"Advocating Feminism:

The Latin American Feminist NGO 'Boom'"

Sonia E. Alvarez
Department of Politics
University of California at Santa Cruz
March 2, 1998

On-going processes of democratization, coupled with changing international norms, neo-liberal policies and State reform, have dramatically altered the conditions under which feminist and other struggles for social justice unfold in Latin America today. The restructured terrain on which feminists must now wage their battles, in turn, has triggered a significant reconfiguration of what I will refer to as the Latin American feminist movement field—privileging some actors and actually or potentially marginalizing others.

My talk today focuses on the most visible, and increasingly controversial, actors in this reshaped movement field, actors who have been especially prominent in "advocating feminism" in national and transnational policy arenas: feminist non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGO-like feminist groups, of course, have been around since the origins of Latin American feminisms’ second-wave in the 1970s—indeed they prevailed early on among feminist groups in some countries. And feminist NGO surely have helped improve the immediate life conditions of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of women and have been instrumental in promoting potentially progressive gender policies in a variety of national contexts—despite the less-than "citizen-friendly" current Latin American and global order. However, as the title of my talk suggests, I will argue that, in recent years, there has been a veritable "boom" in more formal or institutionalized (1) feminist organizations specializing in gender project execution, policy assessment, and social services delivery. What I refer to as the NGO boom of the 1990s is marked by a region-wide shift away from feminist activities centered on popular education, mobilization, and poor and working-class women’s empowerment and a move toward policy-focused activities, issue-specialization, and resource concentration among the more technically adept, transnationalized and professionalized NGOs within the feminist field.

After first offering a snapshot of NGOs’ location within the reconfigured Latin American feminist field, I will analyze how the shifting terrain of local and global gender politics has increased the demand for feminist organizations able to deliver "gender-specialized" services. I will argue that changing international donor and development policies, together with structural adjustment and the growing erasure of local States from the realm of social policy, may be propelling States and inter-governmental organizations (IGOs) to turn to some feminist NGOs as "experts on gender" rather than as citizens’ groups advocating on behalf of women’s rights. Governments and IGOs increasingly seek out the more professionalized sectors of the feminist field to evaluate "State policies with a gender perspective" and execute targeted social service and training (capacitación) programs for "at-risk" poor and working-class women—potentially distancing NGOs from their key societal constituencies, compromising their ability to critically monitor policy and advocate for more thoroughgoing (perhaps more feminist?) reform.

These recent developments deeply trouble many NGO activist-professionals and have infuriated their militantly "autonomous" feminist critics. Many in both camps worry that growing numbers of feminist organizations seem to have been driven to focus their energies and resources on more technical, less contestatory activities, to the actual or potential detriment of more effective national or international policy advocacy and other modalities of feminist cultural-political intervention. I will conclude by suggesting that the trends propelling the feminist NGO boom are neither inevitable nor irreversible and that current debates surrounding NGOization within the Latin American feminist field may well point the way toward revitalized feminist rights advocacy as we enter the new millennium.

This essay draws on fieldwork conducted in Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Colombia during the summer of 1997 (2), as well as my previous research on Latin American participation in the preparatory processes for the recent string of UN Summits—especially the Fourth World Conference on Women (see Alvarez 1998 for an analysis of the Latin American Beijing process). I should make clear before I go any further that I am directly implicated in the story I’m about to tell. During the three years (1993-1996) I served as Program Officer in Rights and Social Justice for the Ford Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (3), I evaluated, selected and funded gender-related research and advocacy projects, worked closely with a wide variety of feminist NGOs, and found myself—as never before in my fairly lengthy career as a US feminist "internationalist" activist and student of Latin American women’s/social movements—smack in the middle of transnational flows of feminist ideas and resources. The ensuing analysis therefore constitutes more than an academic exercise or an effort to solve a "social scientific puzzle." It also grows out of my abiding concern as a hybrid Latina/Latin American/Latin Americanist activist-scholar to interrogate critically our always changing, multifaceted, and sometimes-contradictory cultural-institutional-academic practices as feminists.

NGOs and the Reshaping of Latin American Feminisms

How Latin American activists practice their feminism has changed significantly in the 1990s. Feminism—like many of the so-called new social movements that took shape in the region during the 1970s and 1980s—can today more aptly be characterized as an expansive, polycentric, heterogeneous discursive field of action which spans into a vast array of cultural, social and political arenas.(4) As I have argued elsewhere (Alvarez 1998), Latin American feminisms have experienced a notable process of decentering and diversification over the course of the past decade. That is, the reconfigured feminist movement field today spans well beyond social movement organizations or SMOs, conventionally conceived. The 1990s saw a dramatic proliferation or multiplication of the spaces and places in which women who call themselves feminists act, and wherein, consequently, feminist discourses circulate. After over two decades of struggling to have their claims heard by male-dominant sectors of civil and political society and the State, women who proclaim themselves feminists can today be found in a wide range of public arenas—from lesbian feminist collectives to research-focused NGOs, from trade unions to Black and indigenous movements, from university women’s studies programs to mainstream political parties, the State apparatus, and the international aid and development establishments.

The diverse women who transit in this wide-ranging movement field interact in a variety of alternative and official publics and through a number of media. New, more formalized modalities of articulation or networking among the multiple spaces and places of feminist politics have been consolidated during the 1990s. These range from region-wide identity and issue-focused networks, like the Red de Mujeres Afro-Latinoamericanas y Caribeñas and the Comité Latinoamericano de Defensa de los Derechos de la Mujer (CLADEM), to networks focused specifically on impacting the UN process, such as the Regional NGO Coordination established in preparation for the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW).

NGOs have played a central role in setting up and sustaining these various forms of formal articulation among a vast range of actors in the feminist field. In producing and circulating numerous newsletters and publications, organizing issue-focused conferences and seminars, establishing electronic networks and a wide gamut of other communications media, professionalized NGOs also have functioned as the key nodal points through which the spatially dispersed and organizationally fragmented feminist field remains discursively articulated.(5) They have been crucial to sustaining what I call social movement webs—the capillary connections among feminists and their sympathizers who now occupy a wide variety of social locations. During periods when movements experience mobilizational lulls (in fact, the most common social movement condition under situations of politics-as-usual), such webs—maintained principally by NGOs with professional staff dedicated to "outreach" and articulation—have played a key role in keeping feminist issues "alive," at least among policy-makers, IGOs and donors—if not always as successfully keeping them "hot" in the larger public debate (see Alvarez 1997a and b).

But just what exactly are feminist NGOs? What distinguishes them from non-feminist NGOs and from other actors in the broad-ranging feminist field? Though the concept of non-governmental organization is sometimes indiscriminately deployed in development discourse to refer to any social actor not clearly situated within the realm of the State or the market—from peasant collectives and community soup kitchens to research-oriented policy think tanks—among actors in the Latin American feminist field, the term "feminist NGO" has come to denote particular kinds of groups with distinctive orientations and practices.

Indeed, in recent years, feminists in some countries (such as Brazil) have ever more commonly drawn a sharp distinction between NGOs and "the movement." The former are typically characterized as having functionally specialized, paid, professional staff and, sometimes, a limited set of volunteers, receive funding from bilateral or multilateral agencies and (usually foreign) private foundations, and engage in pragmatic strategic planning to develop "reports" or "projects" aimed at influencing public policies and/or providing advice or "asesoria" to the movimiento de mujeres and varied services to low-income women. Though sometimes engaging in similar asesoria and policy-oriented activities, the latter is commonly understood to be made up of "militant" feminist groups or collectives that have largely volunteer, often sporadic, participants (rather than "staff"), more informal organizational structures, significantly smaller operating budgets, and whose actions (rather than "projects") are guided by more loosely defined, conjunctural goals or objectives. But such a stark distinction between NGOs and "the movement" underplays the hybrid character of most feminist NGOs, ignores important differences in the timing and degree of movement NGOization in different countries, and obscures the diversity of NGO activities and practices.

Prevailing characterizations of NGOs—in both social movement and scholarly discourses—often fail to capture the specificity of those operating within the feminist field. The academic literature most commonly defines NGOs as "intermediary organizations" that "are typically composed of middle-class, educated and professional people who have opted for political or humanitarian reasons to work with (or on behalf of) the poor and the marginalized" (Pearce 1997, 259). These grassroots support organizations (GSROs) "channel international funds to [member-serving grassroots organizations or] GROs and help communities other than their own to develop" (Fisher 1998, 4).

