Globalization for Thee, but Not for Me: Ivanka Trump’s Cultural Blinders on 'Helping' African Women’s ‘Empowerment’

Ivanka Trump’s recent trip to Africa to promote a women’s economic empowerment movement was misguided. This initiative echoes a colonial precedent that at times did more to hinder than help many of the entrepreneurial instincts of indigenous women in the continent. But most importantly, Ivanka Trump is directly advocating measures that have the potential to advance new and disastrous patterns on the traditional family structures of African societies.

Ivanka Trump in the Ivory Coast (VOA video screen grab, cropped)

A compelling scholarly work that gives credence to this proposition has been put forth by Professor Gloria Chuku. The work is a result of her decades-long research on African women and the ways in which 19th century Great Britain imposed rigid Victorian gender ideologies onto these women, radically changing their cultures. These ideologies also created colonial structures that sidelined their diverse economic talents and abilities.

According to Prof. Chuku, this Victorian rigidity tended to stress, protect and enhance the male-dominant elements within various West African societies while driving women’s participation in such key sectors as commerce and industry to the brink of extinction. The right place for these African women thus became almost solely within the home as good wives, mothers, and homemakers.

The culmination of this research is an excellent monograph on the history of Igbo women’s economic activities in the pre-colonial and colonial eras. Though focused on one tribal nation in what was to become southeastern Nigeria (Nigeria was formally created in 1914), it helps to explain how Britain’s far-reaching imperial initiatives undermined gender roles, free-market principles, and the traditional family unit in many parts of the continent.

For example, Chuku posits that with the cultivation and selling of certain crops such as palm nuts and cassava, British colonialism virtually destroyed women’s dominance in these key local industries. Instead, Igbo men became more interested in controlling agricultural markets that were now big business as a result of foreign mechanical production techniques, which increased crop output and brought commercialization. As women were often not the ones to travel far distances to sell products, their financial independence decreased, which often led to their inability to provide a host of resources for their own children.

It is very easy to see how this paradigm shift helped to promote the culture of poverty and dependence (with the images of starving African children) that we assume we understand when we think about Africa today. Professor Chuku documents how this same economic pattern hindered Igbo women in other local industries such as textiles and crafts. She provides a rich ethnographic account that exhorts the reader to examine the diverse significances and complexities of British imperial history in a particular region of Africa, while at the same time laying the much-needed groundwork for understanding certain reoccurring patterns of 19th century British colonization in Africa as a whole. But the genius of the monograph is the way in which she presents these significances and intricacies. There is definitively, a counterintuitive strain that runs throughout the book.

The work is called Igbo Women and Economic Transformation in Southeastern Nigeria, 1900-1960 (London. New York: Routledge February 2005). It is a very good starting point for anyone with serious considerations regarding Africa’s colonial past. As such it exposes why, despite over half a century after the decolonization movements of the 50’s and 60’s, the continent still seems so morally wedded to the idea of its own destruction.  It becomes increasing clear that what the continent has possibly been going through for the last sixty years is an African nihilism masquerading as a cry for help from the developed world.

Ms. Chuku’s study forces the reader to ask, why, at least for the last century-and-a-half of recorded history, have Africans been so profoundly attracted to or incapable of detaching themselves from political and economic policies that unabashedly seek to erode many aspects of their authentic tribal cultures and societies. The work is intellectually refreshing precisely because of this. It is not a temper tantrum against the West. In fact, in its very introduction, Chuku states that European colonization was not a zero-sum enterprise in which Europeans gained and Africans lost. British imperialism did in fact bring new economic opportunities to women especially in civil service fields such as teaching and nursing -- “some [women] assumed greater responsibilities as heads of households and breadwinners for their families”.

Although published during a time when the perennial vilification of white men was at its height, which coincidentally, helped make way for America’s first black president, the scholarship is honest. These days, and as chair and professor of the Africana Studies department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Ms. Chuku’s politics, at least outwardly, might very well be in line with writing and promoting glib diatribes against the West, American patriotism, Donald Trump, et. al.  This of course would be regrettable. Nevertheless, her extensive academic career and its fruits should be seriously examined by those who seek a critical and nuanced historical understanding of various African cultures from the early nineteenth century to present.

One more lasting impression of Chuku’s book: as opposed to a top-down or bottom-up view of colonial conquest and its aftermath that surprisingly continues to define so much of African post-colonial scholarship, she offers a view from the mid-way point by highlighting the importance of the many internal micro-imperialists that acted as collaborators, allowing  external macro-imperialists like Great Britain to take the lion’s share of the colonial spoils in Africa.

