Interview – Peggy Antrobus

Peggy Antrobus’s initial response to the Millennium Development Goals was to dismiss them as ‘Major Distracting Gimmicks’. The women’s movement as a whole, she says, felt betrayed by them. Nevertheless, working with agencies (UN, governments and NGOs) in the Caribbean, she has modified her views. Given the right local conditions, she now feels, the MDGs can be used to advance agendas aimed at addressing poverty, HIV/AIDS, women’s health and gender equality. She tells Alliance how and why she has moved from rejection to at least partial acceptance.

Her main criticism of the MDGs generally is that they don’t address the root causes of problems: ‘We ought to be helping people to understand how these things are the consequences of structures that are profoundly unjust. To start giving more aid is not going to solve it, writing off Africa’s debt is not going to solve it. If you don’t do anything about the terms of trade – the ratio between the cost of manufactured products and primary products and commodities – you can write off debt today and tomorrow it will start rebuilding. Because the debt is a consequence of those uneven trading relations. That’s the debt trap, and you’re not going to eliminate debt unless you deal with the underlying structure of inequality.’

So more aid and debt cancellation isn’t going to solve the problem of poverty (‘which is not to say,’ she add, ‘that it isn’t useful’), but she feels that it is easier than confronting the thorny questions of how the richer nations are involved in the problem of poverty and the implications its solution might have for them: ‘It’s much easier to promise more aid and cancellation of debt for the poorest countries than forcing people to think about what makes their lifestyle and standard of living as good as it is, and the standard of living of the poor as bad as it is.’

Gender questions

Talking of gender questions apart from other questions of poverty is simply an analytical convenience. ‘You cannot separate gender justice from economic justice, justice for everybody. You can’t separate women’s equality from poverty. Part of what the women’s networks are doing is insisting on those linkages.’

Beyond her general criticisms of the MDGs, however, there are, for her, some specific gender issues that the MDGs have signally failed to address, notably sexual and reproductive health and rights and violence against women – the two most important things that women fought for throughout the 1990s, and perhaps their greatest achievements. There were three key conferences for women in the 1990s, she says, the Vienna conference on human rights (where the issue of violence against women was seriously addressed for the first time); the Cairo population conference (where a new framework linking reproductive health to reproductive rights and empowerment was adopted), and the Beijing conference (where the concept of sexual rights was adopted). The resolutions taken at those conferences and the breakthroughs they marked for women, she argues, are not reflected in the MDGs: ‘There is nothing in the Goals about rights, nothing that confirms CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, nothing that speaks about sexual and reproductive rights or violence against women.’

She believes this is no accident: ‘Governments controlled by religious fundamentalists had inordinate power, and they used it to exclude those items from the agenda. I don’t know how you can talk of women’s empowerment if you don’t guarantee women access to reproductive health services.’ These are also essential to achieving the goals of maternal health and stemming the spread of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Are her views typical of the women’s movement more widely? ‘I think so. All the women’s networks – the global networks and many of the national ones – feel betrayed by the MDGs, by the fact that they left out violence against women and sexual and reproductive health and rights. I can’t imagine anybody that calls themselves part of a women’s movement that wouldn’t agree because these things are fundamental (I use the word deliberately) to women’s well-being and empowerment.’

Women’s rights will not be ‘handed down by a benevolent government’, she argues. ‘It’s social movements that generate political will.’ Of course, she admits, you can have someone within the bureaucracy who really cares about these rights, ‘and that’s of course the best possible scenario’, but you still need people on the outside, because bureaucrats ‘can’t challenge the government. If you’re a bureaucrat, you can’t really do the things that can be done from the outside.’

An approach grounded in rights

She is also highly critical of the view that poor people are too concerned with urgent material needs to be worried about abstract notions like rights: ‘This is nonsense. You talk to a poor woman and she will tell you her concerns about being beaten, about being disrespected, about not having a roof over her head. That is why one of the best approaches to poverty reduction is the participatory approach, where you have to go and talk to people. The government has to be willing to listen to what it is people want.’

The local level

Despite her criticisms, Antrobus has come to accept that, in the right circumstances, ‘the Goals can be meaningful for people on the ground’. The main reason she changed ‘from really being very dismissive and sceptical is that I live in the Caribbean at a time when I have access to women heading UN agencies, and a minister of government, who are very interested in and committed to gender justice.’ (She is working as what she describes as an ‘official/unofficial’ adviser to UN agencies in this region.) ‘The question is, who is heading the UN agencies in your country and do you have access to them? Are they committed to gender justice? If they are, and you have access to them, then you can do things that you can’t do with the UN in other settings.’

She concedes there is an element of luck in this, which won’t happen in every country. The heads of government signed up to the Goals in 2000, but it is only this year that the minister and staff of the Ministry of Social Transformation in Barbados have actually begun to talk about them and understand how they link to their ministry. What this has meant is that government officials are now getting the chance to discuss new initiatives – by no means always the case – and she is able to interact with both these officials and officials at the UN.

The limitations of the income approach to poverty

She is working, for instance, with officials in the Ministry of Social Transformation in Barbados. This Ministry has a broad portfolio of responsibilities which ranges over gender equality, people with HIV/AIDS, the elderly and those on welfare. It also includes a Poverty Alleviation Bureau (PAB), whose approach she is quick to praise.

