Projectifying feminism: exploring the conditions for feminist politics in international development aid

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  • 1 Karlstad University, , Sweden
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As an organisational form, the project poses a challenge today for the possibility of articulating feminist politics, understood as feminist visions and ambitions. With a focus on women’s organisations working in international development aid, we examine how the project format and its managerial attributes shape the possibility of articulating feminist politics. Mobilising assemblage thinking on a material consisting mainly of interviews with project workers in women’s organisations, we show that these organisations engage in assembly work to fit their activism with the project format, such as translating feminist ambitions into bureaucratic procedures and notions of temporality, activating repertoires of expertise, and adopting marketised approaches to development. We conclude that the project format depoliticises feminist politics, although it does not make the articulation of feminist ambitions impossible. Assemblage thinking is suggested as a suitable framework for feminist research when investigating how contemporary governing arrangements influence the articulation of feminist politics.

Abstract

As an organisational form, the project poses a challenge today for the possibility of articulating feminist politics, understood as feminist visions and ambitions. With a focus on women’s organisations working in international development aid, we examine how the project format and its managerial attributes shape the possibility of articulating feminist politics. Mobilising assemblage thinking on a material consisting mainly of interviews with project workers in women’s organisations, we show that these organisations engage in assembly work to fit their activism with the project format, such as translating feminist ambitions into bureaucratic procedures and notions of temporality, activating repertoires of expertise, and adopting marketised approaches to development. We conclude that the project format depoliticises feminist politics, although it does not make the articulation of feminist ambitions impossible. Assemblage thinking is suggested as a suitable framework for feminist research when investigating how contemporary governing arrangements influence the articulation of feminist politics.

Key messages

  • The project format influences how women’s organisations articulate feminist politics.

  • Women’s organisations engage in the work of adaptation and translation to fit feminist politics with the managerial features of the project format, resulting in co-optation and resistance.

  • Assemblage thinking is suggested as a conceptual framework for exploring how feminist politics is shaped by the project format.

Introduction

In international development aid, the project has enjoyed a prominent position as the preferred organisational form. While there is a substantial literature on project management, in which projects are studied to make them function better, it is only recently that the literature taking a critical look at the ‘colonisation of all quarters of life by project-related principles’ (Hodgson et al, 2019: 4) has grown stronger. This literature mainly takes the ‘projectification’ of the public sector as its point of departure and discusses how projects have found fertile ground in which to thrive, as they epitomise a combination of flexibility and control that aligns well with the ‘New Public Management’ revolution of recent decades (Hodgson et al, 2019).

Although projects have structured the international development landscape since the 1950s (Ika and Hodgson, 2014), it is only fairly recently that a critical literature similar to the one alluded to earlier has emerged within development research. In literature on so-called ‘development management’, projects are analysed as examples of the ongoing managerialisation and professionalisation of development practice (Dar and Cooke, 2008). Thus, the bureaucratic management tools and models related to projects are analysed as contributing to the homogenisation of development practices (Dar, 2008) and as legitimising an instrumental approach to development (Kerr, 2008). Recent research has observed that projects also reproduce a depoliticising logic. Li (2016) argues that projects build upon a narrow identification of problems that are to be rectified through technical means – a process called ‘rendering technical’ (Li, 2016: 80). The way in which projects are imagined as being suitable for dividing into discrete bureaucratic components, such as application procedures, appraisal routines, rigorous implementation and reporting processes, and regular auditing, also gives development practice a technocratic and managerial character, leading to increasing depoliticisation (Scott, 2021).

The managerial characteristics of projects introduce particular tensions because international development aid has been increasingly directed towards the strengthening of democracy and human rights, often with a focus on marginalised groups, such as women, minority ethnic groups, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) community. In relation to the work of women’s organisations, Jad (2007) notes that projects play an important role in the professionalisation and depoliticisation of these organisations – a so-called ‘NGO-isation’ – as they have to transform collective concerns into isolated, time-limited interventions that are mainly developed in order to satisfy the needs of external funders. Consequently, there are inherent difficulties in reconciling the managerial attributes of the project format with the desire to articulate feminist politics – understood as the formulation of feminist demands, ambitions and visions that address and politicise gendered power relations – on the part of women’s organisations in international development aid.

In this article, we aim to explore how the articulation of feminist politics is shaped through the project as a managerial mode of governing, using the work of women’s organisations in international development aid as our empirical example. We argue that this works as an illustrative example of the wider issue of what a particular managerial mode of governing – the project – does with the possibility of articulating feminist politics.

The article is structured as follows. In the next section, we situate the issue of projectification and the possibility of articulating feminist politics within a wider discussion of how feminist demands and ambitions are increasingly co-opted into neoliberal forms of governing. Then, the subsequent section presents assemblage thinking, which is used as an analytical framework to study how feminist politics is shaped by the project format. Thereafter, we present the research methodology and material, followed by a section presenting an analysis of how feminist politics is shaped through the project work of women’s organisations. We conclude with a discussion of the results, including suggested avenues for further research.

Contextualisation: the project format as a co-optation of feminism

The project format – and its effects on the possibility of articulating feminist demands – actualises a long-standing discussion in feminist research about the role of neoliberalism in the co-optation of feminism. During recent decades, research has described how feminist political ambitions have been incorporated into managerial and neoliberal forms of governing (of which the project is an example) and how these processes also give meaning to feminism itself (see Halley et al, 2018). Here, the concept of co-optation is used to analyse how feminist ambitions and practices become part of state machineries and global governance arrangements, where they are appropriated and reinterpreted ‘by nonfeminist actors for different political purposes’ (de Jong and Kimm, 2017: 186), for example, through such practices as the use of women’s emancipation as a business strategy (Tornhill, 2019) and the translation of feminist demands into gender-mainstreaming strategies (Alnebratt and Rönnblom, 2016).

