Book Review – ‘Half the Sky: How to Change the World’


‘Half the Sky: How to Change the World’ by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

I feel like this might be a year of firsts for me.  I’ve recorded my first album which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always secretly wanted a blog too, and now I have one that I think is very pretty. I’ve also always thought I’d like to try and write a book review(s), because every so often I read a book that I just want to talk about (even if not necessarily for the ‘right’ reasons).

Though I don’t have a lot of time to read for leisure at the moment, I did miraculously manage to actually finish a book the other day. That book was ‘Half the Sky: How to Change the World’ by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the international bestseller which champions the rights of women, and the potential of investment in them as a solution to global poverty.

Now, as a humanitarian, a development worker and a feminist, this is a subject that I feel pretty passionately about, and as the book points out it’s hard to ignore the arguments in favour of investing in women in developing world contexts: that women are generally the primary caretakers in many societies so investing in the education of women has far-reaching, inter-generational benefits; that it has been suggested that women are likely to invest up to 90% of their income back into their families and communities, whilst for men it is more like 30-40%; and that raising the status of women in order to create greater gender equality generally translates into more harmonious, less conflict-ridden, and therefore healthier, societies. This is just to name a few.

‘Half the Sky’ rings true in its support of arguments like these, and for the most part I enjoyed reading it (though I’m not sure that’s really the right word to describe the reading of a book that graphically details the egregious atrocities committed against women every day all over the world). Despite periodically cringing at some of the suggestions made throughout (more on that later) my overall inclination is to applaud the authors for writing a book on such an important subject that isn’t overly academic and that is easily accessible and digestible to a wide audience (not just development geeks!).

Perhaps the book’s greatest achievement is that, through the telling of women’s individual stories of suffering and resilience, it manages to ‘re-humanise’ those for whom human rights abuses are a daily reality. Too often in the developed world (and for certain in the developing world too) we are able to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, or worse, effectively condone them because we understand the issue as an abstraction, removed from our own realities. We’ve stopped seeing our fellow living creatures as thinking, feeling beings – they exist as ‘others’ in an abstract place, far removed from us. Look, I am not a vegetarian, but being confronted by unblinking goats heads at market stalls makes me want to be. Likewise, perhaps if a greater number of us could empathise with human suffering on a less abstract plane, the issue of asylum seekers in Australia wouldn’t be a political football, and the gang rape of three year old girls in Pakistan would no longer be tolerated. Half the Sky’s most significant strength is that it humanises suffering and human rights abuse and thus, via its readers and their broader networks, has the potential to galvanise wide support for the women of the world who are victims of circumstance on a daily basis.

Despite this, it’s hard not to criticise some of the suggestions made by the authors throughout, which range from the mildly bizarre or suspicious to the outright appalling and dangerous. Given that I guess I’d sort of bought into all the hype and excitement surrounding the book (surely an eye-opening and serious expose!) I was a little surprised to come across Ben Affleck in the first couple of chapters. Our favourite mysteriously-Academy Award-winning screenwriter and actor had visited an American volunteer posted in Goma, who had become afflicted with malaria. Now, don’t get me wrong, in theory I’m all for using fame and fortune as mechanisms for advocacy if you can get it right (even though the high-flyers don’t most of the time), but I’m somewhat reluctant to give the authors credit here. I’m confused as to whether they’re innocently relating an anecdote, or whether *horror* they’re suggesting a link between volunteering and meeting movie stars. Either way, I cringed.

Then there was the ardent call to forge partnerships with evangelical churches, particularly the Pentecostal church which is ‘gaining more ground more quickly than any other faith, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America’. Despite the authors’ own acknowledgement that Pentecostalism’s expanding faith base can in part be attributed to the claim that Jesus will protect its followers from AIDS (surely not a positive step towards increasing women’s health and reproductive rights), and admit this is ‘suspicious’, they nevertheless support ‘working together’ with the Pentecostal church as well as evangelical religious organisations in general. Now whilst it is certainly true that most religious organisations are inspired by some form of altruism, it is the manner with which these ‘good intentions’ are conceptualised and manifest that is so dangerous to women’s rights. And once we start buying into evangelical organisations that preach strange and backward ideologies and that are ‘increasing influence’, we set a precedent for compounding these powerful religious agendas without ability to regulate them. This has the potential to be disastrous for women!

