all the hands
      That are raising dingy shades
      In a thousand furnished rooms.
            Preludes, T.S. Eliot

While discussing the virtues of the market system in his 1972 Nobel Memorial Lecture, Kenneth Arrow, one of the world’s most influential economists, reflected that a ‘recurrent theme of economic analysis has been the remarkable degree of coherence’ in the economy, amongst ‘the vast numbers of individual and seemingly separate decisions about the buying and selling of commodities.’ Noting that in our ‘everyday, normal experience, there is something of a balance between the amounts of goods and services that some individuals want to supply and the amounts that other, different individuals want to sell,’ he suggested that such is the strength of this innate equilibrating force, ‘would-be buyers ordinarily count correctly on being able to carry out their intentions, and would-be sellers do not ordinarily find themselves producing great amounts of goods that they cannot sell.’ Markets have flaws, acknowledged Arrow, but one of their greatest virtues is their unrivalled capacity for coherence; their natural order.
Indeed, since Adam Smith’s now providential musing that economic activity may in fact be coordinated by an invisible hand, whereby the self regarding individual ‘without intending it, without knowing it, advance[s] the interest of the society,’ many of the twentieth century’s most important economists have gone to great lengths to formalize Smith’s relatively off hand suggestion as a foundational axiom of the discipline. Markets are Pareto efficient, according to this view. They are optimal.
And with such claims, supported by seemingly irrefutable, and often incomprehensible formal proofs, the discipline of economics proceeded to trample its way through the twentieth century, throwing about its normative weight under a mathematical cloak of objectivity.
Since I have begun to sit in the meetings of the Gross National Happiness Commission however, and consider the careful discussion of policies aimed at nurturing the growth of the country’s key industries, I have become only more steadfast in my conviction that economic development cannot rely upon the invisible hand alone. A healthy economy needs not only to be embedded in an accommodating society (an important aspect ignored by such formal models, though admittedly, not by Smith), it also requires Entrepreneurs to innovate and drive commercial activity and quite often an Active State to intervene and foster commercial development when civil society lacks the capacity to do so independently.

The Alchemic Hand of the Entrepreneur
Joseph Schumpeter is perhaps the most influential economist to have highlighted the importance of the role played by the entrepreneur in the economy. In one of his many influential works, The Theory of Economic Growth, he speaks of the entrepreneur’s ‘will to conquer: the impulse to fight, to prove oneself superior to others, to succeed for the sake, not of the fruits of success, but of success itself,’ as being an essential driver of innovation. Indeed, while Smith believed the economic growth he was observing at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to be the product of gains made from trade and the division of labour, contemporary analysis now places technological progress at the heart of this economic development. And as the economic historian Robert Allen has noted, it was the ‘projector’ entrepreneurs that Smith was so skeptical of, that were in fact driving this process.
But the origin of the idea of the ‘entrepreneur’ has its roots in much earlier work than that of Schumpeter and even Smith. Writing almost half a century prior to the publication of The Wealth of Nations, a relatively unknown Irishman named Richard Cantillon provided the first known account of the entrepreneur, or undertaker as he called it. In what is perhaps the first treatise of modern economics, Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en Général, Cantillon puts forward an account of the undertaker, somebody who buys at a known price to sell at one that is unknown. A specialist in assuming risk, this figure plays a vital role in the economy by solving for the information deficit faced by ordinary economic agents. As Robert Casson of Reading University puts it, the entrepreneur ‘‘insures’ workers by buying their products (or their labor services) for resale before consumers have indicated how much they are willing to pay for them. The workers receives an assured income (in the short run, at least), while the entrepreneur bears the risk caused by price fluctuations in consumer markets.’
As a Summer Fellow with the Women and Public Policy Program, I have been reflecting upon how these thoughts relate to fairness and gender. It would be understandable to dismiss these reflections upon a discipline that is oppressively male in composition as irrelevant or even hostile to women empowerment. But while the discipline of economics is quite clearly in need of substantial reform with regards to the gender balance in its ranks, a reorientation of its intellectual programme for development, placing greater weight on the importance of the entrepreneur as an essential driver of economic growth, has quite some significance for women in developing countries.
As has been frequently noted in the literature on microfinance, the main source of commercial finance for poor people seeking to establish enterprises; women, quite simply, are better, more reliable, entrepreneurs. When it comes to deciding upon potential clients, micro-finance institutions consistently find women, who are more likely to honour their debts, to be more suitable candidates. A development agenda that places the entrepreneur at the heart of its focus therefore, will focus on empowering women not only because of its intrinsic value, but also because of the instrumental role it plays in achieving other desirable ends (e.g. economic development). At a time when women in developing countries face persistent glass ceilings (and often barriers that are much more substantial) as they seek to gain senior positions in established, male dominated, institutions, the return on investing in the next generation of leaders and in gender balanced firms seems especially promising.