Scholars also argue that these neoliberal forms of governing have re-signified feminism to the point where it serves power rather than challenging it. Following Fraser (2013), the ultimate consequence of the introduction of neoliberal forms of governing is the co-optation of previously radical demands of feminism, transforming them into the ‘handmaiden of neoliberalism’. While Fraser conceptualises neoliberalism as a form of governing that ‘forces’ feminist activism in new directions, Prügl (2015) argues that Fraser’s arguments stem from an understanding of feminism as being co-opted by neoliberal ideology, which is a position that risks clinging to an essentialist understanding of what feminism ‘is’. Prügl (2015) represents a feminist scholarship that understands neoliberalism as coming to expression through market and management arrangements that subtly incorporate feminist demands. Kantola and Squires (2012) conceptualise this transformation as a shift from state feminism to market feminism, where the earlier alliance between the state and feminist movements has been replaced by the need for feminist activists to shift their focus towards private actors, as well as to adjust their strategies and goals to fit market rationalities.

As we understand projects as neoliberal modes of governing that incorporate feminist ambitions into a market and management logic, we consider our study to be a contribution to the wider discussion in feminist research on how neoliberal forms of governing can co-opt and transform feminist ambitions and demands. While Prügl (2015) and Kantola and Squires (2012) use a governmentality-inspired analytical framework to nuance the discussion on how neoliberal modes of governing incorporate feminist ambitions, we propose a deeper engagement with assemblage thinking. We argue that this concept makes possible a novel theoretical approach to studying the wider issue of the co-optation of feminist demands and ambitions by a society permeated with neoliberal forms of governing.

Analytical framework: assemblage thinking

As the aim of this article is the examination of how feminist politics is shaped through the project format, we need a conceptual framework that enables an analysis of the transformations and adaptations of feminist politics as it engages with the logics of the project format. Hence, we turn to assemblage thinking. Drawing on the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari (2013), this research explores the world as consisting of heterogeneous components that are drawn together to form ostensibly coherent configurations.

In feminist research, the engagement with assemblage thinking has intensified during recent years. For Puar (2015), assemblage thinking provides a resource to analyse political phenomena as complex, fluid and contingent. This helps Puar in the analysis of ‘homonationalism’, which is often understood as a monolithic phenomenon that is reduced to the activities or inherent properties of nation states or individuals. Thus, homonationalism is not an ‘event or an attribute’ (Puar, 2015: 321), but rather comes into being through the convergence of multiple forces and affects. Similarly, Liinason (2017), building on Puar (2015), argues that Swedish gender-equality policy is given meaning by being connected to other concepts, such as ‘quality’ and ‘effectiveness’, making gender equality an assemblage of meanings, instead of being a homogeneous signifier.

Furthermore, Newman (2017: 91) deploys assemblage thinking as a strategy to analyse how feminist projects of transformation are practised in relation to neoliberalism. Here, assemblage thinking provides the resources to analyse how feminist activism is reworked and adapted to, but not entirely consumed by, neoliberalism. Rather, ‘paradoxical alignments’ – always incomplete and contingent – between feminist ideals and neoliberalism can be observed. In fact, Newman’s (2017) work is a representative example of a specific research strand in assemblage thinking that conceptualises assemblage as a verb, meaning that assemblages are the result of assembling heterogeneous elements into provisional configurations (Anderson and McFarlane, 2011). This conceptualisation avoids seeing an assemblage as a ‘pre-existing thing of the world with pre-given properties’ (Rabinow, 2014: 206) and instead focuses on an assemblage as the outcome of a ‘process of arranging, organizing, [and] fitting together’ (Wise, 2005: 91, emphasis in original).1 The act of assembling always requires work, as possibly ill-suited elements must be made to fit together. However, this work is not a guarantee that assemblages will hold together; they are always at risk of falling apart: ‘[Assemblage] draws attention to the work of construction (and the difficulties of making ill-suited elements fit together as though they are coherent). And it makes visible the (variable) fragility of assemblages – that which has been assembled can more or less easily come apart, or be dismantled’ (Newman and Clarke, 2009: 9). This understanding of assembling as requiring work to draw together possibly ill-suited elements into configurations that are always on the brink of dissolution has informed different branches of research. Three examples of research can be mentioned to illustrate this form of reasoning.

First, assemblage thinking has been used to deconstruct the homogeneous ideological force of neoliberalism, which is often described as having universal characteristics and predictable consequences. However, through assemblage thinking, neoliberalism can be understood as requiring the work of, for example, aligning interests, mobilising knowledge, translating ideas and inventing new concepts (Prince, 2010; Higgins and Larner, 2017).

Second, attention to the work of assembly has informed policy research. Here, the act of constructing policies is seen as requiring the work of drawing together multiple components, such as human resources, political support and expertise/technologies, which are drawn not only from the local context, but also from global repertoires of ideas (McCann, 2011).

