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Gender Discrimination and Development

Updated on October 17, 2009

While not everyone has the same conception of what constitutes moral behaviour, those of us living in liberal-democratic societies can agree on certain basic moral values. For example, many agree that cheating, lying, and stealing are generally morally wrong in most cases. However, many people also agree that sometimes, cheating, lying, and stealing are warranted in certain circumstances due to the positive consequences such actions might produce. However, things like discrimination on the basis of religion, race, and gender are also generally considered wrong. But, unlike cheating, lying, and stealing, it is difficult to imagine instances where discrimination could be morally justified on consequentialist grounds. However, Barthelemy and Wein have recently argued that gender discrimination ought to be tolerated under certain conditions. Here, I will present their arguments for this position and offer a critical analysis of their view. In addition, I offer my own position on this delicate moral issue.

Barthelemy and Wein have argued that gender discrimination ought to be permitted in certain circumstances, but only under strict conditions. The authors discuss gender discrimination in the context of government funded development agencies, and how these agencies ought to deal with recipient countries when these recipient countries have discriminatory restrictions against female development officers. Essentially, the problem here is that certain recipient countries in need of aid are refusing to accept aid from developing nations whom employ women as their chief development officers. These recipient countries that discriminate reject female development officers simply on the grounds that women ought not to be in such a position of influence and authority; rather, they argue authoritarian positions should belong to men. This gender bias reflects deep-rooted cultural and religious beliefs on the part of the leaders of these particular developing nations. Faced with this difficult moral dilemma, Bathelemy and Wein offer the following solution.

Barthelemy and Wein propose that developing agencies adopt two different payment strategies for recipient countries. Strategy A would apply to developing nations that do impose gender restrictions on development aid, and strategy B would apply to developing nations that do not impose gender restrictions on development aid. Before applying these strategies, development agencies must first decide how much aid they have available to donate, and then decide, on reasonable distributive justice grounds, which countries receive what amount. Once these decisions are made, the two strategies are applied as follows. Using Strategy A, development agencies would calculate their direct and indirect costs associated with providing aid to countries that do impose gender restrictions on aid packages. Direct costs are reached by calculating the difference it would cost to send male and female development officers compared to sending only male development officers. Indirect costs are reached by calculating extra costs associated with respecting discriminatory policies – like having to train male staff to fill positions otherwise occupied by already-trained female development officers. Using Strategy B, development agencies simply calculate their normal costs typically incurred by such development projects. With strategy B, there are no extra cost incurred by having to accommodate countries with discriminatory policies; thus, countries receiving aid under Strategy B will always receive substantially more than those countries receiving aid under Strategy B.

By offering two separate payment strategies to developing nations, Barthelemy and Wein hope to offer those countries employing discriminatory practices a disincentive to maintain these discriminatory customs. It is of particular note that Barthelemy and Wein want to make such payment strategies well known to both, the public in developed nations, and the public in developing nations; this strategy is used for two reasons. First, to make citizens in developed nations aware of such a payment strategy sends the message that gender discrimination is an important moral issue, one that we, as citizens of developed nations do not take lightly. Second, by making citizens of developing nations aware of this payment strategy, those citizens will see the consequences associated with maintaining these discriminatory practices. In other words, citizens in recipient countries will see that they could have qualified to receive substantially more aid from development agencies if it weren’t for their discrimination policy against women.

This position offered by Barthelemy and Wein is a position of compromise between protecting important moral principles and securing significant moral ends. The authors recognize that out of respect for persons, we have a moral obligation not to discriminate on the basis on gender, religion, race, and so on. But also, the authors recognize that if some discrimination were to be permitted, we could still provide aid to the needy living in developing countries harbouring discriminatory practices toward women.

Although Barthelemy and Wein ought to be commended for their attempt at providing an equitable solution to this delicate matter, there are several issues I would like to address. First, in the introduction of the article, Barthelemy and Wein claim that one conclusion they reach is that development agencies “should not instigate development projects if doing so would involve them in gender discrimination” (p. 263). This means that if development agencies already have aid packages in place for countries that do discriminate, the development agency should not discontinue delivery of that aid. But, no new development aid packages should be given to those countries with discriminatory practices. However, this conclusion is at odds with what they later go on to state. On the concluding pages of the article, the authors claim, “[principles of distributive justice] will yield some distribution of aid to each potential development projects…” (p. 269). It seems as though these two statements are completely incompatible with one another. Since the aim of the paper is to help development agencies make difficult decisions, the authors should have been clearer about their advice to these agencies. As a development agency it is difficult to know which rule is best to abide by.

A second problem is that the authors claim that it is morally permissible to “…violate a generally accepted moral principle [i.e., gender discrimination] if, and only if, in violating that principle the agency has good reason to believe that its action will reduce subsequent violations of the principle” (p .264). However, I would argue that this proposed procedure is not likely to result in fewer violations of the principle. Countries that harbour these discriminatory practices will only reject discrimination in name only. That is, these countries may put on a public face and say that they reject discrimination against women, but if such attitudes and beliefs are so deeply entrenched, discriminatory practices are likely to continue. Any country that had formerly espoused discriminatory practices towards women will undoubtedly continue to discriminate against women, even though they publicly denounce gender discrimination. Any public denunciation of gender discrimination will be done for practical reasons (i.e., to get development aid) not for want of actual elimination of gender discrimination.

A third problem is that it is difficult to see how Barthelemy and Wein’s proposal avoids some of the problems they had originally hoped to prevent. For example, it seems to me that the authors proposed procedure would have no better effect on the discriminatory behaviour of recipient nations than would the hard-line approach. The hard-line approach advocates a complete refusal on the part of development agencies to give aid to developing nations that have gender discrimination policies. Similarly, the development aid given to discriminatory countries under Strategy B would amount to very little (if any) aid. Hence, the hard-line approach does not seem that different than the authors’ own proposal. Both, the hard-line approach and the authors’ proposed procedure could easily result in certain countries getting no development aid whatsoever.

I would argue that a hard-line approach is the best approach because a refusal to give development aid to these nations will eventually result in a restless society that will demand development aid if situations deteriorate far enough. In other words, citizens will see the real cost of clinging to discriminatory practices, and then be forced to make a decision of what is more important, discriminatory beliefs and practices against women, or a developed nation. Plus, it is often the case that the citizens of the country are more accepting of gender equality than the authoritarian regimes that rule them. Thus, it seems that if living conditions were to reach a low enough standard, there might result a rising up by the people in order to demand development aid. A further advantage of adopting the hard-line approach is that this position does not involve compromising important principles of morality, such as gender equality.

Of course, the authors discuss, and reject, the hard-line approach on the grounds that innocent people will suffer. But again, the authors’ own approach may often result in little or no development aid to needy countries. Thus, their position too, may result in innocent people suffering. So, it would seem the hard-line approach produces results that are not that much more harmful to innocent people than that of Barthelemy and Wein; plus, the hard-line approach offers developed countries a chance to uphold their moral beliefs.


Barthelemy, William, L., & Wein, Sheldon, “Development Officers And Discrimination,” Journal of Philosophical Research, Vol., XXI, 1996.


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