While feminist NGOs in most Latin American countries are typically made up of university-educated, middle-class (and most often white or mestiza) women(6) and many do work in some capacity with poor and working-class women’s groups, they are distinct from non-feminist GSROs in at least two key respects. First, most feminist NGOs do not see themselves as working only "help others" but also to alter gender power relations that circumscribe their own lives as women (see also Lebon 1993 and forthcoming). In a comprehensive survey of 97 Mexican feminist NGOs, María Luisa Tarrés found that "a strong identitarian component . . . marked the logic of women’s NGOs . . . the space created by the NGO stimulates a reelaboration of the identity of its members as social and political subjects" (Tarrés 1997, 4).

Second, the vast majority of NGO activist-professionals also view themselves as an integral part of a larger women’s movement that encompasses other feminists (in other types of organizations or "sueltas") as well as the poor and working-class women for or on behalf of whom they profess to work. As one interviewee affirmed, "In Peru, NGOs have a double identity . . . we are centers and we are movement".(7) Not all NGO professionals I interviewed, however, shared in this hybrid identity. Some understood NGOs as providing "a critical voice of a technical and professional character that contributes to the movement".(8)

The extent or degree of NGOization of the feminist movement, of course, varies significantly among countries in the region(9)—reflecting the distinctive political environments in which feminisms unfolded, the country-specific priorities and preferences of international donors, and the particularities of feminist movement development in a given locality. In Brazil, for example, a sharper contrast between NGOs and "the movement" is today drawn by many activists because early feminist groups were mostly of the more informal, feminist collective variety. Relatively few early groups received external funding or had paid administrative or professional staff. The process of institutionalization of the feminist movement in the form of more formal, professionalized groups—which only in the late 1980s came to refer to themselves as NGOs (Landim 1993)—accompanied the pace of Brazil’s protracted and "phased" political transition process. Thus, both feminist and non-feminist NGOs "multiplied in the 1980s (50 percent of Brazilian NGOs were created between 1980 and 1990)," partly, as Lebon suggests, due to "the expansion of international cooperation and the emphasis on privatization by neo-liberal governments" (1997, 7). But the gradual liberalization of the political environment in which social movements operated and the "gendered political opening" promoted by some opposition-controlled state governments in the early to mid-1980s also prompted growing numbers of feminists to formalize their organizations and develop greater policy expertise by the end of that decade (Lebon 1993; Heilborn and Arruda 1995; Alvarez 1990 and 1994; Soares et al. 1995).

Tarrés similarly emphasizes that "in the case of Mexico, the weight of the context is fundamental" in accounting for the proliferation of feminist NGOs (1997, 25). She argues that while the post-1977 political reforms ultimately absorbed some sectors of the opposition into the institutional party system, "there were activists who, in not accepting this arrangement, were left without a political organization. A kind of market of activists without parties is thereby created" (1997, 51). She further maintains that

 

The members of NGOs come from this market of activists without party. Their previous participation experiences, the relationship to feminism, a certain disillusionment with the authoritarianism that surfaces when incorporation into an institutional party is debated, and the offer of importan financial support for NGOs from the year of earthquake forward, constitute the factors explaining the increase and diversity of organizations dedicated to transforming women’s condition. (1997, 52).

 

Tarrés found that after 1980 and especially after 1984, the previously slow and stable growth in NGOs dedicated to women’s issues—which formed at the rate of one per year—accelerated significantly, with over ten a year being founded in 1984, 1987, and 1990 (1997, 12).

By contrast, most Colombian feminists I interviewed concurred with Maruja Barrig’s assessment that "as compared to other countries in the region, the feminist movement has not expressed itself principally through NGO channels," but rather "small activist organizations prevail . . .which participate as such in various activities of the movement, in a volunteer capacity" (Barrig 1997b, emphasis in the original). Context matters here as well. The clientelism, corruption and "narcodemocracia" that permeate the Colombian regime, the historically weak presence of the State in much of the national territory, and the endemic political violence that flows from the above would hardly seem conducive to setting up specialized NGOs aimed at influencing public policy. As Barrig further notes, the over 3,000 NGOs affiliated with the Colombian Confederation of NGOs are less professionalized than their counterparts in other countries, incorporating significant numbers of volunteers among their staff (1997b, 10). Still, the post-1986 political decentralization, coupled with the 1991Constitution (which mandates State consultation with civil society in development planning), have fueled a process of increased institutionalization in various Colombian social movement fields.(10) And as I shall discuss below, there also seems to have been a marked increase in State sub-contracting of NGO services for policy execution and social services delivery. Several feminist activists I talked with emphasized that, "there are two types of NGOs here: some are ‘historic,’ others more recent, which emerge after the Constituyente process, and are sometimes narrowly focused, opportunistic, and very nepotistic".(11)

In Chile—whose heinous 17-year dictatorship and shock-treatment-induced poverty made opposition movements favored recipients of international humanitarian aid and liberal foundation monies—many second-wave feminist groups, who formed an integral part of that opposition, appear, by contrast, to have been able to institutionalize their organizations fairly early on. Given State repression and government indifference to the hardships neo-liberalism heaped upon poor women, many of those early NGO-like feminist groups centered their attention on supporting the survival struggles of women of the popular classes and organizing with them against the Pinochet dictatorship (Frohmann and Valdés 1995; Gaviola 1994; Chuchryk 1994; Schuurman and Heer 1992). Since the return of civilian rule and a new "post-social democratic" brand neo-liberalism in 1989, many Chilean feminists I talked with suggested that those links to the "base" have been largely severed, for reasons that I shall explore further below.

In any given context and over time, the types of activities prioritized by feminist NGOs also have varied significantly. As in the Chilean case, most if not all NGOs emerging early in Latin American feminism’s second wave focused their activities on popular education and women’s empowerment or provided services and asesoria to poor and working-class women’s organizations. Some still do. MEMCH—an umbrella organization of popular women’s groups "gone NGO" since the return of civilian rule—continues to view itself as a "bridge between feminism and the popular classes" (12) and offers a variety of training courses and other services to women from the urban periphery. Tierra Nuestra runs an Escuela de Capacitación para Mujeres Lideres in Santiago’s Southern zone and promotes the "autonomous organization" of the 64 grassroots women’s groups with whom they continue to work.(13) Similarly, Colombia’s current post-Beijing coalition, coordinated by the Bogotá-based NGO, Dialogo Mujer, proclaims its intention to foster a "feminismo popular de la diversidad".(14) Tarrés found that fully 90 percent of Mexican feminist NGOs provide direct services to their targeted publics and "the majority claims to be oriented toward women of the popular sectors, whether they be urban residents, peasants or indigenous women" (1997, 19, 18).

Some feminist NGOs, such as CFEMEA in Brazil and Casa de la Mujer in Colombia, today also center their work on promoting and monitoring gender-related legislation. The latter group, for example, has worked closely with Afro-Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba and other women parliamentarians on both "women’s issues" and non-gender-specific public policies so that they might "integrate gender to their general programmatic agenda".(15) Still others seek to articulate grassroots work with policy-focused or more macro forms of cultural-political intervention, pursuing "rights advocacy" not just to promote more progressive policies but also to engender cultural change. Themis, a feminist NGO based in Porto Alegre, Brazil, for example, offers legal training courses for grassroots women community leaders and organizes specialized workshops on gender and the law for judges and other legal professionals, while also engaging in litigation to advance feminist jurisprudence. The regional feminist legal rights network, CLADEM—of which Themis forms part—claims to work to develop a radical critique of the law, to be more than a pressure group, to intervene in the cultural, and promote empoderamiento. They are currently spearheading a transnational Campaña de la Declaración Universal de los Derechos Humanos desde la perspectiva de género, organized to mark the December 1998 on 50th anniversary of that UN declaration, for example, but their stated objective is not merely to impact the UN. Rather, they view "the process" to be as important as "the final objective"; the campaign is being primarily waged as "tool for education of women’s human rights". (16)

While many feminist NGOs continue to struggle to provide asesoria and promote conscientización among popular women’s organizations and strive to push gender policy beyond the narrow parameters of Latin America’s actually existing democracies, however, the material resources and political rewards for doing so appear to be drying up. The global and local premium is increasingly placed on NGO gender policy assessment, project execution, and social services delivery. Amid the heterogeneous actors that today constitute the expansive feminist movement field, specific types of NGOs and NGO activities have attained particular prominence. And it is this shift—and not a proliferation of feminist NGOs as such (which, as I’ve noted, varies considerably from country to country)—that marks what I call the boom in Latin American feminist NGOs. I now turn to the factors—largely external to the feminist movement field—which have propelled this change.

The Expansion of Local and Global Demand for Professionalized Feminism

In the 1990s, I want to suggest, more purportedly "gender-friendly" national, regional, and global policy environments have directly fueled a growing demand for specialized, policy-relevant, expert knowledge about women and gender—expertise increasingly supplied by more technically skilled, professionalized feminist organizations. The heightened feminist focus on policy advocacy, monitoring, and assessment must also, of course, be understood as a pragmatic, proactive response to changed Latin American and global political-policy contexts that claim be to more receptive to gender equity claims.