Third, and in relation to the thematic focus of this article, assemblage thinking has been mobilised in development studies to explore the construction of development projects. Responding to a development landscape characterised by a range of actors deploying different methods and techniques, Li (2005: 386) argues that development schemes do not emerge ‘fully formed from a single source’, but ‘are formed through an assemblage of objectives, knowledges, techniques, and practices of diverse provenance’. As a consequence, Li (2007) proposes an ‘analytic of assemblage’ to describe how development schemes are dependent on forging alignments between stakeholders, establishing objects and fields for technical intervention, and depoliticising potentially contentious issues.

The focus on the assembly work needed to make policies and projects come true is important for how we conduct our analysis of how feminist politics is shaped through the project as a managerial organisational form. In the forthcoming analysis, therefore, we focus on the concrete practices of assembling feminist politics through the project format. This means that we interpret assemblage thinking as implying empirical proximity, that is, valuing a ‘mode of inquiry that remains close to practices’ (Ong and Collier, 2005: 4). From this, it follows that our analysis remains in proximity to the ‘mundane, everyday, and seemingly trivial’ (Prince, 2010: 172) practices of assembling feminist politics through the project format. In practice, this means that we focus our analysis on the practices of coordination and adaptation, the mobilisation of existing knowledge repertoires and scripts, and practices of interpretation, translation and negotiation. As a consequence of this focus, we study the process of assembling feminist politics by zooming in on the linear project cycle: application, implementation and auditing. While these phases should not be understood as following one another in a linear manner, we argue that this form of structuring the analysis allows us to come closer to the practices of assembling that are activated in order to assemble feminist politics through the project format.

Research methodology and material

In order to study how feminist politics is assembled through the project format, we decided to focus on how women’s organisations engage with the logic of the project format in international development aid. Here, we deepen the discussion of why this constitutes an illustrative case.

Since the Second World War, development has been envisioned as an endeavour of rational problem solving through the deployment of technical expertise, leading to the creation of a professionalised development apparatus with global reach (Escobar, 2012). Indeed, as time has passed, the organisation of development work through expertise and technical measures has grown more sophisticated, and there is now a plethora of tools, methods and practices being employed in planning, implementation, reporting and evaluation (Eyben, 2015). As an organisational form, the project thrives in this environment because it imagines development as something that can be subjected to a rational and linear form of thinking, in which the deployment of managerial techniques and practices plays an important role.

In this milieu, feminist movements have a long tradition of striving for global justice, often informed by a post-colonial critique of Western aid discourses (Moghadam, 2005). Thus, feminist movements have a tradition of formulating feminist politics informed by emancipatory ambitions through development efforts. At the same time, the articulation of feminist politics needs to be reconciled with a managerial project logic. In this way, we believe that we have found an illustrative case of the assembly work needed to adapt feminist politics to the project format, while avoiding ascribing feminism with a fixed understanding and instead focusing on what feminist ambitions turn into in the doings of the project as a neoliberal mode of governing.

In order to analyse how feminist politics as articulated in international development aid is shaped by the project format, we approached a number of civil society organisations working in the area of women’s rights. These organisations are different in many respects, in terms of both size and financial strength, as well as with regard to how they organise their work. However, despite these differences, they all operate in a context of projectification that places the organisations in a situation in which the project logic has to be reconciled with their own goals, ambitions and priorities.

Four women’s rights organisations were selected for the study: two based in Sweden; and two based in a country in the Western Balkans.2 The Swedish organisations were selected as they epitomise the high feminist ambitions of Swedish development assistance. The Swedish-based organisations have different characteristics. The first can be classified as a small organisation with regards to both the number of staff employed and the degree of financial strength. The organisation has a special focus on strengthening women’s rights in conflict zones, together with sections within the same organisational family. The second is a so-called ‘intermediary organisation’ that occupies a role between established funders and partner organisations. It has the role of receiving funding and then channelling it further to formally autonomous partner organisations around the world. Consequently, this organisation is larger in size, in terms of both the number of staff employed and the financial resources it possesses. The focus of this organisation is on supporting the efforts of partner organisations to strengthen the rights of women more broadly, for example, the right to political participation and the eradication of sexual violence.

The two organisations based in the Western Balkans were selected through a form of snowball sampling, as they are partner organisations to the intermediary organisation just described. These organisations are smaller in size and work towards women’s economic empowerment and strengthening women’s access to healthcare, as well as conducting research on the state of women’s rights in the region. Although the bulk of their work is dedicated to the implementation of concrete projects, with financing from the intermediary organisation and other funders present in the Western Balkan region, these organisations also work as intermediaries in relation to smaller, local, grass-roots organisations.

The selection of organisations was made in order to use them as a general field for investigating how they assemble feminist politics through a general project logic. Hence, the selection was informed not by a desire to focus the analysis on comparing organisations according to particular variables, such as size or thematic focus, but rather by an aim to use them as strategic cases to analyse techniques and strategies of assembling within a general context of projectification, which is a condition applicable to all of the organisations. As a consequence, some of the contextual conditions in which the organisations operate are disregarded in the analysis. Through this move, we are able to focus entirely on the practices of assembling, translating and negotiating feminist politics through the so-called ‘project bureaucracy’, which is generalisable to all the organisations and has not been studied in the way we propose here.

The main strategy for generating data about these organisations was semi-structured interviews (n = 13). One of the authors approached the so-called ‘enactors’ of project-based development work within these organisations, meaning that interviewees were selected not because of who they were, but for what they did (Scott, 2021). Hence, we opted to select interviewees who were involved in the day-to-day enactment of feminist politics through the project format, such as project managers, desk officers and methodological experts. These actors occupy central roles and perform specific tasks in the project bureaucracy, such as writing applications and reports, arranging collaborations between various stakeholders, and engaging with expertise. As well as interviews, we also collected project documentation in the form of applications, reports and templates.

