Twenty-five years ago in Kenya, I saw the male-female divide on public display. Beside a rural road, a woman struggled uphill, bent under a towering load of firewood. Just behind, her husband marched tall and proud, carrying only his walking stick.

My wife, Popie, and I saw this so often, we stopped commenting on it. Rural African women, we learned, worked incredibly hard, barely pausing from their daily labors to give birth to children. Girls and young women joined in seamlessly, caring for younger children and helping with endless chores. For rural men, the situation varied. Some left the farm for urban areas, looking for work and returning at intervals to their wives and families. Others stayed home and occupied themselves with "men's work," which included caring for animals. In many cases, however, the farms had been cut too small to give the men meaningful employment. At the nearest crossroads, you could find them sitting in a small group, talking, drinking, or just staring.

We couldn't help noticing that the women seemed generally happier than the men, even though they had the short end of the stick. Hefting their burdens or bent over in the fields, they worked in groups, chatting together, sometimes laughing. The idle men seemed bored and depressed, alienated and isolated. Alcohol plagued many. I came up with this summary: "Women are oppressed; men are depressed."

Overseas humanitarian agencies have done a marvelous job of dealing with the first issue. But they are the first to acknowledge that the second is a continuing and serious obstacle to development.

Targeting Women

I would not make light of what women suffer. In some places girls never make it to birth—they are aborted for the crime of being female. In many places, they are deprived of an education. Since boys are valued more, girls often get less to eat and suffer disproportionately from malnutrition and disease. Men often beat their women. Girls may be sexually abused, or genitally mutilated in a misguided effort to keep them sexually pure. Double standards are common. A woman involved in an illicit relationship may be killed, shunned, or otherwise severely punished; the man may suffer no recriminations at all. In some parts of the world, girls are subjected to sexual slavery, "sold" by their parents. Women's workloads seem unending: raising children, keeping the house, and serving as a beast of burden. If they work outside the home, they are still expected to carry on with domestic burdens. Men impregnate them and then abandon them.

Article continues below

So it is only natural that humanitarian groups target women. Not only are women the poorest of the poor, but women are often more responsive than men. If women get a little more money, they will generally spend it productively—on food for the children, on school fees, on some way to improve family life. Poor men who get a little extra money often drink it up. Worse, if they get their hands on the women's money, they drink it up, and the children go hungry. That's what happened to a chicken co-op in Ecuador that my church gave money to start. The project thrived for a time, but then the men of the village got into the profits. Now there are only empty chicken coops.

Last summer Popie and I visited World Vision development projects in South Africa. One was led by a remarkably energetic woman named Pumla. A resident of a poor semi-rural village, a place of shacks and of families ravaged by AIDS, Pumla started a preschool in a broken-down double-decker bus. She had little education, and she was as poor as anyone else in the village. But she had gumption and initiative. She saw the children running wild and thought something should be done. The preschool sheltered the children and prepared them for school. Applying for help to various international agencies, Pumla managed to expand her efforts into a broad-based community organization now supported by World Vision donors.

Short, vivacious, bubbling with laughter, Pumla was obviously a natural born leader. She was not alone, however. Many women have risen up to work with her in various development projects. Though they have little education and exposure to the world, these women bring talent and initiative to sewing and craft projects, agricultural initiatives, and school programs. "We are not helping because we are employed," Pumla said. "We are helping because we have been helped, and now we are ready to help others."

However, as we visited these various projects, men seemed hardly to exist. We saw exactly none engaged in the work. We saw plenty sitting or staring from the margins.

"Men will join," Pumla said unapologetically when I asked her, "but they won't stay. Men want to get money now. When it comes to commitment and patience, men don't have it."

When school let out, we saw many adolescent boys in neat school blazers heading home, talking, jostling, full of good spirits. What future do they have? The high unemployment rate means that few regular jobs await them. They have few male role models.

Article continues below

Development expert Frances Cleaver writes in the 2001 article "Do Men Matter?": "With a few notable exceptions, men are rarely explicitly mentioned in gender policy documents [from humanitarian organizations]. Where men do appear, they are generally seen as obstacles to women's development: Men must surrender their positions of dominance for women to become empowered. The superiority of women as hard working, reliable, trustworthy, socially responsible, caring, and cooperative is often asserted; whilst men on the other hand are frequently portrayed as lazy, violent, promiscuous, and irresponsible drunkards."

Manfred Grellert, long-term World Vision vice president for Latin America, told me, "It's a little idealistic to imagine mom and dad and kids in a perfect nuclear family. You cannot bring change on the micro level when macro forces are in control." Development workers tend to be practical people. They don't deal with ideal conditions, and they rarely imagine they will create a model community out of the poverty and dysfunction they face every day. So development workers do what they can, which often means they help mothers.

What's Wrong with Men?

One of the hottest techniques in development is micro-enterprise development (MED). In micro-credit schemes, small loans are given to individuals and cooperative groups. The literature of MED is full of inspiring stories of small loans used to buy a sewing machine, or leather to make into belts, or 50 chickens, or a gas-operated flour mill. A minuscule investment can enable a small-scale home industry to support the family.

According to Microcredit Summit president Sam Daley-Harris, 82 percent of these loans worldwide go to women. Often the lending organizations specifically target women, because women are more likely than men to repay, and more likely to use the profits for the good of the family.

"Ensuring that women are 70-80 percent of the borrowers from a particular scheme may sound positive," notes Sandy Ruxton in an Oxfam book, Gender Equality and Men, "but in practice, the project may cause women to increase their workloads in order to achieve repayment, and cause anger and resentment among men, who believe their traditional livelihoods are being undermined."

That is the situation described by Eastern University professor of economic development Connie Ostwald. Visiting a women's fishing co-op in Mexico, she found their men furious that women were stepping into their territory.