To be sure, all actors in the Latin American feminist field have been pushed to revisit the practices they originally developed to confront the decidedly "gender-hostile," authoritarian political conditions of the 1970s and 1980s. The range of political options available to feminists was then far narrower and working in and with the opposition to authoritarian regimes or national-security democracies was a foregone conclusion. It was simpler, if hardly easier, "back then" to be "united in our goals," several of my interviewees declared, and many recognized that sometimes "the women’s movement was united as opposition but not necessarily in relation to feminism as such".(17) But democratization (or, minimally, "civilianization") processes have complicated that strategic picture considerably. One Chilean feminist succinctly captured the strategic quandaries facing many in stating, "I so long to be opposition" ("yo añoro tanto ser oposición").

In assessing the new political landscape, Peruvian feminist and Regional NGO Forum coordinator for the Latin American preparatory process for the Beijing Summit, Virginia Vargas, sums up a view currently shared by many among the more professionalized, transnationalized NGO sectors of the feminist field, who are no longer always self-evidently in "the opposition":

 

The movement of the 1990s—already facing transition or democratic consolidation processes—has changed its form of existence, its logic, its dynamic and has launched new emphases. One of the significant changes has been the modification of an anti-statist posture toward a critical-negotiating posture in relation to the State and formal international arenas. This has also meant a change from a defensive sort of autonomy and a confrontational dynamic (necessary, without a doubt, in the early stages both due to a necessity for political affirmation and the existence of dictatorship on the region) toward a logic of negotiation, but from a strong and proactive, and therefore, dialogical autonomy.(18)

 

Indeed, many governments now brandish more democratic discourses and there has been a veritable deluge in "políticas públicas con perspectiva de género" in recent years. At least rhetorically, most Latin American States have embraced some version of "gender equity" promotion and adopted an impressive number of policies, programs and plans putatively aimed at improving the status of women. So even feminist activists who don’t share Vargas’ view that the movement must adopt "a critical-negociating posture in relation to the State" have been pushed as never before to position themselves vis-à-vis formal national and international political arenas. As one member of the Grupo Amplio para la Liberación de la Mujer, a feminist collective active in Cali, Colombia, for over 20 years, explained, "we were anti-elections, anti-State. . . we don’t know the State, especially those of us who come from the Left . . . until a few years ago, we refused to deal with the State . . . but now it’s not a matter of whether we should deal or not, [the State] is simply there".(19)

Indeed, it is hard for feminists not to "deal" or contend with States that now appear to be speaking their language. Colombia’s "White Book on Women" (Libro Blanco de la Mujer)" asserts the Samper administration’s avowed commitment to "Pay Society’s Debt to the Colombian Woman" (Pagar la Deuda de la Sociedad con la la Mujer Colombiana) (Presidencia de la República de Colombia 1994). And the Chilean government proclaims in its "Equal Opportunities Plan for Chilean Women, 1994-1999," that "The current administration considers overcoming discrimination against women to be a political imperative of the utmost importance" (SERNAM 1994, 5). National leaders from Fujimori to Cardoso to Zedillo have echoed such pledges to enhance gender equity and have similarly declared their intention of "promote women" and "incorporate" them into "development." During the regional preparatory process for the Beijing Summit, a wide gamut of long-standing feminist-inspired reforms—ranging from more equitable participation in public and family life to reproductive rights—made their way into the language of the Latin American and Caribbean Platform for Action and were thereby elevated to the status of norms of regional governance.

Governments appear to have begun to translate some of those norms into legislation. Laws establishing quotas to ensure women’s representation in elected office have been passed in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Peru and are presently under discussion in Chile and Bolivia, for example. Sixteen States have adopted legislation and some have set up specialized police precincts or promotorias to deter "intra-familial violence" (Americas Watch 1991; Blondet 1995; Nelson 1996). More widespread still has been State promotion of social programs targeting the poorest of poor women, such as those aimed at female heads-of-household (Jefas de Hogar) in Chile, Colombia, and Peru or temporary agro-export workers (temporeras) in Chile.

In virtually all countries in the region, specialized State machineries charged with proposing and monitoring (though seldom implementing) such programs and policies have been created (Waylen 1996; Lind 1995; Schumaher and Vargas 1993; Friedman, 1997). In some cases, such those of Chile’s SERNAM (Servicio Nacional de la Mujer) and Brazil’s CNDM (Conselho Nacional dos Direitos da Mulher), significant sectors of the feminist movements actively advocated the creation of State women’s machineries—though the ultimate mandate, design and performance of the specialized agencies actually created typically fell far short of feminist expectations (Valenzuela 1997; Schumaher and Vargas 1993). In other cases, such as the Consejería para la Juventud, la Mujer, y la Família established in Gavíria’s Colombia or Fujimori’s recently created PROMUDE (Ministério de Promoción de la Mujer y del Desarrollo Humano), the founding of such women’s State institutions appears to have been motivated by more pragmatic, when not outright opportunistic, considerations—such as the fact that bilateral and multilateral grants and loans now often require evidence of government sensitivity to "women’s role in development."

In several countries, a considerable number of NGO activist-professionals have gone to work in these specialized machineries. The current Sub-Directora of Chile’s SERNAM, for example, was a member of one of the country’s most prominent feminist NGOs, as are the present directors of Colombia’s recently established Dirección Nacional de Equidad para las Mujeres and Brazil’s CNDM. And as I shall elaborate below, these State institutions have increasingly employed professionalized feminist NGOs to execute and evaluate gender programs and policies.

While feminists in most countries continue to passionately debate the relative merits of denouncing the new specialized machineries as co-optative political shams or selectively collaborating with them to advance gender justice, the possibility of "advocating feminism" from within the State has become the regional norm. Indeed, despite the manifold contradictions and limitations of Latin America’s actually existing democracies, it is today far more conceivable to pursue feminist-inspired policy reforms than under earlier conditions of unbridled State terror and more brazenly exclusionary, authoritarian politics.

And Latin American feminisms can surely claim credit for this change. The many local feminists who chose to focus their energies on promoting women’s legal rights consequent to democratization certainly had a major hand in fostering this apparent gendered political opening. And the proliferation of specialized women’s machineries, programs, and policies, in turn, prompted other individuals and organizations within the feminist field to similarly reorient their activities and develop new competencies in State and policy matters.

The transnationalization of Latin American feminisms has also induced many local NGOs to develop new organizational forms and policy skills in order to advocate for gender justice in regional and global policy arenas (see Alvarez 1997a and 1998). Since their unprecedented participation in the Earth Summit on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Latin American feminist involvement with the "global women’s lobby" has grown steadily—culminating in their expressive presence in preparatory processes for the FWCW in 1995.

That transnational women’s lobby has been instrumental in fostering what feminist international relations scholars have dubbed an "emergent international women’s regime" which "has redefined gender norms as reflected in international instruments for action" (Kardam 1997, 2). Growing numbers of Latin American feminist NGOs have developed expertise in these new "international instruments for action" and have successfully summoned changed global "gender norms" when advocating local gender policy reform (Alvarez 1997a; Sikkink 1995; Keck and Sikkink 1998). And the increased gendering of international regimes, in turn, has brought new pressures to bear on local States, which helps account for the flood of gender-targeted policies and programs described above. As Chilean one interviewee put it, "globalization requires that the State demonstrate sensitivity to gender . . . resources come tied to that."(20) Several Colombian and Peruvian feminists I talked with similarly stressed that international pressures have been key in the adoption of seemingly progressive State gender discourses and policies.

Gendered Citizens or Gender Experts?

I want to further suggest that what some have called a "New Policy Agenda"—"driven by beliefs organized around the twin poles of neo-liberal economics and liberal democratic theory" (Hulme and Edwards 1997a, 5)—coupled with the "modernizing" aspirations of the region’s restructured States and the technocratization of Latin American politics in this era of open markets and eroding State social policies—also have contributed to the booming NGOization of Latin American feminisms as well as other social movement fields. As Isebill V. Gruhn argues, "[N]ot only is marketisation and democratization the current fad in development thinking but non-governmental organizations . . . have come to be regarded as the vehicle of choice—the Magic Bullet—for fostering currently fashionable development strategies" (1997, 325).

Policies targeting women are among those "currently fashionable" strategies advanced by Latin American governments seeking to realize their aspirations to "modernity" through global markets. The Chilean government—the putative "jaguar" of development in the region—professes that "overcoming discrimination against women . . . has been necessitated by the government’s three fundamental guidelines for the current period—strengthening democracy, national economic development and modernization" (SERNAM 1994, 5). Similarly, Samper’s Libro Blanco de la Mujer invokes modernity in declaring: "Since the rights of man which provide the foundations of modern democratic societies were formulated and promulgated, the notion of the equality of all human beings from birth has gradually been converted into a powerful rhetoric about equity" (Presidencia de la República de Colombia 1994, n.p.).