The generation of data was influenced by the desire to gain a deeper understanding of the practices, techniques and artefacts related to the design and implementation of projects with feminist ambitions. Consequently, the interviews were conducted in such a way that these practices were foregrounded. During the interviews, informants were asked to describe the actual practices related to the project cycle, such as the act of writing applications and reports, the implementation of projects in accordance with time and activity plans, and the use of expertise to ensure effective implementation. The interviews focused on how the participants dealt with and translated various requirements pertaining to these processes in their daily project work, as well as how they perceived the challenges of this work. The interviews were not just employed to extract facts about the bureaucratic processes of designing and implementing projects; rather, they also contained an element of ‘digging’ into how the interviewees translated the requirements inherent in these processes (Peck and Theodore, 2015).

The interviews were transcribed verbatim and analysed in two rounds. In the first round, the transcripts were coded using the computer software NVivo. The aim of this first round was to code the interviews rather openly in order to capture as many themes as possible. In the second round, a manual coding procedure was deployed, meaning that the codes produced in NVivo were printed and coded once again, with the particular assemblage framework guiding the process.

Assembling feminist politics through the project format

In this analytical part of the article, we analyse how the organisations assemble feminist politics through the project. In the analysis, we focus specifically on how the organisations use a combination of compliance, translation, coordination, improvisation, adaptation and learning in order to articulate feminist politics in relation to the different life phases of the project.

The application phase

In order to illustrate how feminist politics is assembled during the application phase, we focus on the creation of the initial project idea and its translation into a compelling and coherent ‘project story’.

Navigating the funding landscape and creating the project idea

The funding landscape for the studied organisations is fragmented and replete with potential funders, ranging from the national aid agencies of different states to international organisations and, in the case of the smaller organisations, other civil society organisations occupying an intermediary role. Funding is also characterised by competition, meaning that organisations compete for funding by engaging with calls for funding that aim to sort out the ‘best’ project proposals. Hence, there is a conscious effort made to create a delimited project idea that can have a serious chance of receiving funding. As Li (2016) notes in relation to the construction of development projects in Indonesia, there is a need to define an arena for intervention and then projectify it. This active formulation of an idea that suits the project format is an important task at the beginning of the application phase. A crucial component of projectification is therefore to imagine the project as something that is separated and decoupled from the regular operational functions of an organisation in order for it to stand out as a defined and delimited activity. This act of decoupling poses a challenge, as one informant representing an organisation working with gender, security and peace argues:

‘Partly, a problem arises in just separating the projects from the regular operating functions [of the organisation], which is very important for the funders…. And … in an organisation like ours … what we often say is that things can’t be decoupled … if there’s something in our political analysis, we talk a lot about how different issues intersect: you can’t distinguish nuclear disarmament from major security policy debates or from the gender issue, but everything is connected and we want our political issues to be connected, and that’s how we want to communicate about it.’

Here, it can be noted that the project logic is problematic in relation to how a feminist analysis of power is imagined. The project logic hollows out a form of holistic feminist analysis, as it encourages the creation of project ideas around particular isolated issues that have been forcibly decoupled from a broader analysis.

Creating a compelling and coherent ‘project story’

When a suitable project idea has been conceived, the task of creating a compelling and coherent story of a feasible project begins. This story requires the translation of the project idea into a specific managerial language, as well as the invention of an attractive ‘tone’. With the project comes a set of managerial concepts – such as problem analyses, ‘SMART’3 goals, indicators, expected results, activities, time plans and risk analyses – with which the organisations need to engage. Often, these are integrated into predetermined templates that offer guidance about how the application is to be written. Although these templates consist of instructions for how to align the application in accordance with these concepts, it is often a laborious effort to interpret and decipher them:

‘So, the things they write, just a thing like this, “What is a result?” “What is a …”, what is it they always say, “… result and … effect!” Yeah, effect and result. What’s the difference? And they haven’t given a proper explanation in the material that’s provided, so you have to sit there and really … and it happens very often that we go to each other’s rooms and sit there, a group of us, and go: “Ok, what do they mean?”… When I write my application, I always discuss it with [a colleague], and every time, we say “Yeah, but isn’t this an effect or a result, what do they mean?”’

Besides these standardised requirements to describe a project according to a fixed set of managerial concepts, there are also funder-specific requirements to incorporate ‘innovative’ activities and thematic priorities concerning, for example, conflict sensitivity or environmental and climate-related issues. This adaptation to the requirements of the funders leads to a balancing act, as there is always the risk of internal goals and visions being lost when reconciling them with the goals of the funders. Organisations either choose to abstain from applying for certain funds if they deviate too much from the organisation’s internal goals and strategies, or comply with the requirements by aligning themselves with them. Compliance can extend a long way, as organisations are willing to incorporate the exact wording or keywords used in the funders’ calls for projects. While this is a way of demonstrating direct compliance with the funders’ requirements by copying their language, there are also examples of adapting the language in order to invent an attractive ‘tone’. In order to appear attractive, the organisations try not to choose topics that could be perceived as too politically sensitive or come across as confrontational in relation to funders. This results in organisations choosing to tone down the feminist content of their work: “Just yesterday we were working with this project … we were brainstorming titles, and we wrote something about feminism, and that should not be the first thing they see; sometimes, we use a more general or softer tone.” Consequently, feminist politics must be ‘packaged’ in order to fit the application logic and the intended funder, thus resulting in a possible deradicalisation of its content.

