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The United Nations Development Fund for Women. Informal Institutions: Impact on development and social justice.

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the united nations development fund for women
The United Nations Development Fund for Women

Informal Institutions: Impact on development and social justice

Informal institutions have always been a part of development: the norms of ascription, divine or natural ordination, and solidarity that are forged in institutions of the family, community, ethnic group, religion, profoundly infuse the institutions of the state and the market everywhere.
  • The important question is not whether informal institutions shape development (they do) but with what impact on social mobility and human equality?
Farida Shaheed , 2003:

‘While formal, de-personalized structures of State and politics do exist, the dynamics of real power in South Asia remain intricately linked to family and personal connections ( …).. Formal channels and structures of political power in the region are seriously threatened by the politics of informal power brokerage, and systems of patronage overshadow the formal systems of governance. Consequently, the exercise of real power is often indirect (…).


Kabeer 2002: Informal institutions = ‘parallel traditions of belonging’ that juxtapose ‘a moral economy, founded on norms of reciprocity between socially-acknowledged members, with the contract-based economy based on agreements between abstract individuals’
who benefits
Who benefits?

A depressingly recurrent characteristic of ‘relational’ understandings of rights and obligations: is that they create hierarchies based on gender, age, and ethnicity.

Suad Joseph: ‘patriarchal connectivity’ – the individual’s position in the family shapes assumptions about their rights and entitlements as citizens. ‘sex-role spill-over’ from private to public space.

Continuities between patriarchy in private and patriarchy in politics weakens democracy because the ‘voice’ of women, youth, socially derided racial or ethnic minorities – is stripped of authority

Weakens development because imposes artificial constraints on social mobility, limits women’s property rights, and condones severe abuses of their rights such as sexual and gender-based violence.

bad bargains
Bad bargains
  • Repeated pattern in state formation, peace accords, etc: in exchange for collusion of traditional authorities with modern state, hand over jurisdiction over personal/ domestic matters.
  • This puts some social groups beyond the law.
  • This means not only that the state does not address gender injustices, but it cannot. It is perceived to have no province or remit in matters pertaining to the relationship between women and men.
  • Poor developmental consequences.
bad bargains continued
Bad bargains, continued?
  • Contemporary championing of the private sector in the market and as a solution to the capacity ills of the state produces serious problems of regulation, coordination, and of course equal provision, particularly in public services subcontracted to private providers.
  • Privatisation both of public industry and services leads not just to inequalities because consumers have differential purchasing powers, and because the state cannot regulate to assure equality of treatment, but to new and more informal forms of interference and influence.
  • Potentially, even new forms of control and surveillance. Producing a recomposition of the state, of public and private power, and leading to the end of the relatively short era of the ‘development state’.
Ironically, both suppression of informal institutions, or the recognition of their value, produce an internal patriarchal ‘closing of ranks’:

Menon 1998: ‘Male privilege, female subordination and community identity become intrinsically bound up with each other so that the rights claimed by communities vis a vis the state, the right to autonomy, selfhood and access to resources, are denied by these communities to “their” women’.

- What does it take to liberalize informal institutions?

What makes informal institutions


- Change on their own terms – from the inside – e.g.: Islamic feminism (Shirin Ebadi)

  • Change on others’ terms: Exposure of hypocrisy/ contradictions: child abuse scandals in Catholic church
  • Change by attrition: ‘exit’ by disgruntled members
  • Contractual change: New standards of accountability – making power-holders answer to those affected by their actions. (this requires subalterns to be empowered in other domains).
the trump card ideological autonomy
The trump card: ideological autonomy
  • Informal institutions, though unbending on some issues (social equality) are remarkably gymnastic in responding to political opportunities – notably the void in political party competition caused by the demise of the left, and the corruption and opportunism of so many other political parties and ideologies.
  • Women and other subalterns are demonstrating a willingness to accept restrictive cultural scripts in exchange for political voices that oppose the West or the one-size-fits-all version of globalised capitalism that is forced upon them.