Despite the local and global feminist lobbies’ central role in advocating for the changed international gender norms that help foster this brand of modern, gender-friendly State discourse, however, the terms of such "incorporation" are not necessarily feminist-inspired. One Colombian local government official neatly summed up how feminists’ political indictment of women’s subordination is too often translated or tergiversated by State bureaucrats: "now things have changed, it’s no longer that radical feminism of the 1970s, now its gender perspectives" ("ahora la cosa cambió, ya no es aquel feminismo radical de los años 70, ahora es perspectiva de género").(21) Among some staff members of the specialized government machineries I interviewed, "gender" seems to have become part of the lexicon of technical planning, a power-neutral indicator of "modernity" and "development" rather than a power-laden field of unequal relations between women and men. As the Director of SERNAM in the Santiago Metropolitan Region emphasized in our conversation, "our work is as technical as possible . . . and there is a great deal of work to be done on the operational side of gender."(22)

This new globally stylish imperative to "incorporate gender" into development planning may be leading States and IGOs to "consult" local and transnational feminist NGOs and networks more for their technical capabilities and "gender expertise" than in their "hybrid" capacity as feminist movement organizations advocating for more meaningful citizenship for women. The director of the women’s office of ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean), for example, stressed the important role of feminist NGOs in providing her with asesoria and stated she regularly counts on them for input on policy given the budgetary and staff limitations of her office.(23) Though SERNAM—with its over 350 employees—is perhaps the largest of the region’s specialized State machineries, it too regularly turns to the more "technically competent" of feminist NGOs to conduct research on indicators of gender inequality, draft policy statements, or evaluate the effectiveness of its various targeted social programs.

As specialized State machineries in most of the rest of the region typically lack staff with expertise in "gender matters" and are generally understaffed, underfunded, and often marginalized from centers of power within the State, professionalized NGOs with trans/national policy experience have in many cases become their privileged interlocutors within the feminist movement field. Though in countries such as Brazil, advice or asesoria are still often offered free-of-charge by NGOs anxious to influence the direction of State-policies-with-a-gender perspective, global pressures and the technical exigencies of "gender planning" may lead other specialized machineries to increasingly subcontract data gathering, policy assessment and other forms of project management to select feminist NGOs (Lind 1995, 145; see also Friedman 1997; Schild 1998 ; Frohmann and Valdés, 1995).

The turn towards feminist NGOs is also inspired by "modern" governments’ professed intention to promote "the incorporation and participation of all civil society in the task of generating new gender social relations" (SERNAM 1994, 7). And, among the diverse organizations that make up civil society, NGOs are now often proclaimed to be the key "partners" of local and national governments in advancing social and economic "modernization."

During the preparatory process for the recent string of World Summits—particularly Cairo and Beijing—many Latin American governments called on select feminist NGOs, along with gender specialists from the academy, to prepare studies evaluating progress on gender equity over the last two decades. And in keeping with the New Policy Agenda’s view of NGOs "as vehicles for ‘democratisation’ and essential components of a thriving ‘civil society’" (Hulme and Edwards 1997a, 6), a veritable UN-Summits bonanza of grant funds was channeled from Northern-based private donors and bilateral and multilateral agencies to those feminist NGOs willing and able (and judged to be technically competent) to work as "intermediaries" in promoting the involvement of "female civil society" in the official and parallel preparatory processes for these World Conferences. In most countries, those NGOs already skilled in the art of lobbying—who possessed policy-specialized staff, had previous experience in the UN process and earned handsome foreign funding—were the ones who orchestrated national and regional Beijing-related events, defined the larger women’s movement’s Beijing agenda, and organized the pre-FWCW coordinations and networks.

Despite governments’, donors’ and IGOs’ professed zeal for encouraging a "thriving civil society," however, the criteria adopted in determining which NGOs will be consulted or funded seldom prioritize the extent to which such organizations actually function as intermediaries or conduits for the larger civil society constituencies officials presume them to represent. Rather, which NGOs can best "maximize impact" with the monies allotted or which have the technical/professional capabilities deemed necessary for project execution or gender planning appear to be determinant (Lebon, forthcoming; Barrig 1997a; Motta 1995).

Typically non-membership organizations, most feminist NGOs are, of course, acutely aware of the fact that they don’t "represent" anyone. Yet for local States and IGOs alike, professionalized NGOs appear to have become convenient surrogates for civil society. In the Chilean case, María Elena Valenzuela argues that "SERNAM has privileged interlocution with institutions made up of experts and professionals which have contributed through evaluations and studies to design the themes and options of public policy" and further maintains that through this strategy "SERNAM has tried to make up for its lack of interlocution with grassroots women’s organizations, whose demands are expressed in mediated form through the knowledge produced by NGOs" (1997, 22).

"Modern" Neo-liberal States and the Boom in NGO Sub-Contracting

Among the most striking local examples I found of the growing global tendency to favor more "technocratic" of sectors of civil society was the "Concertación ONG’s-Estado" discourse of the Alcaldia de Santiago de Cali under the administration of Mauricio Guzmán Cuevas.(24) In a brochure entitled, "El Rostro Social de Santiago de Cali," the local government celebrates "the existence of a great number of non-governmental organizations" in the city while stressing that

Over the years, the work of many of these NGOs has become more complex. To their initial ideological convictions, they have incorporated an ever more technical professional dimension in approaching their work, such that along with promoting the development of social subjects, they are equally interested in generating new institutional forms. (Alcadia Santiago de Cali 1997, 6).

The same document goes on to state that "NGOs are professionalizing themselves and they are beginning to introduce efficiency criteria in their work, which allows them in their contractual relation with the Administration to develop and execute social projects directed as the most vulnerable populations" (Ibid., 8).

According to David Hulme and Michael Edwards, such discourse is fully in keeping with the shrinking State role in the realm of social policy—a key feature of the New Policy Agenda:

 

[M]arkets and private initiative are seen as the most efficient mechanisms for achieving economic growth and providing most services to most people . . . because of their supposed cost-effectiveness in reaching the poorest, official agencies support NGOs in providing welfare services to those who cannot be reached by markets . . . . NGOs have a long history of providing welfare services to poor people in countries where governments lacked the resources to ensure universal coverage in health and education; the difference is that now they are seen as the preferred channel for service-provision in deliberate substitution for the state (1997a, 6).

 

In interviews with Cali public officials, I learned that NGOs had become a kind of panacea in the city government’s efforts to become "more than an executor . . . a coordinator and orienting force in/of social policies" (Alcadia Santiago de Cali, 6). The local Secretary of Social Welfare and Community Action raved about how efficient it was to hire NGOs to execute government programs: "I could contract 1,000 public servants" but instead "I hire 200 NGOs . . . There are no resources . . . and that way we can do more in the social realm."(25) The head of the División de Mujer y Género of this same municipal department stressed, "We don’t execute/implement anything . . . we work with NGOs, but not with all of them.(26)

While most feminist groups in the city don’t have a technical profile suitable to the city administration’s needs, Alcaldia officials have turned to GSROs with "women’s programs," as well as the local university’s women’s studies center for technical assistance on gender matters. The Division of Women and Gender contracted three GSROs—charged with assessing poor women’s health needs, promoting community participation, and training health personnel in "perspectivas de género"—to set up its Programa de Salud Integral de la Mujer. Other NGOs were hired to train "vulnerable" female-heads-of household in hotel and gastronomical services and the care of children and the elderly, for the Alcaldia’s Programa de Capacitación para el Trabajo.

Feminist faculty at Cali’s Universidad del Valle complained that cuts in State funding for public universities also have pushed them in the direction of services provision. "The university is becoming ‘ngo-ized’," one frustrated feminist scholar affirmed. The women’s studies center has a standing contract with the Alcadía in the areas of "advice and training in gender": faculty have authored many of the progressive-sounding municipal documents on gender equity and set up a number of gender-training courses, mainly for public servants. University researchers maintained that this contractual relationship with the local State had made it difficult to undertake more critical rather than technical studies of gender politics.(27)

A few feminist and "mixed" NGOs in Cali also have established convenios with federal government ministries and IGOs. Fundación Sí Mujer, for example, offers capacitación to health workers and educators as part of a national sex education program established by the federal government in 1993.(28) And the women’s program of the Fundación FES coordinates two IGO- and State-funded gender projects: one on Famílias con jefaturas femeninas, which operates in 24 cities and subcontracts the services of 26 NGOs; the other a IDB-funded program dubbed "Capacitación, Promoción y Desarrollo Integral de la Mujer." Both combine job training with the now requisite "capacitación en desarrollo personal." (29) Cali Alcaldia-sponsored job training training programs for at-risk women as well as several mounted by the Consejería de la Mujer, in the Gobernación of Antioquia, also generally include a "desarrollo personal" component.(30)

Indeed, I found this "personal development" emphasis to be rampant in programs targeting poor women in both Chile and Colombia. Verónica Schild provides a compelling explanation for the widespread adoption of such programs, arguing that they provide a "measure" of the "cultural effect of the women’s movement," whereby "the days when women could be appealed to by political parties and governments alike as homemakers, wives, and mothers . . . are gone. Women in Chile today are appealed to as individuals, selves with their own needs and rights." She goes on to suggest that "government programs, party-based foundations, and other related initiatives [aimed at women] all contain a version of the curriculum first developed by NGOs. (1998, 109).