Readers are introduced to a variety of historically underrepresented perpetrators, such as the ubiquitous African “chief,” an indispensable character almost tailor-made by the British for the purposes of championing and enforcing the very policies that would eradicate so many necessary goods within his own society that would later be needed for the restoration of a coherent culture once the British left the scene in the decades to come. These chiefs and other African administrators created by the British colonial pattern would later become the despots, oligarchs, and plutocrats that we are all too familiar with littered across the continent today. In sections of her work, Chuku unequivocally rejects the idea that the imperial agents of Pax Britannica acted alone. No, there were African micro-aggressors, imperialists within their own right who sold their birthrights and those of their compatriots for a few silver coins.

All of this to get to the main point, and that is Ivanka Trump and Africa, specifically Africa’s women.

A little over three weeks ago, Ms. Trump arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to promote the Trump Administration’s Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (WGDP), which according to her, is a “whole-of-government approach to women’s economic empowerment in the developing world, and the goal is to empower 50 million women by 2025.”  Her four-day session in Africa also included a visit to the Ivory Coast.

With the help of one of the  WGDP’s main funding facilities, We-Fi, launched by the World Bank Group in 2017, Ivanka Trump’s campaign wants to target what she sees as the three vital complications that often stand in the way of the flourishing of women’s economic talent in the developing world. These are 1) an access to vocational education and skills training; 2) promotion of women entrepreneurs; 3) and “eliminating barriers and creating enabling environments so that women in the developing world are able to freely and fairly participate in the local economies.”

However, with this crusade, especially the efforts that will specifically target and challenge certain cultural norms of the societies in question (the third complication), it seems that Ivanka Trump is promoting a redux of the imperialism that helped to create many of the unsuccessful fiat cultures that currently exist throughout the continent.        

A century and a half ago, the cultural thought leaders of Victorian England essentially created the pattern, which is being used Africa today: they targeted women, created a dialectic that pitted the women against their own societies and traditions, and then offered solutions to the problem which often involved radical and disruptive change in the lives of the very people that they claimed to be helping. As scholars like Gloria Chuku point out, in the 1800’s what was being forced on African women was a rigorous British domesticity, but today it is a rigorous American corporatism.

The reality is there are many female entrepreneurs in Africa, but what the WGDP campaign wants is for African women to follow replicated corporate models — ones that we are familiar with as Americans. But why is a global pattern for women running small businesses necessary? Instead of pushing for the adaptation of contrived American-centric business models in Africa, shouldn’t those who are a part of the current Republican administration be celebrating the diversity of free-market economics across the globe regardless of what it looks like?

Anyone can google “African women in the marketplace” and hundreds of images of clothing designers, food vendors, hair stylists, petty traders, etc. will appear. These women operate their businesses in major African cities, townships and small villages. Especially in the non-Muslim regions of the continent, women make up the majority of small and mini-business owners. Anyone who has traveled to the various parts of Africa as a genuine tourist knows this.

And in terms of startup capital, there are actually a number of options that have always been on the table. Su-sus (or sou-sous) — rotating savings clubs where members agree to contribute a consistent amount of money to the “savings pot”, the whole of which will be available to them when their turn comes up; gifts of money from family members — husbands, adult children, or relatives living oversees; not to mention, micro loan financing programs often created and made available by other successful women business owners in the area are just a few of the tangible resources that are available to women who are serious about entrepreneurship as a way of pulling themselves and their families out of abject poverty. It’s actually rare, possibly even laughable, that most African women wanting to start up a business operation would look to their national governments for help, governments which they know are riddled with corruption. A decade ago the economist Dambisa Moyo, in her book Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa, recorded that on average aid recipients are at best only receiving only 20 cents on the dollar, whether funneled through private or government means.

Schemes like the WGDP also create new breeds of micro-imperialists. Like the collaborators of old, the new low-level bureaucrats (usually African women themselves), help to impose foreign cultural ideas such as population control, women working in far off and isolated corporate enterprises, and skills training, which redirects women away from the very thing that they were initially seeking to do — that is, making money. There is almost always a catch for women gaining access to “empowerment” funds, and it is almost always the traditional family structure that takes the hit.

The Trump administration needs to promote a more self-reliant and innovative narrative regarding its ties with black communities in Africa. The re-packaging of old and insipid ideas on business and industry is not what got Trump elected. Perhaps in due time, someone like Candace Owens will focus her Blexit offensive on African women. Government-backed progressivism isn’t working for black women here, so why should it do any better for women in Africa?          