The creation of a coherent story often occurs under conditions in which the desires of multiple parties need to be aligned. Hence, there is work invested in mediating and coordinating between physically and organisationally distant stakeholders – what Li (2007) calls ‘forging alignments’. An example here concerns one of the organisations that is part of a larger international organisation with subsections located around the globe. Here, writing applications becomes a matter of teams of multiple applicants creating some form of consensus around a coherent story that can be submitted to the funder. This entails adjustments to each other’s goals, as well as exchanges and compilations of information in order to package the application for the funder.

The production of a compelling and coherent application requires a significant amount of knowledge; it is a genre that must be mastered if one is to be successful in the project market. However, there is a belief that mastering this genre is a skill that can be learned. Hence, there are support functions, both formal and informal, that can be mobilised for learning how to produce a coherent application. Concerning the formal support functions, organisations can participate in a multitude of application-writing workshops organised by the funders, external experts and intermediary civil society organisations. Internal to the organisations, there are informal mentoring systems designed to provide feedback on ongoing applications. Additionally, organisations possess an informal repository of best practices that can be used for application writing. On this topic, one informant describes how after years of application writing, a body of experience of ‘what works’ has been built up, meaning that form, content and financial calculations from previous applications can be used as a basis for writing new applications.

The implementation and reporting phase

During the implementation phase, the coherent story that has been told of the project should become real through the enactment of concrete activities. In this section, we focus on: how implementation capacity is ensured; how feminist politics is legitimised through scientific discourse and adapted to an ‘activity logic’ and a particular notion of temporality; and, finally, how reporting requirements are handled. Before we begin this analysis, it should be clarified that all organisations work with some form of political advocacy during the implementation phase. While political advocacy encompasses many different activities, these organisations focus on advocating for: greater inclusion of women in political decision-making; awareness raising about gender-based violence; improvements in women’s access to healthcare; and improving knowledge about the impact of violent conflicts on women. These activities are conducted both by individual organisations and through collaborations between multiple organisations.

Ensuring implementation capacity: the establishment of functioning partnerships

Project implementation often occurs as a multi-actor collaboration, in which the organisations must form well-functioning partnerships in order to be effective implementers. Thus, the implementation process is preceded by the active work of selecting appropriate partners. This is mainly the responsibility of intermediary organisations that activate different strategies in order to find the ‘right’ partners for project implementation. For partners to be considered suitable, they should have sufficient knowledge and previous experience of advocacy work:

‘In this particular advocacy programme … here, we have partners who are a little more well developed, and that means … they must [have] some kind of basic skill in advocacy work, [that] they’ve done something like it [in the past]. In principle, everyone [with whom we have a collaboration] has conducted some kind of advocacy work in their own countries.… they have quite a high level in terms of writing … writing reports and so on.… We have partners with very low capacity, they can’t write at all, they do great things but they have no ability at all to explain it in writing [and] they have no systems in place and so on.’

As a way of ensuring that the level of knowledge and experience is sufficient, intermediary organisations often conduct formalised assessments of potential partners. These assessments focus on auditing the internal infrastructure of the organisations, such as financial routines and decision-making structures. As support for this assessment, intermediary organisations use established assessment tools (such as the ‘MANGO Financial Health Check’, which makes audits of financial management possible), as well as previous organisational appraisals conducted by other funders.

Legitimising feminist politics: the mobilisation of a scientific approach

Once implementation capacity has been ensured, various activities can be undertaken. An important aspect of the implementation of advocacy activities is to back them up with evidence (see Kantola and Squires, 2012). To appear credible and gain legitimacy for their work, the organisations produce evidence to show that the problems for which they want to create awareness through advocacy work actually ‘exist’. Hence, much time is spent on scientific-like knowledge production. This form of knowledge production is similar to academic research, in the sense that a scientific methodology is used. To produce evidence on a variety of issues – domestic violence, women’s lack of access to healthcare and so on – one organisation uses policy and legal analysis, as well as surveys and interviews, sometimes in collaboration with academic institutions and experts. One informant argues that this production of evidence plays an important role in legitimising feminist politics and convincing decision-makers of their problem analysis:

‘I think we’re taken much more seriously when we come and say that we’ve done a national household survey and here’s the results, definitely. Not, “I just talked to three of my friends and this is what they say.” It obviously carries more legitimacy. I wouldn’t say we do it because of legitimacy; I think we do it because we believe it’s important. So, it’s not that we’re doing it to appease others and make others consider us legitimate, although it does of course do that, but we do it because we know we need it in order to convince them.’

Activity focus and time limitations

A project is activity based, meaning that specific and time-bound activities should be completed. As well as research and the production of evidence, there are other forms of activities being implemented. These activities are characterised as tangible, measurable and controllable, and are imagined as being possible to implement within a particular time frame.

