Thursday, April 4, 2013

Let's talk about data!

A Planned Parenthood activist who labels herself as feminist surprisingly uses the argument that "family planning interventions work and have effectively empowered women in the global South."

She apparently draws on the rhetoric of gender empowerment to advocate for Planned Parenthood.

What surprises me about the position articulated in the advocacy statement above is its uncritical celebration of the language of empowerment without interrogating the questions of power that are tied to the interpretive frames circulated in family planning interventions. I am also surprised by the erasure of the historic complicity of Planned Parenthood in racist population control programs in the early years, working closely with eugenicists to shape population control programs directed at poor, black and colored recipients of the Third World.

The lack of historical familiarity with the context within which family planning interventions developed demonstrates the fluidity of human rights discourses originating in the global North, working to reconfigure forms of oppression as manifestations of empowerment. The sort of heuristic labeling that is at work here obfuscates the need to critically examine information, ask questions, and engage deeply with the position being advocated. And it is precisely this lack of critical interrogation that serves as the basis for global interventions originating in the North and serving the functions of colonizing the global South through the circulation of secular-sounding phrases.

Absent from the narratives of doing good are actual examination of data to consider what the impacts are. In the instance above, when I asked this colleague for data, she reiterated that this is an already established fact, something that most reserachers in the area take-for-granted. Now because my research in the area suggests otherwise, I presented her with some evidence and asked her to offer some evidence to me to show that family planning interventions work. To this request, she noted that most of the community of activists already knew this to be the case, drawing upon the literature although she was unable to draw from the literature. The callous attitude toward data or empirical evidence speaks to the hegemoy of the population control trope. The so-called science behind it is already established through assumptions and heuritics, without data and without conjectures and refutations that challenge the assumptions.

Also absent are interrogations of the workings of power and control in circulating specific discourses as universal markers of human rights. Who for instance gets to define what empowerment is, develop programs around it, and then measure the level of empowerment through evaluation programs. What are the measures of the objectives? How are these objectives evaluated? What does it mean to claim that a family planning campaign works?

The framing of family planning as gender empowerment remains oblivious to the politics of power and control within which the global North actively works to frame the question of population control as a solution to global poverty. One slips into the language of empowerment as it sounds pretty good in establishing the solution being planned out for women in the global South. Simultaneously absent are necessities for actual engagement with the data and the context such that empty claims such as the one above can be circulated without the need to consider data. The framing of feel good terms such as empowerment within a seemingly postmodern turn in activist/academic discourse also means that any request for data can also be framed as masculinist or patriarchal, and this can then become a perfect framework for establishing the hegemony of family planning programs based on the circulation of false or at best unsupported claims.

Closer examination of the claims such as the one above would push academics and activists to ask for evidence and to carefully consider what counts as evidence. This would mean thorough examination of the data and a commitment to work through the data rather than the practice of careless generalizations that usurp the agency of the global South in convenient frames. For example, what is the meaning of empowerment for the women in the global South? What is the metric of effectiveness? What is the evidence for what works? What is the connection of empowerment to family planning, and who defines this specific linkage? What hideden agendas remain implicit in the broader framework of family planning? My close reading of the evidence base in the family planning literature raises a large number of questions for me regarding the effectiveness of family planning, leading me to also question the poor science behind large claims that also often deploy large sums of resources. You see, the hegemony of the population control regime can work pretty well by portraying any calls for quantitative data as inherently oppressive and symptomatic of patriarchy.

This is where I do believe that CCA foregrounds the necessity of engaging with structures and the materialities that are constituted in these structures. Critical engagement with quetsions of evidence is an entry point to the politics of change. In other words, the impetus for asking such questions about data, the quality of the arguments being made, and the measures of effectiveness being examined calls for a spirit of critical interrogation that simply does not parrot that which has already been claimed. Through data and through interrogation of the methods through which data are gathered and interpreted, opportunities are created for interrogating hegemony. Such forms of thorough engagement call for the willingness to carefully consider information and engage in debate rather than making claims heuristically. Such forms of engagement also threaten to disrupt the hegemony of the human rights regime that often operates on the basis of unquestioned/unchallenged hypocrisies.

Close examination of family planning programs raises important questions about race, politics, gender and imperialism? Close examination also pushes us to carefully consider what we count as evidence. More importantly, close examination invited us to engage critically, asking for more data and accountability, and simultaneously interrogating the processes, methods, and design through which such data are gathered.

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