The Nursing Hand of the State
The idea that the entrepreneur plays a vital role in the economy meets with little resistance, even if it is often sadly ignored in contemporary economic analysis. The third hand of economic development I wish to discuss; that of the active state, does not enjoy such ambivalence. The notion that the state can play an important and active role in facilitating economic progress has been widely unpopular for decades now. Indeed, from direct participation in the economy, to indirect stimulation of aggregate demand, to mere regulation even, the government has seen the legitimacy of its competencies slowly stripped away.
David Moss, an economic historian at Harvard Business School, has framed this phenomenon as a ‘reversal in the null.’ According Moss, social scientists shifted their focus of inquiry from scrutinizing the effectiveness of markets to challenging the usefulness of government intervention. The methodological implications of this evolution, he argues, had a serious impact on policy: ‘As scholars of political economy quietly shifted their focus from market failure to government failure over the second half of the twentieth century,’ this dramatic reversal ‘set the stage for a revolution in both government and markets, the full ramifications of which are still only beginning to be understood’.
There was a time, however, back when the world’s great economic powerhouses, the United State and the United Kingdom, were still in their nascency, that the state was recognized for the active role it played in fostering industrial developed. From the 16th century to the late 18th century, for example, Great Britain was guided by a Mercantilist doctrine that embraced the importance of the state. It is noteworthy that it was during this period that many of the pre-requisites associated with the modern economy and growth of the industrial revolution were instituted; a modern unified state with the capacity to enforce the rule of law, a proto-modern financial system with the beginnings of a central bank, elaborate international trade links with periphery economies, intellectual societies that drove innovative ideas. Many of these conditions were put in place with strong support of the state, indeed they may not have been possible without it.
As the early 20th century economic historian Eli Heckscher discusses in the fifth section of his classic consideration of mercantilism, while the thinkers of the day believed in social causation, they also believed that the policy maker had the capacity to influence this, indeed ought to, so that the society’s true purpose could be realized. Indeed, in societies that lack universal and sound education systems, where only the tiny few are empowered with the capabilities and resources to engage in ambitious commercial endeavors, it is not unreasonable that the state temporarily lend a nursing hand in support of infant industries.
Interestingly, 19th century United States, whose ideological environment, as Tocqueville famously observed, had a distinctly particularistic civic republican character (similar to the political tradition of 17th century Britain), is also likely to have benefited from state policies that would be frowned upon by economists today. Joshua Rosenbloom of Kansas University, for example, makes the intriguing case that ‘the protection provided by the Embargo Act of 1807 and the War of 1812 led to the initial expansion of textile manufacturing in the United States,’ a development that was ‘an important component of the broader process of American industrialization.’ Indeed, looking at today’s rising power, even the most casual spectator at China will notice the important role that the state has played in driving its economic growth.
It thus seems to me that there is somewhat of a contradiction between the way we make sense of economic development conceptually and how it actually plays out historically in the real world; that perhaps we need to reconsider how we think about how we think about these processes.