Ivanka Trump’s recent trip to Africa to promote a women’s economic empowerment movement was misguided. This initiative echoes a colonial precedent that at times did more to hinder than help many of the entrepreneurial instincts of indigenous women in the continent. But most importantly, Ivanka Trump is directly advocating measures that have the potential to advance new and disastrous patterns on the traditional family structures of African societies.

Ivanka Trump in the Ivory Coast (VOA video screen grab, cropped)

A compelling scholarly work that gives credence to this proposition has been put forth by Professor Gloria Chuku. The work is a result of her decades-long research on African women and the ways in which 19th century Great Britain imposed rigid Victorian gender ideologies onto these women, radically changing their cultures. These ideologies also created colonial structures that sidelined their diverse economic talents and abilities.

According to Prof. Chuku, this Victorian rigidity tended to stress, protect and enhance the male-dominant elements within various West African societies while driving women’s participation in such key sectors as commerce and industry to the brink of extinction. The right place for these African women thus became almost solely within the home as good wives, mothers, and homemakers.

The culmination of this research is an excellent monograph on the history of Igbo women’s economic activities in the pre-colonial and colonial eras. Though focused on one tribal nation in what was to become southeastern Nigeria (Nigeria was formally created in 1914), it helps to explain how Britain’s far-reaching imperial initiatives undermined gender roles, free-market principles, and the traditional family unit in many parts of the continent.

For example, Chuku posits that with the cultivation and selling of certain crops such as palm nuts and cassava, British colonialism virtually destroyed women’s dominance in these key local industries. Instead, Igbo men became more interested in controlling agricultural markets that were now big business as a result of foreign mechanical production techniques, which increased crop output and brought commercialization. As women were often not the ones to travel far distances to sell products, their financial independence decreased, which often led to their inability to provide a host of resources for their own children.

It is very easy to see how this paradigm shift helped to promote the culture of poverty and dependence (with the images of starving African children) that we assume we understand when we think about Africa today. Professor Chuku documents how this same economic pattern hindered Igbo women in other local industries such as textiles and crafts. She provides a rich ethnographic account that exhorts the reader to examine the diverse significances and complexities of British imperial history in a particular region of Africa, while at the same time laying the much-needed groundwork for understanding certain reoccurring patterns of 19th century British colonization in Africa as a whole. But the genius of the monograph is the way in which she presents these significances and intricacies. There is definitively, a counterintuitive strain that runs throughout the book.

The work is called Igbo Women and Economic Transformation in Southeastern Nigeria, 1900-1960 (London. New York: Routledge February 2005). It is a very good starting point for anyone with serious considerations regarding Africa’s colonial past. As such it exposes why, despite over half a century after the decolonization movements of the 50’s and 60’s, the continent still seems so morally wedded to the idea of its own destruction.  It becomes increasing clear that what the continent has possibly been going through for the last sixty years is an African nihilism masquerading as a cry for help from the developed world.

Ms. Chuku’s study forces the reader to ask, why, at least for the last century-and-a-half of recorded history, have Africans been so profoundly attracted to or incapable of detaching themselves from political and economic policies that unabashedly seek to erode many aspects of their authentic tribal cultures and societies. The work is intellectually refreshing precisely because of this. It is not a temper tantrum against the West. In fact, in its very introduction, Chuku states that European colonization was not a zero-sum enterprise in which Europeans gained and Africans lost. British imperialism did in fact bring new economic opportunities to women especially in civil service fields such as teaching and nursing -- “some [women] assumed greater responsibilities as heads of households and breadwinners for their families”.

Although published during a time when the perennial vilification of white men was at its height, which coincidentally, helped make way for America’s first black president, the scholarship is honest. These days, and as chair and professor of the Africana Studies department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Ms. Chuku’s politics, at least outwardly, might very well be in line with writing and promoting glib diatribes against the West, American patriotism, Donald Trump, et. al.  This of course would be regrettable. Nevertheless, her extensive academic career and its fruits should be seriously examined by those who seek a critical and nuanced historical understanding of various African cultures from the early nineteenth century to present.

One more lasting impression of Chuku’s book: as opposed to a top-down or bottom-up view of colonial conquest and its aftermath that surprisingly continues to define so much of African post-colonial scholarship, she offers a view from the mid-way point by highlighting the importance of the many internal micro-imperialists that acted as collaborators, allowing  external macro-imperialists like Great Britain to take the lion’s share of the colonial spoils in Africa.