As the application has stipulated a series of activities, the advocacy efforts often include the implementation of specific interventions. One common project activity is to arrange training of different kinds. For example, training is used as part of advocacy efforts to educate decision-makers about the need for a gender perspective in their daily work. Sometimes, the organisations themselves cannot provide such training, but need to contract external expertise. This prompts a sometimes-difficult quest to find the most suitable combination of expertise because the recruited experts need experience in both training and gender-related issues. Another, more traditional, advocacy effort is to influence decision-makers through lobbying. One example concerns an organisation lobbying the European Union (EU) to incorporate considerations of gender into the accession process for prospective member countries. Palpable activities here are capacity-building efforts around how to effectively target EU officials and the provision of written material that officials can incorporate into so-called ‘progress reports’ on the status of women’s rights in the prospective member countries.

The implementation of these activities must be adapted to how the project format envisions time. A project is essentially limited, and organisations are rarely financed for more than three years. Thus, predetermined activities need to be ‘delivered’ according to time plans that give the project a rigid character. Organisations use a combination of compliance and improvisation to handle this challenge posed by the project logic. The project often requires organisations to deliver a set of fixed activities, forcing them to ignore contextual developments and only focus on the execution of predetermined activities that have been planned perhaps a year in advance of project implementation. However, some organisations also try to improvise within the limited time frame in order to enable them to respond to sudden events that call for an immediate reaction:

‘You have a deliverable, you have a time frame, you have to finish it, but someone gets murdered by their husband – this has happened three times this year. We can’t just sit here and do nothing: we have to write a press release; we have to go out in the streets; we have to follow up with the institutions and see what’s happening; we might have to talk to the family; we might have to recruit a lawyer – and this is something you can’t predict. So, we’ve come to the realisation that in up to three days every week, we can’t predict what’s going to happen, but something will happen that’s going to prevent us from meeting our planned deadlines.’

Although this example shows that the organisations try to make room for improvisation, it is also evident that as forms of temporal requirements, deadlines risk distracting the organisations from reacting to sudden events with tangible effects on women’s lives, as there are pre-planned activities that must be completed under a project logic that is imagined to be time limited.

Fulfilling reporting requirements

Parallel to the implementation of activities, the project must be reported on. Given that these processes occur simultaneously, there are laborious efforts to reconcile the implementation of project activities with the requirement to report on both ongoing and completed projects. This reporting concerns both financial and results reporting. Reports are often required both in the middle and at the end of projects, which requires a great deal of preparatory work because the necessary information must be gathered. Hence, to facilitate this process, information is gathered continuously as the project goes along, for example, through informal logbooks in which the outputs of the project are noted. This form of information gathering is often needed to achieve the formalised character of reporting. The reporting often has to be fitted into predetermined templates in relation to the specific objectives and indicators stated in the application. This specific requirement focuses the reporting on predetermined goals, rather than unexpected results:

‘When we do the reporting, we should do it in relation to our application, which is natural in a way, but not in relation to reality … what they’re interested in is what we said we would do and how we’ve accomplished that. Even though there may have been a great many really good things in this context that are relevant … if they don’t correspond to an exact question in the application, it doesn’t really matter.’

Thus, this reporting requirement reduces feminist politics to a matter of achieving goals that are measurable and reportable within a predetermined format.

Reporting also requires engagement with digital channels. Funders use digital online portals by means of which organisations are expected to upload different forms of reporting. As an example, one funder has organised a database in which organisations are required to report information on completed projects. Here, goals, expected results and actual achieved results must be described in a brief and readable manner.

The auditing phase

As the project develops, various auditing processes are rolled out to ensure control and make evaluations. Here, we focus on how the articulation of feminist politics is adapted to the control and audit logic inherent in the project format.

Controls and evaluations normally occur at the end of a project, but different forms of auditing are also mobilised during the middle of projects as so-called ‘midterm reviews’ in order to tease out lessons learned and extract good practices. Auditing can also take the form of more thorough reviews through which the organisational infrastructure is examined. A typical example here is the ‘system audit’, which focuses on organisations having the proper routines, procedures and processes in place, such as a delegation of authority policy, handbooks, project management systems, templates and systems of quality assurance. These evaluations and reviews can be initiated by the funders, who recruit external consultants, or by the organisations themselves, who put out calls for external consultancy expertise.

Being subject to continuous auditing, whether funder-initiated or self-chosen, means that the organisations need to make themselves auditable. The act of making oneself auditable has two dimensions. The first is about making the organisational infrastructure visible and open to auditing. This is about making the organisation auditable through documentation. By having the paperwork ready – invoices, contracts, timesheets and so on – the organisations are amenable to control and inspection. Second, auditability is related to the ability to create a project that is able to make visible a causal chain between activities and results. The act of making oneself auditable results in feminist politics becoming hollowed out, as energy and time are dedicated to fulfilling the needs of a control and audit bureaucracy.

Feminist politics projectified: concluding discussion

Feminist politics as articulated by women’s organisations must be assembled to fit the project format, meaning constant and ubiquitous reworking, calibration and adaptation. In this concluding discussion, we clarify and discuss a set of components and practices through which feminist politics is assembled. We also discuss how assemblage thinking has provided a fruitful theoretical framework for analysing how feminist politics is shaped by the project as a neoliberal mode of governing.

Starting with the discussion on the set of components through which feminist politics is assembled, we argue, first, that this entails a thorough engagement with bureaucratic procedures and processes. On the one hand, organisations adapt to the existing bureaucratic requirements that are inherent in the funders’ application and reporting procedures, and translate these forms of documentation into the required managerial language. On the other hand, the organisations invent their own bureaucratic infrastructure, which makes them controllable and auditable from a distance. This infrastructure comprises the construction of routines and processes, such as project management systems, handbooks and systems of quality assurance, which are characteristic of a rational organisation, as well as the construction of a core of professional ‘management bureaucrats’ (Hall, 2012), who possess the entrepreneurial and analytical skills to interpret and execute the requirements pertaining to applications and report writing.