My findings suggest that many NGOs in fact continue to offer various capacitación courses for women in grassroots organizations; only now increasing numbers are doing so under government contract. Schild notes that "the content of personal development varies from program to program" (Ibid.) and one could surely hypothesize that it might matter a great deal whether such programs are administered by local governments such as that of Cali, the "gender division" of "mixed" GSROs, or women’s NGOs with a "hybrid" professional-feminist movement identity. It might make considerable difference whether feminist NGOs design and administer training programs or merely execute or implement ready-made ones, moreover. We are in desperate need of in-depth, ethnographic studies that critically examine the different methodologies and concrete, medium-to-long term effects of the wide gamut of capacitación programs conducted by State, private consulting firms, non-feminist GSROs, and feminist NGOs throughout Latin America today. It seems imperative to assess comparatively the content and consequences of diverse programs lumped under seemingly similar rubrics, such as women’s integral health or personal development. At present, most follow-up assessments or evaluations of the effects of varying capacitación programs are most often quick-and-dirty, quantitative ones, often conducted by many of the same NGOs contracted by governments or IGOs to offer such courses in the first place.

My interviews in Chile, in particular, suggest that, despite similar nomenclature, the political effects of capacitación may vary quite widely. Members of Tierra Nuestra, the small NGO that works with popular women’s groups in Santiago’s poblaciones, claimed that their programs for women differed markedly from those of PRODEMU (Fundación para la Promoción y Desarrollo de la Mujer), a para-state/private foundation created in 1990 by Christian-democratic sectors of the governing coalition which offers a variety of craft workshops and other (often sex-typed) training programs for low-income women—typically accompanied by a required dose of "personal development."(31) When asked how exactly their own capacitaciones and talleres for neighborhood women differed from PRODEMU’s, Tierra Nuestra staff stressed that, when "solicited by a local women’s group," PRODEMU simply responds to "demand" and provides "narrow or focused and individual support" ("apoyo puntual e individual") for a specified period of time (a 2-4 week course on hairdressing or cuisine, with a required personal development module, for instance), whereas "we’re always here, responding to the needs and accompanying collective struggles of these women," helping in organizing on-going local activities.(32)

One might suggest, drawing on Nancy Fraser (1989), that such differing cultural-political interventions, while collapsed under the label capacitación, could have radically divergent consequences for how women of the popular classes interpret and articulate their "needs" in the first place. Women leaders of a popular women’s group in Santiago’s urban periphery insisted that "the PRODEMU people aren’t interested in organizing or mobilizing women, they’re interest in the courses" and noted that, whereas this para-state foundation "works/departs from the family and works toward women, we work from women toward the family." These women, who’d been active in their neighborhood Casa de la Mujer since the early 1980s—set up by a GSRO during the dictatorship—were now working as personal development monitoras for PRODEMU. But they assured me that their work was "subversive" of the curriculum developed by that quasi-State agency, that the content of their class discussions was more like that of courses offered by their own grassroots organization.(33)

It seems that in Chile "capacitación con perspectiva de género"—offered by feminist and non-feminist NGOs, women’s GROs, private consulting firms, and many government agencies—has become a major growth industry. Much of this involves courses on "desarrollo personal" and job training programs aimed at the poorest of the poor, particularly women heads-of-household, in an effort to keep them from slipping through the holes at the bottom of the bottom of the neo-liberal economic barrel. As one former feminist activist who now coordinates the Oficina de la Mujer in one of Santiago’s poorest comunas told me, Chile’s Estado Subsidiario tries to promote "people with entrepreneurial capacity" ("gente con capacidad emprendedora") to compete in the free market; those deemed to be lacking that capacity are simply further economically marginalized or disenfranchised.(34) Another feminist argued that "the Chilean State has begun to work only with social pathologies" ("el Estado Chileno ha empezado a trabajar solo con patologias sociales"). It, like other "modern" Latin American States, has recodified policies toward women by treating the consequences of uneven gender power relations and market-induced exclusion as though they were "extreme situations" ("situaciones extremas"). Violence against women is thus seen as a pathological condition rather than as an expression or consequence of women’s subordination; and while "jefas de hogar" have always existed, their "situation" is now framed as a social disease that must be combated to achieve "modernization."(35)

Most feminists I talked with in Santiago were acutely aware of the problematic motives driving the burgeoning local capacitación market, but many also noted that diminishing funding from private donors and bilateral and multilateral agencies has pushed NGOs to increase their supply of training programs and other sub-contracted services. Indeed, the Chilean government’s much-touted economic success story has led many donors to redirect funds away from local NGOs towards others in "needier" societies in the South. And those agencies that still work in Chile now often channel funds for "gender programs" into SERNAM, which in turn contracts NGO services, while reserving some (relatively limited) funds to distribute to NGOs and researchers through grant competitions. Schild maintains that "[o]ften, NGOs are put in the position of having to compete with SERNAM for funding . . . . As a result of . . . changing priorities of foreign and domestic funding, most women’s NGOs, and indeed most local or community-based NGOs, are either scrambling to survive or disappearing altogether. Those that remain are increasingly dependent on government-funded programs to survive" (Schild 1998, 105). Barrig estimated that State funds today account for between 10 and 25 percent of the operating budgets of many Chilean feminist NGOs (1997a, 12).

In the case of Colombia, Barrig found that "depending on the size and mission of the institution, as well as its technical profile, 40-50 percent of the budget of NGOs comes from State sources" (1997b, 10). In Brazil, this trend is as yet less accentuated. As of 1993, "only 3.2 percent of [feminist NGO] monies came from Brazilian government sources" (Lebon, forthcoming, 19). But there, too, sub-contracting may be on the rise: diminishing international funding has also led many Brazilian feminist NGOs to strike convenios with state and local governments. At the federal level, the Cardoso administration’s Comunidade Solidária—a "social adjustment" program similar to those recently established in many countries in the region "targeted to those groups most clearly excluded or victimized by structural adjustment policies" (Alvarez, Dagnino and Escobar 1998, 22)—has proclaimed a desire to work in "partnership" (parceria) with NGOs to improve social services and provide job training for the poor.

The growing erasure of the State from the realm of social policy in Latin America (Benería 1996; Barrig 1996), then, has directly contributed to a significant shift in the kinds of activities undertaken by growing numbers of feminist and non-feminist NGOs alike. And donors also have had a strong hand in this turn toward more technical, less "activist" kinds of activities. My interviews (and my own experience at the Ford Foundation) suggested that funding for projects centered on feminist mobilization and "concientizacíon" has become more difficult to secure. The global donor community or what the NGO world dubs "international cooperation" has changed its priorities over time: "The 60s were a the decade of development and the green revolution, the 70s of one of solidarity. The 80s was the partnership decade, and now, in the 90s, what prevails is professionalism, impact, results" (Reich 1995, cited in Lebon forthcoming, 10). The factors behind this reorientation are well beyond the scope of the present paper. But again my experience as part of the "donor community" confirms this heightened emphasis on visible impact and discrete project results. In insisting on measurable outcomes and national or even transnational "policy relevance," donors (however inadvertently and sometimes reluctantly) have helped reorient the activities and internal dynamics of many NGOs (Hulme and Edwards 1997a and 1997b; Lebon forthcoming; McDonald 1996; Barrig 1997a). Also, the modes of social-political intervention and issues prioritized by the donor community are understandably mirrored in the NGO world. That is, donor demand seems to drive project supply more often than the other way around: "the privileged themes are determined by moneis from international cooperation and the State." (36)

I should stress at this point that I’m not trying to argue that there’s something intrinsically wrong with feminist NGO’s sub-contracting their services as experts or executors of government programs, especially when organizational survival and personal livelihoods are increasingly at stake. One needn’t resort to what one Colombian interviewee referred to as the "democrateria"(37) or facile populism that often pervades social movement discourse—wherein some unilaterally invoke radical egalitarian ideals to proclaim it immoral and anti-democratic for other actors to play specialized roles within heterogeneous movement fields—however, to suggest that such trends may increasingly threaten to "dehybridize" the heretofore dual identity of most Latin American feminist NGOs. It is precisely that hybrid identity that up to now has formed the mainstay of feminist NGOs' critical ability to contest "pathologized" versions of State-policies-with-a-gender-perspective, advocate for alternative understandings of women’s rights, and promote women’s empowerment.