Towards a new framework for conceptualizing development
‘The notion of spontaneous social order, an order in human affairs operating without the intervention of any directly ordering mind’, writes the Princeton philosopher Phillip Pettit, ‘has a natural fascination for social and political theorists.’ Development, however, cannot afford to indulge in such fancies. The stakes are too high. Its challenges are too great. It is time to reassess this narrow epistemology that pervades our approach to its analysis and limits our ability to consider important ideas or ways of thinking that do not lend themselves easily to mathematical modeling.
This view is slowly beginning to gain traction. The idea, for example, that history matters for development is beginning to be taken seriously in the policy arena, as is evidenced by an illuminating paper by experts at the World Bank and the University of Cambridge. One of the most interesting conclusions from this is the potential utility of viewing history as a foreign country, a perspective echoed in this piece. But if history matters for development, surely then, so too does the history of ideas. Yet despite the wealth of insights that history’s great economic thinkers, themselves immersed in the sensibilities of development, have provided, its study continues to operate only at the outermost periphery. Apart from lazy references to Adam Smith like the one at the beginning of this essay, contemporary economists have virtually no interest in the great intuitive debates that raged from the 16th through to the 19th century. The history of economic thought, rather, has become the 20th century’s “emeritus” profession, a pursuit enjoyed by retired economic professors who have left their serious work behind them to indulge in more leisurely activities. This needs to change.
If we are to re-establish political economy as a discipline that is methodologically equipped to engage in the intellectual curiosity that is necessary to reveal not just the three hands that drive development discussed here, but the many others that may not yet be revealed, then we must begin to develop a more dialectic and critically mannered approach. This alternative method, moreover, has thrived in the study of past ideas; critiquing them, embracing them, adapting them in order to better understand the contemporary world. Just as the early modern intellectual tradition in Britain looked back to the Roman republic, indeed just as Smith looked back to the ancients and Schumpeter looked back to the physiocrats, today’s intellectuals ought put the great history of ideas back in its rightful place.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Contradictions in Development: Women in Bhutanese society and politics

