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Gender in development discourses of civil society organisations and Mekong hydropower dams

Louis Lebel
Unit for Social and Environmental Research, Science and Technology Research Institute, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai, Thailand; Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Singapore; louis@sea-user.org

Phimphakan Lebel
Unit for Social and Environmental Research, Science and Technology Research Institute, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai, Thailand; phimphakan@sea-user.org

Kanokwan Manorom
Mekong Sub-region Social Research Center (MSSRC), Faculty of Liberal Arts, Ubon Ratchathani University, Thailand; kanokwan.m@ubu.ac.th

Zhou Yishu
Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Singapore; sppzhou@nus.edu.sg

ABSTRACT: 'Gender in development' discourses are used to justify interventions into, or opposition to, projects and policies; they may also influence perceptions, practices, or key decisions. Four discursive threads are globally prominent: livelihoods and poverty; natural resources and the environment; rights-based; and managerial. Civil society organisations (CSOs) have been vocal in raising awareness about the adverse impacts of large-scale hydropower developments on the environment, on local livelihoods, and on vulnerable groups including women. This discourse analysis first examines how CSOs engaging in hydropower processes in the Mekong Region frame and use gender in development discourses, and then evaluates the potential of these discourses to empower both women and men. Documents authored by CSOs are examined in detail for how gender is represented, as are media reports on CSO activities, interview transcripts, and images. The findings underline how CSOs depend on discursive legitimacy for influence. Their discursive strategies depend on three factors: the organizations’ goals with respect to development, gender, and the environment; whether the situation is pre- or post-construction; and, on their relationships with the state, project developers and dam-affected communities. The implications of these strategies for empowerment are often not straightforward; inadvertent and indirect effects, positive and negative, are common. The findings of this study are of practical value to CSOs wishing to be more reflexive in their work and more responsive to how it is talked about, as it shows the ways that language and images may enhance or inadvertently work against efforts to empower women.

KEYWORDS: Civil society organisations, gender in development, discourse, representation, hydropower