A Growing Chasm between Feminist Activism and Professionalism?

The competitive local and global "gender projects markets," coupled with the shifting exigencies of international cooperation, may make it increasingly difficult for Latin American feminist NGOs to maintain the delicate balance between movement-oriented, contestatory activities and their expanding technical-advisory relationship to donors, States and IGOs, however. Executing State programs for "at-risk" women or evaluating the effects of State-policies-with-a-gender-perspective still brings many feminist NGOs into regular contact with the poor and working-class women’s organizations that were once their core constituencies. But the nature of those linkages seems to be changing. Professionalized feminist groups are now perhaps more typically present in Santiago’s poblaciones or São Paulo’s favelas to administer short-term training courses or conduct surveys to assess the poverty levels of female-headed households. And as several interviewees noted, this has worked to distance feminist activist-professionals from "las mujeres."

The movement face of NGOs is challenged by the increased premium placed on policy-relevant activities and by their contractual relationships to States and donors who expect visible, short-term "results" on gender projects. Such exigencies may undermine NGOs ability to pursue more process-oriented forms of feminist cultural-political intervention—such as consciousness-raising, popular education or other strategies aimed transforming those gender power relations manifest in the realms of culture and daily life—forms of gendered injustice that defy "gender planning" quick-fixes.

Some argue that donor privileging of NGO preparations for the UN Summits, for instance, led many professionalized feminist groups to neglect their work with the base. As one Colombian NGO activist-professional proclaimed, "during the Beijing process, we abandoned grassroots women for over two years."(38) In encouraging feminist NGOs to develop new professional skills in transnational policy advocacy and funding them to organize specialized seminars and conduct studies aimed at impacting the UN process, some in the NGO field felt "the [UN] conferences entertained or distracted feminists, who stopped intervening in civil society."(39)

The hybrid identity of most feminist NGOs was aptly captured by the Beijing NGO Coordination’s slogan that preparations for the FWCW would serve the movement as both "text and pretext." The aim was to develop skills in national and international policy advocacy which would enable feminists to influence the texts of regional and global Platforms for Action, while simultaneously using the FWCW as a pretext for remobilizing women’s movements and fomenting public debate on remedies to gender inequality. Even when many of the UN-focused activities sponsored by NGOs involved multiple forms of outreach to grassroots women’s groups and other actors in the heterogeneous women’s movement field, however, many women I talked with maintained that technical efforts to influence texts sometimes overrode efforts to use the UN process as a consciousness-raising/educational pretext. As one Chilean put it, "professionalization has taken over all of the space. . . the concientization part has been practically forgotten. . .." And while recognizing that professionalized groups have done "important work for the movement," many—including NGO activist-professionals themselves—felt there was "a very big chasm between some NGOs and las mujeres," partly because "they speak a very technical language."(40)

The technical-professional face of NGOs appears to have been foregrounded as a consequence of shifting donor and IGO exigencies and State sub-contracting. While the "policy-relevant" knowledge about gender-based inequities produced by NGOs has enabled feminists to mount credible challenges to currently fashionable State-policies-with-gender-perspective, there is growing concern within the feminist field that "the ability of NGOs to articulate approaches, ideas, language, and values that run counter to official orthodoxies may . . . be compromised" and that their willingness "to speak out on issues that are unpopular with governments will be diluted by their growing dependence on official aid" (Edwards and Hulme1996, 7). Many feminists maintained that, regardless of their technical competence, NGOs that refuse to play by the rules of the game or whose discourses and practices run counter to the "official orthodoxies" de turno may be losing out in the gender projects market and are often silenced or marginalized from public debate.

Still others suggested that, despite official claims to the contrary, less-than-technical criteria are too often employed by governments and IGOs when sub-contracting services or hiring NGOs as "gender experts": "the relationship with the State has been privatized," one Peruvian NGO activist bemoaned. When NGOs are critical of the government, they are, predictably, less likely to get contracts or grants, which some claim results in a tendency toward "self-censorship beyond even that which the State requires of you."(41) Resource allocations and contracts are thus skewed towards those deemed to be "politically trustworthy" or whose projects have readily visible "policy relevance." Those resources, in turn, provide some in the NGO feminist field with greater access to national and global policy microphones than others.

Many feminists I talked with, including activist-professionals from the very NGOs most regularly summoned for State or IGO gender consultancies, project/policy assessments, or capacitación, seemed acutely aware of this growing bias in favor of particular types of feminist "intermediary" organizations and activities. Some were critical of the increased "valorization of institutionalized NGOs" while "the rest are not even consulted."(42) Recent scholarly analyses of NGOs’ would seem to confirm the bias perceived by many in the feminist field: "the popularity of certain forms of NGOs (large, able to absorb donor funding, quiescent) with donors [and local States] may lead to a widening rift between well-resourced service providers and poorly-funded social mobilization agencies" (Hulme and Edwards 1997b, 281). Such a rift is increasingly in evidence in the contemporary Latin American feminist movement field.

Busting the NGO Boom? Maneuvering the New [Gendered] Policy Agenda and Rearticulating the Activist and Professional Dimensions of Feminist NGOs

The most vehement critics of feminist NGOs are the feministas autónomas(43)—a new, relatively small, but highly vocal political current within the Latin American feminist field who claim that NGOs have "institutionalized" the women’s movement and "sold out" to the forces of "patriarchy."(44) During the most recent of the periodic Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentros, the seventh since 1981, held in Cartagena, Chile, in November 1996, Chilean autónomas who organized the gathering brought their scathing critique of "professionalized feminism" into the center of debate within the feminist field.

In explaining the origins of their "autonomous movement" in Chile in the early 1990s, the Movimiento Feminista Autónomo (MFA) maintained:

The process of constitution of the autonomous feminist movement coincides with the process in which feminism finds itself in general with regard to defining its relationship to the system. In a period where the ideology of neoliberalism is taking root . . . feminism could not remain at the margin of this historic problematic and therefore two political currents have assumed clear profile. One, led from the institutions (la institucionalidad) is represented fundamentally by women who work for NGOs whose ideology responds from a gender standpoint to the neoliberal ideology of pragmatism, the endiosamiento of the system, mystification. . . and the attempt to make invisible (la invisibilización) and supplant the movimiento social de mujeres and the feminist movement. The other current, the autonomous one, is the one that ‘stands on the other corner’ (se ‘para en la otra esquina’), from the standpoint of the movement and the protagonism of women, questioning the values of the system and its institutions.(45)

For a member of the militantly autonomous Bolivian feminist collective, Mujeres Creando, NGOs have become "decorative and functional complements of patriarchal policies" and now constitute a "gender technocracy":

When we speak of a gender technocracy it stems from their having put their knowledge to the service of national and international patriarchal institutionality, be it at the governmental or state level or in some calses also entrepeneurial and transnational. They are not nourishing the femininst movement and worst still they want to constitute themselves as ‘expert voices’ that validate and legitimate feminists.(46)

Others who accuse NGOs of having "indecent relations with the State"(47) do not consider the women the autonomas pejoratively dubbed "las institucionales" to form part of the feminist movement field: "we do not think that NGOs as NGOs, that is, as institutions, or the gender technocracy are constitutive parts of the movement. We believe there may be feminist women working in these institutions but little by little the institutionalized and technocratic tendencies will destroy them."(48) Similarly, one of the core idealogues of the Chilean autónoma current, affirms "we maintain that these institutions are not neutral, that they belong to the system and sustain it, and that money thereby becomes a political instrument."(49)

Most damning, in this view, has been NGOs’ loss of "autonomy." Autonomy, according to this radical political current, is determined by the particular location or space presently occupied by women who are deemed to have left the feminist fold by virtue of wading too far into patriarchal waters: "For us, autonomy plays a papel ubicativo [a locational role]. Where do we want to be, where should we plant the seeds of our work and for whom do we harvest its fruits?."(50)

But this brand of Manicheaistic, iron-law-of-oligarchy discourse is clearly belied by the heterogeneity of origins, the diversity of practices and the hybrid identity that still characterizes many feminist NGOs, most of whose members are quite self-consciously grappling with some of the very contradictions so vehemently condemned by the autónomas. Indeed, many women the autonomas identified with "institutionalized feminism" told me, "there’s a good chunk of reason in what they are laying out."(51) Most expressed concern that elements of the feminist movements’ agenda had come "too close for comfort" to that of States and IGOs. As one put it, "the women’s movement’s agenda has been desdibujada . . . it is not distinguishable from that of the government." And some NGO activist-professionals went so far as to suggest that some organizations are "being functional as NGOs; it’s not good or bad, it’s just a reality. But we must ask ourselves, functional to an agenda constructed by whom?."(52)

Most expressed an urgent need to reassess their current practices as feminists, to rearticulate the two faces of NGOs’ heretofore hybrid identity. Still, many were distressed that the weight of the new local and global [gender] policy agenda was forcing NGOs to privilege the technical- professional activities and to neglect other dimensions of "movement work" so central to feminist visions of social transformation shared by NGOers and others in the feminist field.