As I spend more time in this remote mountainous Kingdom and become increasingly acquainted with its cultural peculiarities, the last vestiges of a parsimonious, uniformly progressive understanding of development are dissipating within me. Though we may shy from the notion, progress is in its essence eluded by the moral clarity and internal coherence that our natural intuitions often crave.
One of my old professors would often proclaim in class that modernization is messy, conflict ridden and highly non-linear; a “package deal” sought by some, repelled by others. Trying to make sense of this observation and my immediate surroundings here in Bhutan, I have begun to question whether the arc of development history could ever bow toward justice. For to bow requires painstaking time to equilibrate the competing forces of progress and conservatism. Its slow shape is defined by the inertia that opposes it. Development is no such unhurried thing. Its vehicle is not history, but something far more explosive. Like a burst of fireworks, development has hurled itself to the far corners of the earth, igniting the dark, sometimes violent serenity with change in a tumultuous flicker of time. Development is brilliant. It is vulgar. It is chaos.
I have previously commented that the Bhutanese development agenda seeks to temper this disorder by focusing on “balance” – fusing its ancient, particularistic, Buddhist rituals with the new, universalist suppositions of neo-liberal political economy. In many regards, it has worked. Citizens now enjoy substantial political freedoms enshrined in the recently enacted Constitution; people are quickly becoming richer and enjoy impressive public health and education given its limited resources. And though the country’s religious and cultural traditions must now compete for relevance with the attraction of discothèques and fancy cars, they have nonetheless retained their respect and importance.
One aspect of development that is struggling to live up to the promises of balanced progress however, is the empowerment of women.
A few months ago, back in Harvard at a WAPPP coffee morning, I was informed that Bhutan is considered to be one of the few matriarchal societies in the world, something that, to my embarrassment, I was unaware of. And while I would be hesitant to describe Bhutan as a matriarchy, now that I’ve spent some time here - it has after all been ruled by a male King for the past century and female “Dashos” (a prestigious social title) appear extremely rare – many traditional aspects of Bhutanese society are nonetheless a great deal fairer than those of its neighbors in the South Asian region when it comes to issues of gender.
Karma Pem Wangdi, a Bhutanese journalist, notes, for example, that women in Bhutan “never really had to fight for basic rights as other women did. Female genital mutilation, forced marriages, honour killings, social ostracism after divorce are all still very alien” to Bhutanese women. Interestingly, Wangdi suggests that “unlike in many communities in China and India, having a daughter in Bhutan is looked upon more favourably than having a son … because daughters have been known to be better caretakers of the home and the elderly parents”. Indeed, in the world of traditional Bhutan, men move in with their wives and married women do not take their husbands’ names. In many regions, inheritance has even historically favored daughters, an extreme rarity in almost all cultures.
But in recent years, a host of newfound strains on women have developed that, bizarrely, appear distinctly modern. In the contemporary economy, women face particularly stringent unemployment challenges. Those who do find work, frequently struggle to access affordable and trustworthy childcare. In an expanding education system, girls underperform to a striking degree compared to boys, especially at higher levels. And in the political realm, the pinnacle of Bhutan’s recent modernization, the challenges are most pronounced. The country’s first parliamentary elections have left a national assembly overrun by men, with only 10 women from 72 members. As the opposition leader, Tshering Tobgay has noted, “all its leaders – Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the National Council, Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, leader of the ruling party, and leader of the opposition party – are men. The secretaries general of both the houses are men.” These facts, quite simply, are incompatible with a just society, never mind the pursuit of a matriarchy.
If Bhutan could boast that its traditional norms gave more power and respect to women than other countries’ have done in the past, then it has failed to adapt these values in its embrace of social and political modernity.
So how to make sense of the challenges facing women empowerment in Bhutan? In Development as Freedom, an influential doctrine of development, the philosopher economist Amartya Sen puts forward the claim (reasonably self explanatory, given the title of the book) that development is best thought of as the process of expanding freedoms. Sen distinguishes between two kinds of freedoms that individuals enjoy in society; procedural and substantive. Procedural freedoms reflect the “processes that allow freedom of actions and decisions,” such as the freedom to vote, access to courts and other civil and political rights. Substantive freedoms on the other hand manifest themselves in the “actual opportunities that people have, given their personal and social circumstances.”
In the case of Bhutan, unlike in many other developing countries, procedural freedoms have more or less always existed in a relatively similar fashion for men and women. Moreover, in many dimensions of social life, the substantive freedoms women have enjoyed mirror those of men. But in those areas mentioned above, these substantive freedoms are not being realized.
For those who embrace a libertarian understanding of justice, as expounded by philosophers like Robert Nozick in Anarchy, The State and Utopia, procedural justice ought be sufficient and the policy conversation need not go any further. There are obvious reasons, however, to care deeply that women in Bhutan lack these substantive freedoms. For one thing, they have intrinsic worth. The ability to participate comprehensively in one’s political society, to live productively with the assurance that one’s family is safe, are valuable in of themselves. Procedural rules are always necessary but often insufficient in their pursuit. Moreover, these freedoms allows people to achieve other valuable ends like earn a decent living and enjoy the benefits of education.
Less obvious however, is the potentially more insidious intergenerational impact of these initial, male dominated, stages of transformation. Social roles like public representative, Prime Minister, Chief Executive Officer, and professor will quickly become connoted with maleness if the gender structure of leadership positions in society is not swiftly redressed. As Sen says, “greater freedom enhances the ability people to help themselves and also to influence the world, and these matters are central to the process of development.” Bhutan needs women in important positions in order to influence the political agenda, and needs women to be seen in important to prevent the attachment of the male gender to powerful roles.
So what is to be done? With most problems of this kind, the first productive step is often to create awareness by accumulating and disseminating important information. Working in the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) has highlighted for me the importance of small procedures that I had always taken for granted in policy (like disaggregating gender statistics, for example, a relatively recent phenomenon here). Most people I meet in Bhutan (admittedly, these are reasonably high level government officials) are aware of the challenge. Extensive studies have been conducted to develop strategies for improvement. Sometimes, the men I speak to will dismiss the problem, (I am unsure if this is the innocent “Bhutanese banter” that I have highlighted before or if they are genuinely opposed to gender focused reforms), but my sense is that women empowerment is not a fringe issue amongst the country’s political elite.
As part of my work at the GNHC, I will be reviewing the strategies developed four years ago in the aftermath of the parliamentary elections and examining the empirical evidence from previous international efforts to empower women. Though I will be focusing my attention on the political sphere, this is only the (admittedly, pretty hefty) tip of the iceberg. In particular, the scars accumulated from disparities in educational attainment will last for years to come. Swift, ambitious and proactive measures will be required throughout Bhutan’s civil society to ensure that its women live in as fair a society its reputation boasts. 
Like an explosion of fireworks, development hurled itself into this serene civil society. It is not surprising that transformation’s inherent unpredictability, the tumult and messiness of the change that Bhutan has faced over the last few decades brought with it unintended consequences. But just as development is so often wrought with incoherence, it also has a capacity to get things right. It can and does often make things better. I hope that, with the sufficient attention and aided by (Kennedy School supported) evidence based policy, Bhutan’s development can adapt to empower rather than isolate women.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

“Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”: A Man’s Response

A few days ago, I awoke to a flurry of activity on my Facebook newsfeed discussing the Atlantic Magazine article by Ann-Marie Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” In her thought provoking essay, Slaughter argues that despite the courageous struggle fought by previous generations of women, the work environment of prestigious, high powered jobs continues to inhibit women, by forcing them into unnecessary and unacceptable trade-offs between their parenting and professional commitments. An intensely clientelist culture that fetishizes billable hours and frowns upon those who dare prioritize family over work, even on weekends, has made it impossible for women to lead healthy balanced family lives in a way that men in similar positions often manage.
Slaughter, the former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department and former Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, makes a compelling case for the reconfiguration of the work environment to make it more family friendly. Extend the hours of the school day. Increase the use of communication technology to facilitate working from home. Change work culture, making default practices more accommodating of familial commitments. Without substantial reforms like these, not only are governments and firms going to continue to lose talented female employees, making society writ large worse off, but women will remain in an uphill struggle filled with unfair barriers that systematically discriminate against them.
Many of my female Kennedy School peers have called on men to give their opinion on the essay, some suggesting that we have little incentive to embrace the proposed changes, others arguing that we have just as much to gain as women. So as a man, what are my thoughts?
The core of Slaughter’s argument, as I read it, need not be gender specific. It’s claim, rather, is that America needs to adapt its work culture to embrace a new understanding of the good life. One that places family at its core. For Slaughter, this is one where she is “able to spend time with [her] children,” enjoying “the simple pleasures of parenting—baseball games, piano recitals, waffle breakfasts, family trips, and goofy rituals.” These activities, are common to millions of families across America, but are by no means ordinary. They may not have the influence or financial earnings of a high power job, but are nevertheless a rudimentary part of life. One that defines us, satisfies us like nothing else. Family is not something to be sidelined by professional commitments. No matter how important.
I full heartedly embrace Slaughter’s call. It is not clear to me, however, why this invitation to re-imagine a more family friendly professional environment is something that women specifically ought to value. The more successful women have been over the past fifty years in redefining the workplace as somewhere that everybody has a right to participate in equally, the more men have seen their roles at home transform. Men now often make professional sacrifices too for the sake of their family. This is something that I experienced in my life for example. Just as my mother delayed the completion of her degree to give my brother and I the support and attention we needed growing up, my father, who had already earned his before we were born, then delayed his PhD to make time in our teenage years to help us with our homework and coach the soccer team.  
These are things my grandfathers’ generation probably never would have even thought, and were certainly never expected, to do. Spending time engaged in the everyday rituals of parenthood may have been the sole remit of women in the bad old days, but that is not to say that its simple magnificence is lost upon men today now that times have changed. And this is perhaps my most important take away from thinking about Slaughter’s article. Women’s liberation has not been a zero sum game. Men who are now participating in their children’s lives more than they otherwise would have are enjoying newfound meaning.
My best male professors at the Kennedy School all have spoken of things like putting off the next book, skipping conferences, leaving office strictly at 5.30pm or (appropriate in this case) returning from a dream job in Washington because their spouse dislikes the capital. I was speaking to Martin Wolf (a hard nosed economist from the Financial Times) about his career a few months back, and he reflected adamantly that if his job had ever gotten in the way of his marriage, he would never have hesitated to find new employment. I do not mean to suggest that this is representative of all, or even most men but it nonetheless indicates that men’s priorities are changing.
What I liked about this essay was that it embraced family as the centre of the solution, not part of the problem that ‘progress’ tries to solve. Something that progress needs to accommodate, not be accommodated by. Part of the directionality of our collective pursuits. It differs dramatically from the message of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for example, where Nora, the protagonist leaves her children to escape her controlling husband. I remember as a teenager being conflicted after the play, by a twin sense of relief that she escaped her horrid life and anger that she had left her children. I remember arguing that it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, you’ve still got a responsibility to care for your children. This essay pays head to this truth, and makes a better case, I believe, for a more just, fair society because of it.
And I think men should, and will listen. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Photos: Their Monasteries are in the Clouds