‘A lot of the talk about poverty reduction, particularly in the MDGs, is focused on income,’ Antrobus points out (the target of raising incomes from $1 to $2 a day she describes briefly as ‘laughable’). But for her, poverty, especially for women, is more a matter of access to services, including affordable housing, than of income. ‘Poor women have a major concern about access to services. They put housing at the top of the list, and then things like education and health, particularly access to health services for their children.’ The PAB, she says, provides a good model precisely because it is focused on help with services: ‘housing, medical prostheses, wheelchairs, crutches, artificial limbs. These are things that poor people would not be able to afford even if they had an income.’

Local involvement is critical

In addition to having committed officials at national and regional level, there is another key factor in implementing the Goals – the involvement of local communities. Though Barbados is by no means one of the poorest countries, it does have ‘pockets of poverty’. ‘Only poor people can really tell you what it means to be poor,’ Antrobus insists. ‘Ultimately they’re the ones who must set the goals, they’re the ones who must say, this is what we have to achieve in the next five years or in the next year, this is what the Ministry of Health needs to do if it’s going to reduce the number of maternal deaths, this is what the Ministry of Social Transformation has to do if it’s to reduce poverty. In other words, the people themselves, the beneficiaries, have to be in control of this process.’

She thus sees a need to ‘reinstate what has been left out of the Goals – for instance, the participation of social movements, NGOs, civil society. The involvement of the poor themselves, the involvement of people living with HIV/AIDS, these are the alternative approaches, which can only really be developed at that local level.’

Tailoring targets to fit

A corollary of this is that ‘global standards or global goals cannot possibly be applied to every country. Every country has to look at those targets and indicators, and shape them to meet their particular circumstances.’ Take the case of the goals related to education. In the Caribbean: ‘Girls outperform boys at almost every level of education. So if that’s the only target for the goal of gender equality, it means that we’ve exceeded it.’

Obviously, this target makes no sense in the Caribbean, but equally clearly, she says, ‘that target is not sufficient to ensure gender equality and women’s empowerment’.

A matter of rhetoric

Antrobus sees possibilities in the Caribbean because she has access to government and UN officials who are themselves committed to the MDGs. This is true both in Barbados and at the regional level. She also works at the international level – at the time she spoke to Alliance, she was about to go to New York for the G8 Hearings – but she sees this level as ‘still very problematic, because it’s really largely a matter of rhetoric’. The problem lies in translating international conventions into local terms: ‘It doesn’t matter how good the language is, it is what happens in the country that makes this language meaningful to people. Otherwise it’s just rhetoric.’

Principles for grantmakers

What can grantmakers do to help realize the potential she sees in the MDGs? ‘I think the challenge for grantmakers is to really try to understand that you need to support different levels of activity. In the best of all possible worlds, you want to support programmes that encourage the linkages between those levels; you want to support a network that has links to local, national, regional and international networks.’ In order to do this, grantmakers need to be ‘more analytical, more discerning, without arrogance, not thinking that they know how to do this’.

What it boils down to, she feels, is ‘a set of principles, principles of respect for people, listening to people, trying to understand what’s going on in the country. Rather than just giving money because you want to eliminate poverty or support a women’s organization, you really need to ask, what is this group about, what is it actually doing, and how does this relate to the larger vision of justice?’

The resource question

Like Ezra Mbogori (see p17), Peggy Antrobus feels strongly that civil society is often hindered from working on the MDGs because of lack of resources. She cites two of the many reasons for this. First is the old problem of funding groups, not just projects. Funders, she argues, ‘have to find ways of supporting NGOs that are movement-oriented, that are grounded in a sense of social justice. They must include groups that are working on advocacy, not just service providers. Many donors will give money if you’re handing it out to people, if you’re building houses, planting crops – of course, there’s nothing wrong with that – but they don’t want to fund advocacy groups.’

Secondly, official disapproval can mean NGOs’ source of supply is cut off: ‘In some countries, the government has to approve of the NGO before it gets its money.’ Again, she feels that this is an area that grantmakers can address. ‘One way of working around this situation is by supporting work through international networks with local branches.’

Political complications

There is another side to this coin, however, that funders need to be aware of. ‘NGOs and civil society can be used to undermine governments that are democratically elected, and to undermine projects that are about social justice.’ She cites the case of Haiti. ‘Aristide was put there by poor people in Haiti, but civil society organizations were actually used to undermine him and finally to provide the justification for getting rid of him. Many were funded by the US. Anybody who was anti-Aristide could get money from the US government, and political institutes in the USA.’

Again, local opinion is crucial in making the right judgements: ‘We have to be very careful about this, because we really need to understand what is going on in the country. And the only people who can tell us that are people working within the country whose commitment to justice is very clear.’

From categoric to contingent

So does she believe in the MDGs? Her initial answer was a resounding no. In the light of experience, however, she offers a contingent answer: ‘It depends on where you are located.’ There are clearly difficulties in adapting resolutions made at a level remote from where they will be carried out. Moreover, the Goals stop short of tackling the real causes of extreme poverty, and some questions which bear on this are either barely dealt with or completely unconsidered. However, given the commitment of responsible agencies, such as government departments and the UN, and the involvement of poor people themselves in shaping the Goals to suit local circumstances, advances are possible. Under these conditions, the Goals might achieve the kinds of change that their architects were only incompletely able to express.

Peggy Antrobus was a founder member of DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era) in 1984. She is currently UN adviser to the Barbados Ministry of Social Transformation. She can be contacted at

Comments (1)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Interview to read

Interview – Oded Grajew

Alliance magazine