I want to submit that feminist NGOs are hardly doomed to become a part of what some scholars have dubbed the "anti-politics machine" of development (Ferguson 1994) and that "blanket assessments of NGOs as either the Third World’s salvation or the newest vehicle for Western domination" (Starn, forthcoming, 184) or of feminist NGOs as mere puppets of planetary patriarchy, as the autónomas would have us believe, are inadequate. The "New [gendered] Policy Agenda" is neither as monolithic, irreversible or internally coherent as some of the more dire scholarly and activist forecasts might lead us to think. Latin American feminist NGOs, for example, have no doubt been able to use funds flowing from the New Gender Policy Agenda to "make their voices heard more loudly and more often through lobbying and advocacy" (Edwards and Hulme 1996, 4)—as they certainly did during the recent string of UN Summits.

There is more room for maneuver (or jogo de cintura, as the Brazilians might put it—loosely translated as "swing of the hips") in this restructured late modern, post-transtion, and "post-Beijing" terrain of local and global gender politics. First, those of us in the North who consider ourselves part of the so-called "global feminist movement" could take IGOs, Northern States and donors to task on their professed intention to promote a "thriving civil society" that would promote "gender equity" and expand democratization. Many Latin American feminists I talked with stressed there was a pressing need for NGOs to devise ways of negotiating collectively with "la cooperación internacional," not just about resources and time-lines for "projects" but also about longer-term programmatic lines of action and political priorities. In alliance with our feminist counterparts in the South of the Americas, we in the North might pressure donors and development aid agencies to adopt more flexible criteria in selecting NGO projects for funding—more explicitly call their bluff, if you will.

If donors have had as strong a hand in skewing the feminist movement field toward more technical-professional endeavors as my findings and other critical studies (Lebon, forthcoming; MacDonald 1995 and 1996) suggest, then they could surely tilt the scales at least a bit more in the other direction. Those of us who are social scientists or area specialists could summon our own "technical expertise" to demonstrate the ways in which increased NGO competence in service delivery, project execution, and policy assessment does not exhaust their potential contributions to "strengthening civil society." Establishing funding criteria that would enhance rather than obstruct NGOs’ historically "intermediary" roles and "hybrid" political identities would surely be a step in the right direction. Such measures might include materially and politically rewarding those NGOs that deploy innovative methodologies to simultaneously "reach up" into national and transnational policy arenas on "behalf of women" while "reaching down" into the grassroots and "across" to other actors in civil society and in the heterogeneous women’s movement field.

Donors could surely also "encourage" NGOs to more thoroughly involve broader sectors of movement and civil society constituencies in their "technical" evaluations of fashionable State-policies-with-a-gender-perspective, allowing them more time for consultation, genuine interlocution, and critical reflection than impact- or results-driven project chronograms typically do: agencies too often "expect contracted outputs to be achieved and are less interested in a learning process . . . . Time and space for reflection may be reduced. . ." (Edwards and Hulme 1996, 7). Building genuinely "gender-friendly" polities and democratic civil societies in the context of historically highly stratified societies, "illiberal" States, and global economic restructuring, after all, might require longer-term donor "investments."

Against the autónomas’ claim that it is feminists’ ubicación or location in NGOs or the State apparatus that seals their fate as handmaidens of patriarchal neo-liberalism, I would submit that there is also considerable room for maneuver within the "institutionalized" feminist field. It is clearly possible to deploy a wide variety of feminist practices from any given location, even under the adverse structural-political conditions I’ve tried to outline. The current capacitación craze is a case in point. As the case of grassroots women leaders of a Casa de la Mujer in Santiago suggested, it is certainly possible to "subvert" the State’s agenda for at-risk women while executing its projects under contract. And feminist NGOs no doubt do a better job of combining women’s "collective empowerment" while administering courses in "personal development" than do non-feminist GSROs with "gender programs" or para-state agencies such as PRODEMU.

The pragmatist in me (like many activist-professionals in NGOs) is inclined to think that "modern" Latin American States are going to continue sub-contracting anyway, so why not "just do it" ourselves? Though we need rigorous, scholarly assessments of the differing effects of various modalities of capacitación with a gender perspective for unsettling prevailing gender power arrangements, I have tried to suggest that "hybrid" feminist NGOs which retain solid linkages to the larger women’s movement field seem to have been able to strike a balance between feminist transformational visions and the less than self-evidently pro-equity goals of "modern" Latin American States. But it is nonetheless incumbent upon us as feminists to reflect further on the possible political consequences of States and IGOs’ growing tendency to view NGOs—in Latin America and elsewhere—primarily as expert service providers and surrogates for civil society.

How much room is available for maneuver within the confines of State-policies-with-a-gender-perspective, moreover, will vary in different global and local political conjunctures and according to specific characteristics of local States. Barrig’s findings (1997b), for instance, suggest that Colombian NGOs’ "autonomy" seems to have been significantly less compromised, despite a growing dependence on State funding, in part due to the Colombian State’s own lack of "institutionalization" and consequent lack of disciplinary or regulatory capacities. Dealing with the highly institutionalized, legalistic, and rigorously disciplinary Chilean State may be another matter altogether.

Still, in maneuvering the always shifting terrain of State gender politics, many NGO activist-professionals suggested that it is possible to retain a "dual identity" and "do business" with particular governments on "proyectos puntuales" (specific projects). But most insisted that it is imperative for feminists to continually evaluate and interrogate their contractual and political relationship with official political arenas rather than adopting a rigid, "principled" position. Successfully negotiating such "jogos de cintura puntuales," however, may be more feasible when NGOs can invoke collective gendered citizenship claims and seek the support of others in the feminist field than when they try to "go it alone" in local and global gender projects markets. This, many women I talked with suggested, requires enhanced horizontal NGO accountability.

The current debates among Latin American feminists surrounding the NGO boom have gone a long way toward revitalizing what feminist political theorist, Jane Mansbridge, has dubbed "discursive accountability":

 

Most politically active feminists in any country work in occupations, from homemaker to chief executive officer, whose primary goal is not to advance feminism. When their work affects women, these feminists often turn for conscious inspiration to the ‘women’s movement.’ They also, I argue, often feel internally accountable to that movement. The entity—"women’s movement" or "feminist movement"—to which they feel accountable is neither an aggregation of organizations nor an aggregation of individual members but a discourse. It is a set of changing, contested aspirations and understandings that provide conscious goals, cognitive backing, and emotional support for each individual’s evolving feminist identity . . . . If the movement is to maintain its discursive tension, and if its street theory and working ideals are to remain responsive to what is going on in women’s lives, it will always involve internal combat . . . (1995, 27).

 

Social movement fields are constituted by continual contestation—discursive and strategic. Other actors recognized to form part of or share in the ethical-political aims of a particular social movement field constitute crucial referents for all who identify with a given movement. Even when the feminist "other" is a declared public enemy, then—as the autónomas are to the so-called institucionales—she remains a silent interlocutor. Virtually every one of the women I interviewed this past summer in Colombia, Chile, Peru, and Brazil—women who spanned the full range of locations in the contemporary feminist movement field—had not only heard about the November 1996 feminist Encuentro. Most also appear to have felt compelled to reposition themselves along the discursive axes of debate that materialized or were crystallized there. And each seemed to have critically reconsidered her own practices and discursive strategies within the general framework of the debates surrounding professionalization and institutionalization. Rather than signaling a "fracturing" of a feminist unity that never really existed, then, current debates may be indicative of the continued vitality of Latin American feminisms. And, in fostering a kind of discursive accountability to the Latin American feminist "other" in relation to whom one continually re-evaluates one’s own feminism and feminist practices, they may well point the way forward for "advocating feminism" more effectively in the 21st century.

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Notes

1. I use the term institutionalization in the Weberian sense to denote the rationalization and routinization of an organization's procedures and norms.