Readers are introduced to a variety of historically underrepresented perpetrators, such as the ubiquitous African “chief,” an indispensable character almost tailor-made by the British for the purposes of championing and enforcing the very policies that would eradicate so many necessary goods within his own society that would later be needed for the restoration of a coherent culture once the British left the scene in the decades to come. These chiefs and other African administrators created by the British colonial pattern would later become the despots, oligarchs, and plutocrats that we are all too familiar with littered across the continent today. In sections of her work, Chuku unequivocally rejects the idea that the imperial agents of Pax Britannica acted alone. No, there were African micro-aggressors, imperialists within their own right who sold their birthrights and those of their compatriots for a few silver coins.

All of this to get to the main point, and that is Ivanka Trump and Africa, specifically Africa’s women.

A little over three weeks ago, Ms. Trump arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to promote the Trump Administration’s Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (WGDP), which according to her, is a “whole-of-government approach to women’s economic empowerment in the developing world, and the goal is to empower 50 million women by 2025.”  Her four-day session in Africa also included a visit to the Ivory Coast.

With the help of one of the  WGDP’s main funding facilities, We-Fi, launched by the World Bank Group in 2017, Ivanka Trump’s campaign wants to target what she sees as the three vital complications that often stand in the way of the flourishing of women’s economic talent in the developing world. These are 1) an access to vocational education and skills training; 2) promotion of women entrepreneurs; 3) and “eliminating barriers and creating enabling environments so that women in the developing world are able to freely and fairly participate in the local economies.”

However, with this crusade, especially the efforts that will specifically target and challenge certain cultural norms of the societies in question (the third complication), it seems that Ivanka Trump is promoting a redux of the imperialism that helped to create many of the unsuccessful fiat cultures that currently exist throughout the continent.        

A century and a half ago, the cultural thought leaders of Victorian England essentially created the pattern, which is being used Africa today: they targeted women, created a dialectic that pitted the women against their own societies and traditions, and then offered solutions to the problem which often involved radical and disruptive change in the lives of the very people that they claimed to be helping. As scholars like Gloria Chuku point out, in the 1800’s what was being forced on African women was a rigorous British domesticity, but today it is a rigorous American corporatism.

The reality is there are many female entrepreneurs in Africa, but what the WGDP campaign wants is for African women to follow replicated corporate models — ones that we are familiar with as Americans. But why is a global pattern for women running small businesses necessary? Instead of pushing for the adaptation of contrived American-centric business models in Africa, shouldn’t those who are a part of the current Republican administration be celebrating the diversity of free-market economics across the globe regardless of what it looks like?

Anyone can google “African women in the marketplace” and hundreds of images of clothing designers, food vendors, hair stylists, petty traders, etc. will appear. These women operate their businesses in major African cities, townships and small villages. Especially in the non-Muslim regions of the continent, women make up the majority of small and mini-business owners. Anyone who has traveled to the various parts of Africa as a genuine tourist knows this.

And in terms of startup capital, there are actually a number of options that have always been on the table. Su-sus (or sou-sous) — rotating savings clubs where members agree to contribute a consistent amount of money to the “savings pot”, the whole of which will be available to them when their turn comes up; gifts of money from family members — husbands, adult children, or relatives living oversees; not to mention, micro loan financing programs often created and made available by other successful women business owners in the area are just a few of the tangible resources that are available to women who are serious about entrepreneurship as a way of pulling themselves and their families out of abject poverty. It’s actually rare, possibly even laughable, that most African women wanting to start up a business operation would look to their national governments for help, governments which they know are riddled with corruption. A decade ago the economist Dambisa Moyo, in her book Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa, recorded that on average aid recipients are at best only receiving only 20 cents on the dollar, whether funneled through private or government means.

Schemes like the WGDP also create new breeds of micro-imperialists. Like the collaborators of old, the new low-level bureaucrats (usually African women themselves), help to impose foreign cultural ideas such as population control, women working in far off and isolated corporate enterprises, and skills training, which redirects women away from the very thing that they were initially seeking to do — that is, making money. There is almost always a catch for women gaining access to “empowerment” funds, and it is almost always the traditional family structure that takes the hit.

The Trump administration needs to promote a more self-reliant and innovative narrative regarding its ties with black communities in Africa. The re-packaging of old and insipid ideas on business and industry is not what got Trump elected. Perhaps in due time, someone like Candace Owens will focus her Blexit offensive on African women. Government-backed progressivism isn’t working for black women here, so why should it do any better for women in Africa?