The authors’ argument for these partnerships is flimsy, not to mention it ostensibly conflicts with their strong opposition to archaic US foreign policies like the ‘Global Gag Rule’ (no longer in existence thanks to Obama, but still heavily lobbied for by right-wing conservatives), which excludes any organisation offering counselling on abortion or abortion services anywhere in the world from the financial backing of USAID (take, for example, the fantastic women’s health organisation, Marie Stopes). Given such policies are so strongly and irrefutably influenced by the religious agendas of American conservatives, it seems completely bizarre that the authors buy into the idea of partnerships with evangelical organisations in the pursuit of women’s rights.

Another strange and superficial suggestion is that we should encourage sweatshops, of all things, because ‘they’re preferable to the alternative of hoeing fields all day back in a village’. I can just hear community development workers setting off a chain of groans to reverberate around the world! Despite the authors’ obvious value judgement that working in the city is better than an agricultural lifestyle, not to mention their complete oversight of the nuances of globalisation and capitalism, it seems utterly confounding that the authors should laud the ‘benefits’ of sweatshops for women, when it is widely known that sweatshop conditions in the developing world are euphemistically less than ideal and more often than not completely unregulated by labour laws. It seems more likely that encouraging sweatshops (through buying more stuff?  …this is also unclear) is more likely a method of buying into and sustaining discrimination against women, rather than improving it. Even more hilarious, is that in an endnote at the back of the book the authors pay a fleeting lip service to what they call the “feminist critique” of this stance.

Another issue that kept rearing its head for me, was the continued focus on women as economic assets. While the authors intention was likely to try and galvanise the support of a wider audience (including big business, governments and macro-economists) by including an economic argument for the inclusion of women in development, the continued emphasis on this argument tends to detract from the authors’ overall stance that the injustices perpetrated against women should be addressed on humanitarian grounds. Supporting the women of the world based on their economic potential takes away from the power of the humanitarian case. Not to mention that I’m sure big business and governments have an army of their own advisers on the subject and this book’s probably not going to sway their thinking!

Besides this, the simple ‘women as economic resources’ argument no longer has much credence in the contemporary development discourse. The pretty one-dimensional and over-simplified theory emerged in the 1970s from the mouths of neo-classical economists, and since then, thinking has evolved to become far more nuanced. No longer is it accepted that the ‘add-women-and-mix’ approach will suffice. What is required is a greater understanding and incorporation of gender in policy formulation, and more specifically, how gendered roles and responsibilities impact on both women’s and men’s ability to perform certain tasks.

An often cited example concerning women’s economic inclusion is that it’s not enough to simply create jobs for women, the fact that they already work virtually full-time as family and community caretakers means the assumption they have any more time to engage in economic production is fundamentally flawed. What is required then, is not just a consideration of women as ‘economic assets’ but of the nuances of gender roles and responsibilities, and the value attached to what actually is already important work in the domestic sphere. This is not to say that opportunities shouldn’t be created for women’s economic empowerment – everything should be done to facilitate this – but what Half the Sky fails to address is that most women in the developing world already have full-time jobs; the assumption that women are simply under-utilised economic assets has been long debunked.

A bunch of other sentiments drew my attention for the wrong reasons during the course of reading this book, but I’m afraid I’ve run out of time to elucidate upon all of them. I will say just to wrap up, that despite all its misgivings, this book does have great potential to galvanise support for the world’s women, to be a tool for advocacy, and to make people stand up and take notice of the circumstances that women are often born into. I do give it a great deal of credit for placing such emphasis on human rights, and on the education of women and girls as a way out of poverty. It also prudently stresses that any solution to poverty should be understood contextually, should be dynamic, and perhaps most importantly should ultimately come from the grassroots in any given community.

That said, perhaps it is telling that it is George Clooney and Angelina Jolie who have written the testimonials on the front cover, rather than respected feminists or gender and development experts.


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