2. Research on Brazil was conducted between 1993 and 1996, while I was living in Rio de Janeiro and serving as Program Officer in Rights and Social Justice for the Ford Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. Research in Chile, Peru, and Colombia during July and August 1997 formed part of a commissioned study supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation-Andean and Southern Cone Office in Santiago de Chile. I thank Bonnie Shepard and Augusto Varas for their helpful insights and suggestions about local feminist politics and Mireya Díaz and Loló Villamizar for their invaluable logistical support in Santiago, Santa Fé de Bogotá, Santiago de Cali, and Medellín. My debt of gratitude to my collaborator on this project, Peruvian feminist scholar, Maruja Barrig, is immeasurable. Maruja generously shared her extensive contacts with and archival materials on Peruvian, Chilean, and Colombian feminists and advised me on everything from the weather in Cali to research and interview strategies that maximized the insights I was able to glean from my brief research trips to these various sites. Marcela Ríos, Elizabeth Guerrero, and Ruben González in Santiago and Magdalena León and Jennifer Newton in Bogotá deserve special thanks for both orienting me to the field and making my fieldwork experience both personally and culturally enriching. Claudia de Lima Costa similarly deserves particular thanks for providing "spiritual" and intellectual support and a welcoming home base for me in Florianópolis, Brazil, while I intermittently scurried about the continent on this project. And I am, as always, deeply grateful to the over 130 of feminist movement activists and NGO professionals who conceded interviews or otherwise gave graciously of their time to this project.

3.. The ideas contained in this essay, of course, are my own and in no way reflect those of the Ford Foundation.

4. In a recent essay, Virginia Vargas characterizes "all expressions of the feminist movement in the region ["todas las expresiones del movimiento feminista de la región"] as one big network (or political domain, identified by the specification of a solidly defined criterion of mutual relevance and shared interest, as Vicky Guzmán puts it)" ["una gran red (o un dominio político, identificado por la especificación de un criterio sólidamente definido de mutua relevancia o de interés compartido, como dice Vicky Guzmán)"]. "Carta de Virginia Vartas. Hacia el VII Encuentro Feminista Latinoamericano y del Caribe\Chile 1996". Photocopy, 1996.

5. Ferree and Martin (1995) make a similar point regarding the contributions of institutionalized feminist organizations to the US women's movement.

6. In a survey of 97 Mexican women's NGOs, María Luisa Tarrés found that "81% de las integrantes posee estudios de licenciatura, el 4% estudios de maestria o de doctorado y el 12% educación media" (1997, 28).

7. Interview 35, Lima, Peru, August 19, 1997.

8. Interview 10, Santiago de Chile, 10 July, 1997.

9. I thank Maruja Barrig for suggesting that I emphasize and elaborate upon local variations in rates of degrees of NGOization in distinct national feminist fields.

10. One activist involved in the Proceso de Comunidades Negras on Colombia's Pacific Coast argued that, after the infamous Proceso 8000, Samper "se quedó sin piso," as the lid was taken off what she called the "proyecto de Estado" being elaborated for some 10-15 years by the narcotrafico/narcodemocracia. She further maintained that "there are (at least) two States in Colombia," especially after defeat of this State project, and that the official State now has only the bureaucracy and clientele networks as power mechanisms left at its disposal, which it has deployed to control/co-opt social movements and maintain the interests of those in the present government. Interview 43, Santiago de Cali, Colombia, 24 August, 1997.

11. Interview 45, Santa Fé de Bogotá, Colombia, 22 August, 1997.

12. Interview 4, Santiago de Chile, 8 July, 1997.

13. Interview 17, Santiago de Chile,11 July 1997.

14. Interview 39, Santa Fé de Bogotá, 21 August, 1997.

15. Interview 49, Santa Fé de Bogotá, 20 August, 1997.

16. Interview 34, Lima, Peru, 16 August, 1997.

17. Interview 2, Santiago de Chile, 8 July, 1997.

18. Virginia Vargas, "Carta de Virginia Vargas: Hacia el VII Encuentro Feminista Latinoamericano y del Caribe\Chile 1996," photocopy.

19. Interview 50, Santiago de Cali, Colombia, 25 August, 1997.

20. Interview 1, Santiago de Chile, 8 July, 1997.

21. Interview 48, Santiago de Cali, 25 August, 1997.

22. Interview 20, Santiago de Chile,14 July 1997.

23. Interview 6, Santiago de Chile, 9 July, 1997.

24. The ultra-democratic, participatory discourse boasted by this local administration was graphically called into question by a very "close encounter" I had with Colombian "narcodemocracia" while in Cali. Immediately after having conducted several interviews with staff at the Alcaldia regarding their seemingly progressive policies toward civil society in general and women in particular, I happened to catch the local news at the airport as I was departing and watched with amazement as this self-proclaimed democrat was hauled off by local law enforcement for his alleged involvement in the Proceso 8000, as the first alcalde to be implicated in the Samper administration's narcotraffic corruption scandal. I had been conducting my last interview at the Alcaldia at precisely the time of his arrest.

25. Interview 48, Santiago de Cali, 25 August, 1997.

26. Interview 51, Santiago de Cali, 26 August, 1997

27. Interview 49, Santiago de Cali, Colombia, 25 August, 1997.

28. Interview 46, Santiago de Cali, Colombia, 25 August, 1997.

29. Interview 47, Santiago de Cali, Colombia, 25 August, 1997.

30. Interview 51, Santiago de Cali, 26 August, 1997.

31. Interview 22, Santiago de Chile, 14 July 1997.

32. Interview 31, Santiago de Chile, 11 July 1997.

33. Interview 30, Santiago de Chile, 17 July 1997.

34. Interview 29, Santiago de Chile, 17 July 1997.

35. During our several working sessions in Lima in August of 1997, Maruja Barrig attributed the first part of this formulation to a Chilean feminist NGO researcher; I owe the latter insight regarding the recodification of gender policies to Maruja.

36. Interview 15, Santiago de Chile, 11 July, 1997. Tarrés found that in the Mexican context, for example, fully 49 percent of feminist NGOs work on issues of women's health, 25 percent on violence against women, and 25 percent on human rights (1997, 17). These have been among the favored "gender issues" of the foundation world as well in recent years, partly driven by their "policy relevance" for the recent string of UN Summits (Cairo-women's reproductive health; Vienna-violence against women as a human rights issue).

37. Interview 43, Santiago de Cali, Colombia, 24 August, 1997.

38. Interview 37, Santa Fé de Bogotá, 20 August, 1997.

39. Interview 34, Lima, Peru, 16 August, 1997.

40. Interview 13, Santiago de Chile,10 July, 1997.

41. Interview 34, Lima, Peru, 16 August, 1997.

42. Interview 13, Santiago de Chile, 10 July, 1997.

43. Interviews 33, 5, 26 and 32, Santiago de Chile, July 1997.

44. Long-brewing tensions surrounding the growing NGOization and institutionalization of feminisms in the region came to a head during the VII Encuentro. The regional Encuentros had always served as "historical markers, highlighting the strategic, organizational, and theoretical debates that have characterized the political trajectory of contemporary Latin American feminisms" (Sternbach et al. 1992, 208). And this one proved to be a veritable watershed, giving rise to three distinctive, and seemingly antagonistic, political currents or tendencies within the Latin American feminist field: the Feministas Autónomas, the Feministas Radicales, pejoratively dubbed the "institucionales" by their autónoma foes, and a third grouping (encompassing the vast majority of Encuentro participants) who provocatively referred to themselves as "Ni Las Unas, Ni Las Otras". On the debates triggered by the Encuentro, see special issues of Cotidiano Mujer (Uruguay), nos. 22 (May 1996) and 23 (March 1997); Enfoque Feminista (Brasil), No. 10, Ano VI (May 1997); Brujas (Argentina), 16, 24 (March 1997); and Feminária (Argentina) 10, 19 (June 1997).

45. Sandra Lidid and Kira Maldonado, "Palabras Iniciales," Movimiento Feminista Autónomo (1993-1996), (Santiago: Ediciones Número Crítico, 1996), 2.

46. Speech delivered at the VII Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentro, Cartagena, Chile, November 1996.

47. In her presentation on the dynamics of the VII Encuentro on a panel on "Feminist NGOs and Global Civil Society: Critical Perspectives," at the 1997 Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Guadalajara, México, April 19-21, feminist historian, Marysa Navarro, aptly captured in this interpretive phrase the often vituperative nature of the autónomas' critique of NGOs at the 1997 Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Guadalajara, México, April 19-21.

48. Speech delivered at the VII Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentro, Cartagena, Chile, November 1996.

49. Speech delivered at the VII Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentro, Cartagena, Chile, November 1996.

50. Speech delivered at the VII Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentro, Cartagena, Chile, November 1996.

51. Interview 35, Lima, Peru, August 19, 1997.

52. Interview 37, Santa Fé de Bogotá.