Second, the project builds on a particular notion of temporality that contributes to feminist politics being envisioned as a time-limited endeavour. As projects build on the implementation of ‘deliverables’ during a limited time-period, often formulated long before the implementation itself, feminist politics is translated into a form of ‘project time’. This project time incorporates organisations into the logic of executing a set of time-limited, fixed activities, which makes it difficult to react to sudden or unexpected events.

Third, the project format introduces a way of thinking about reality that requires different forms of knowledge and expertise. Given the requirements of planning and implementation capacity, organisations draw upon multiple repertoires of expertise. Examples concern organisations drawing on consultant expertise for the sake of application writing, the use of standardised models for the assessment of partners and the mobilisation of scientific methodology for the effective implementation of advocacy efforts. The models, tools and methods constituting these repertoires can be seen as a set of general ‘bundles’ with universal vocabularies and scripts, which, according to Ong and Collier (2005: 11), ‘have a distinctive capacity for decontextualization and recontextualization, abstractability and movement’. Thus, they constitute standardised ‘coding tools’ that can travel between the different project settings in which feminist politics is assembled.

Fourth, the project format introduces marketisation, in the sense that central aspects are subjected to a logic of competitiveness. This marketisation of projects is made visible in the application phase, which is organised through competitive calls. This construction of the application phase requires organisations to display entrepreneurial and competitive behaviour in order to secure funding.

Through our analysis, we conclude that when feminist politics is filtered through the project format, it must be assembled in a particular way. This work of assembly comprises: the translation of feminist politics into particular bureaucratic procedures and notions of temporality; the activation of repertoires of expertise; and the adoption of marketised approaches to development. We argue that this work of assembling opens up for understanding feminist politics as being characterised by what Newman (2017) calls ‘paradoxical alignments’. On the one hand, the work of assembly is characterised by the adaptation to technocratic and administrative logics, thereby making feminist politics subject to co-optation and depoliticisation. On the other hand, there are findings supporting the claim that feminist politics is not entirely co-opted. For example, there is room for manoeuvre, as is evident in the preservation of feminist ambitions with which organisations ‘juggle’ so as not to succumb completely to the project logic. Two telling examples here include the active act of abstaining from participating in funding arrangements that do not contribute to an organisation’s strategies and goals, and prioritising urgent issues at the expense of reporting requirements. Thus, we find that feminist politics is constructed out of paradoxical alignments between political and technocratic logics. These findings also support the need to view co-optation in a more nuanced light. Thus, in line with Eschle and Maiguashca (2018), we argue that the fact that feminist politics is characterised by paradoxical alignments between political and technocratic logics illustrates how it is neither co-opted nor resistant.

We argue that this analysis and conclusion have been made possible by a fruitful engagement with assemblage thinking. The assemblage approach has allowed us to get close to the work that is being invested in assembling feminist politics through the project format – a process characterised by adaptation, coordination, translation and negotiation. Moreover, this empirical proximity to practices of assembling has allowed us to view the project as a mode of neoliberal governing in a more complex and contradictory light. Here, the project does not appear to be imposing a totalising logic onto how feminist politics is assembled, but it is awkwardly aligned with feminist demands and visions.

This article also serves the function of promoting a research agenda in which assemblage thinking could be explored more thoroughly as a feminist research strategy. Although we note that assemblage thinking is not entirely new to feminist scholarship (Puar, 2015; Liinason, 2017; Newman, 2017), we argue that more research mobilising such thinking is needed in order to explore its full analytical potential. In this way, the issue of how feminist politics is adapted, calibrated and reworked – indeed, assembled – to fit hegemonic discourses, governing arrangements and institutional orders can be studied more thoroughly. This research agenda also holds normative potential because it makes possible a critical scrutiny of what is won or lost for feminist mobilisation as it is assembled in relation to contemporary orders of power.

Notes

1

For a wider academic audience, the concept of assemblage has been introduced by Sassen (2006). However, while Sassen uses the concept as a descriptive term to discover hybrid formations of governing, we join scholars in anthropology and geography arguing that the concept offers analytical tools to closely examine processes of assembling in specific empirical contexts.

2

The data originate from the PhD thesis of one of the authors (Scott, 2021) and were collected together with other types of data for the purpose of studying the projectification of development aid from the perspective of state funders, civil society organisations and private consultants. Thus, the thesis focused not explicitly on women’s organisations, but rather on how development projects are assembled from the perspectives of multiple actors.

3

SMART is an acronym for ‘specific, measurable, accepted, realistic and time-bound’.

Funding

This work was supported by the Swedish Research Council under Grant No. 2015-01756.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Elisabeth Olivius for helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.

Author biographies

David Scott holds a PhD in political science and works as a lecturer at Karlstad University, Sweden. He has a general interest in the managerialisation of politics, which is explored in his doctoral thesis on the projectification of Swedish development aid.

Malin Rönnblom, Professor of Political Science, Karlstad University, Sweden, and Professor II, UiT the Arctic University of Norway, has wide experience in studies of public policy and practice (deploying a gender and intersectionality lens), studies of rural–urban relations, and studies of contemporary forms of democracy and governance using novel approaches.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tornhill, S. (2019) The Business of Women’s Empowerment: Corporate Gender Politics in the Global South, London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wise, J.M. (2005) Assemblage, in C.J. Stivale (ed) Gilles Deleuze: Key Concepts, Chesham: Acumen, pp 7787.