This weekend, with the monsoon season finally lumbering into action, I went to visit Taktsang, the famous Tiger's Nest. After a 6am start, the adventure soon had to be diverted elsewhere as the main road from Thimphu to Paro became impassable due to landslides. 

Instead, we visited Chagri Dorjeden, the Buddhist monastery established by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1620. 

It was a breath-taking introduction to the temples of Bhutan.

Cars line up hundreds of metres back. An unusual sight in Bhutan. A landslide has made the road impassable.

A group of locals consider solving the problem themselves as it becomes apparent that help will be slow in coming this early Sunday morning. They begin to hammer at the enormous rock, hoping to roll more manageable pieces off the cliff.

We head back to Thimphu, stopping to take examine the traditional Bhutanese architecture and of the rice terraces.

Amidst the clouds,  hanging off the side of the mountainside, Chagri Dorjeden comes into view.

Two monks make their way up to the monastery.

We make a friend along the way who cheerfully accompanies us up and down the mountain. Traditional Bhutanese hospitality.

The deep green surroundings on the walk up are bursting with all manners of life.  After hiking up the steep trail,  the monastery finally comes into view.

We were allowed to enter without a letter of permission.

Mini prayer wheels.

One of the thousands of designs found on Bhutanese architecture. 

Two monks chat. 

A small candle prayer hut in the monastery.

More designs. Reminds me of the old British University style architecture.

And more designs...

To the top. Slippery steps.

Clouds and tree clad mountains surround the monastery into the distance.

Local visitors feed the left overs of their lunch to the stray dogs.

Journey completed. We make our way home.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Canteen

The Bhutanese are unrelentingly sociable. Embellished tales of recent visits by academic dignitaries and racy office banter dance about the tobacco smoke that hugs the old wooden picnic table in the back garden of the canteen. Even with strangers, the conversation is never forced nor the silence ever awkward. More like a verbal game, quiet at the table is spent in respite, anticipating the oncoming crack at any idiosyncrasy the next subject of abuse happens to have.

“Is smoking not banned in Bhutan?...” I ask. 

My inquiry is answered with earnest, wordy responses that utterly fail to provide clarity. I wonder if the ambiguity is intentional, a convolution to avoid the intrusive question, but decide it is not. The Economist article I read must have had it wrong so…  

A tray of yogurts arrive (their plastic tops unsealed).

Unsweetened but deliciously refreshing, the yogurt is more creamy and natural than any I’ve tasted before. It’s the first dairy product I’ve had since arriving in this chili infested land and lines the walls of my stomach, soothing my gut. Chilies in the Cheese Omelet. Chilies in the Chicken Pizza. Chilies in bloody everything..

After the yogurt, the frequency and predictability of bathroom visits returns to normal. Thank God. Most restrooms I encounter are flooded holes in the ground, toilet-paper used up long ago.

During the first few days, I became increasingly aware of my foreignness. Squeamish, precious, Western, I wonder how I must look to the locals.. like the tourists in Babel, scared of life outside my hyper -sanitized bubble? Do the flies buzzing about the food not bother ANYBODY else?

After a generously timed one hour long break we head back to the office, returning to the familiar sound of rats trampling hurriedly across the wood-chip ceiling, their claws scuffing the panels.

This is my first time living in a developing country. In many ways, I didn’t know what to expect. At this early stage, despite appearances, the discomforts of life outside 02138 are more interesting than perturbing however.

Let’s hope it stays that way…