  • Alnebratt, K. and Rönnblom, M. (2016) Feminism Som Byråkrati: Jämställdhetsintegrering Som Strategi, Stockholm: Leopard.

  • Anderson, B. and McFarlane, C. (2011) Assemblage and geography, Area, 43(2): 1247. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2011.01004.x

  • Dar, S. (2008) Real-izing development: reports, realities and the self in development NGOs, in S. Dar and B. Cooke (eds) The New Development Management: Critiquing the Dual Modernization, London: Zed Books, pp 17797.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dar, S. and Cooke, B. (2008) The New Development Management: Critiquing the Dual Modernization, London: Zed Books.

  • De Jong, S. and Kimm, S. (2017) The Co-optation of feminisms: a research agenda, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 19(2): 185200. doi: 10.1080/ 14616742.2017.1299582

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2013) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

  • Eschle, C. and Maiguashca, B. (2018) Theorising feminist organising in and against neoliberalism: beyond co-optation and resistance?, European Journal of Politics and Gender, 1(1–2): 22339. doi: 10.1332/251510818X15272520831120

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Escobar, A. (2012) Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Eyben, R. (2015) Uncovering the politics of evidence and results, in R. Eyben et al. (eds) The Politics of Evidence and Results in International Development: Playing the Game to Change the Rules?, Rugby: Practical Action Publishing, pp 1938.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fraser, N. (2013) Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, London: Verso.

  • Hall, P. (2012) Managementbyråkrati: Organisationspolitisk Makt i Svensk Offentlig Förvaltning, Malmö: Liber.

  • Halley, J.E. et al. (2018) Governance Feminism: An Introduction, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Higgins, V. and Larner, W. (2017) Assembling Neoliberalism: Expertise, Practices, Subjects, New York: Palgrave Macmillan US.

  • Hodgson, D.E. et al. (2019) The Projectification of the Public Sector, New York: Routledge.

  • Ika, L.A. and Hodgson, D. (2014) Learning from international development projects: blending critical project studies and critical development studies, International Journal of Project Management, 32(7): 118296. doi: 10.1016/j.ijproman.2014.01.004

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jad, I. (2007) NGOs: between buzzwords and social movements, Development in Practice, 17(4–5): 6229. doi: 10.1080/09614520701469781

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kantola, J. and Squires, J. (2012) From state feminism to market feminism?, International Political Science Review, 33(4): 382400. doi: 10.1177/0192512111432513

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kerr, R. (2008) International development and the new development management: projects and logframes as discursive technologies of governance, in S. Dar and B. Cooke (eds) The New Development Management: Critiquing the Dual Modernization, London: Zed Books, pp 91110.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Li, T.M. (2005) Beyond ‘the state’ and failed schemes, American Anthropologist, 107(3): 38394. doi: 10.1525/aa.2005.107.3.383

  • Li, T.M. (2007) Practices of assemblage and community forest management, Economy and Society, 36(2): 26393. doi: 10.1080/03085140701254308

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Li, T.M. (2016) Governing rural Indonesia: convergence on the project system, Critical Policy Studies, 10(1): 7994. doi: 10.1080/19460171.2015.1098553

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Liinason, M. (2017) Jämställdhet som assemblage, Tidsskrift for Kjønnsforskning, 41(3): 16586.

  • McCann, E. (2011) Veritable inventions: cities, policies and assemblage, Area, 43(2): 1437. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2011.01011.x

  • Moghadam, V.M. (2005) Globalizing Women: Transnational Feminist Networks, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

  • Newman, J. (2017) The politics of expertise: neoliberalism, governance and the practice of politics, in V. Higgins and W. Larner (eds) Assembling Neoliberalism: Expertise, Practices, Subjects, New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, pp 87105.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Newman, J. and Clarke, J. (2009) Publics, Politics and Power: Remaking the Public in Public Services, Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

  • Ong, A. and Collier, S.J. (2005) Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Peck, J. and Theodore, N. (2015) Fast Policy: Experimental Statecraft at the Thresholds of Neoliberalism, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Prince, R. (2010) Policy transfer as policy assemblage: making policy for the creative industries in New Zealand, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 42(1): 16986. doi: 10.1068/a4224

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Prügl, E. (2015) Neoliberalising feminism, New Political Economy, 20(4): 61431.

  • Puar, J. (2015) Homonationalism as assemblage: viral travels, affective sexualities, Revista Lusófona de Estudos Culturais, 3(1): 31937.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rabinow, P. (2014) Assembling untimeliness: Permanently and resistively, in Faubion, J. (ed) Foucault Now: Current Perspectives in Foucault Studies, Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 20324.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sassen, S. (2006) Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Savage, G.C. (2020) What is policy assemblage?, Territory, Politics, Governance, 8(3): 31935. doi: 10.1080/21622671.2018.1559760

  • Scott, D. (2021) (Dis)Assembling Development: Organizing Swedish Development Aid through Projectification, Karlstad: Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Political Science, Karlstad University.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tornhill, S. (2019) The Business of Women’s Empowerment: Corporate Gender Politics in the Global South, London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wise, J.M. (2005) Assemblage, in C.J. Stivale (ed) Gilles Deleuze: Key Concepts, Chesham: Acumen, pp 7787.

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