Article continues below

The following case comes from a 1993 evaluation report of the Uganda Women's Finance and Credit Trust:

Edith is married, with seven children. She acquired a loan in 1992, for two in-calf heifers and for the construction of a small cowshed. She planted napier grass to feed the cows. Edith started off very well, but problems started when her husband instructed her to go back to his workshop. She could no longer take care of the cows, and eventually she lost one of them. She had discussions with her husband on this, but he insisted that she should remain in the workshop. Edith was eventually chased away from her home by her husband. She had to find shelter for herself and her seven children. The husband claimed the cows as his so she was not allowed to take them.

After some months, with the help of in-laws, Edith's husband called her back. But he had already sold the roofing sheets and construction materials of the cowshed, and all grass was gone. She got pregnant again, and now the husband has decided to live with another wife. Edith's project is in a shambles.

What is wrong with men? Several things, actually. Many cultural traditions teach that women are negligible servants of men, to be used at their pleasure. Many traditions grant men power that has nothing to do with responsibility—a right and duty to domination that comes with an extra chromosome.

Tradition is only part of the problem, however. In poor communities, some part of the social fabric has usually torn. Often employment has vanished, due to larger economic changes—factories and mines closed, cash agriculture grown unprofitable. If men are animal herdsmen, barbed wire may have eliminated the places where their animals once grazed. Perhaps their farms have been divided and subdivided so that only an acre of land remains. Such economic changes often affect men more drastically than women. While women retain a large share of their identity as mothers and providers of food and home, men must negotiate an entirely new role.

"The minute the man's dignity is eroded," says Doug McConnell, dean of Fuller Seminary's School of Intercultural Studies, "you get fight or flight. They either fly away to the cities, or they stay and become violent." In cities they find rampant pleasures, but little community. Absent from their wives and children, they become alienated from them. Violence is common. So are sexually transmitted diseases. Men may bring both home to their families.

"Women are oppressed; men are depressed." I tried out my formula on Fatuma Hashi, World Vision's director of gender and development. She seemed taken aback, and intrigued, that I would describe men as depressed. "We tend to see them only as oppressors," she said. "What is wrong with men? That's the question we always ask. Why, when they see their family in terrible need, why do they drink, womanize, beat their wives?"

Article continues below

Then she said an interesting thing. "Unless you change the heart of the men, you won't see development. Unless you transform people inside, I don't think any development will succeed. Transformational development, that's our goal. The core is how you transform people's hearts." She spoke of Scripture challenging culture, making men rethink the value of women as equally valuable in the sight of God.

McConnell described an urban squatter community in New Guinea. "Among the men who got saved, we saw a substantial and systematic regaining of responsibility, contributing to the family, taking care of their children. There is nothing more impactful and transformational than a relationship with Christ."

Men Don't Want to be Fixed

Cultures vary tremendously around the globe. In some poverty-afflicted places, families remain intact—men and women stick together cooperatively. In other places, when women increase their power and income it actually improves their relationships with men. Sam Daley-Harris describes a co-op in South Asia where women built businesses through small loans. They not only offered their day-laborer husbands better work, but created a scarcity of day labor that caused wages for men to rise generally. Other researchers note that when women's economic power increases, their husbands sometimes respect them more.

More commonly, though, relations between poverty-afflicted men and women get strained. In the specialized literature of development, "gender and development" is a hot topic, with increasing interest in how to reach men. A paper from the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs notes that "permanent results call for a change of attitudes in the entire community. Special women's projects are still needed, but care must be taken that the whole community, men included, can accept the projects and give them their full support."

Sandy Ruxton quotes Sylvia Chant and Matthew Guttman to the effect that men must be encouraged toward responsible fatherhood. Otherwise, "development policy and practice will be obliged to continue its current focus on salvage operations which aim to enable women to bring up their children alone."

Article continues below

Development theorists are a long way from knowing how to involve men, however. Many approach men with consciousness-raising workshops. The approaches seem westernized and condescending. One model program is described this way: "A unique feature … has been to sensitize men to violence as a feature of masculine socialization harmful to men as well as women and to recognize that repression of emotion often underlies violence." You couldn't get men in my highly sensitized northern California town to attend such a program. I doubt macho men in Colombia will go for it.

As some of the literature notes, men are not anxious to be "fixed." Janet Brown, writing on "Fatherwork in the Caribbean," warns against treating men from a "role-deficit" perspective. Others note that men are prickly about having their fatherhood measured against some ideal standard.

Sometimes men do change, however. Sometimes their wives help them reassess their relationship to their families. Sometimes their daughters do. When they see their flesh and blood stymied by oppressive male attitudes, they may become willing to reassess their own attitudes and actions.

They need a rationale for change—an argument they can use with men who question their masculinity. A trivial example: An African friend of mine confessed to me that he often made breakfast for the family. But please, he insisted, do not tell any of our mutual friends what I do. He feared they would think that he had compromised his male splendor. I have an idea that many of his friends had "compromised" in similar ways—but all in secret. They needed a way to state publicly that they were proud to serve in the kitchen.

A rural church I visited in Kenya has had outstanding success involving both men and women in development projects. Part of the reason, their leader explained, is that they demand male responsibility. If a young man is loitering at the shopping center, wasting time, the church elders approach his father and say, "The Bible says that a man should discipline his children. Why is your son loitering?" Not only do the sons come home to work, the fathers gain a sense of significance.

Daniel Rickett, research director for Geneva Global, which advises wealthy donors how to invest in ministry in the developing world, notes that many development projects involve small-scale, home-based interventions, which are naturally closer to women's realms. "To some extent, what development agencies offer is designed for women, and it is working," Rickett says. "To serve the family, women are the key. But to serve communities, men are the key." Rickett says that different starting points are more likely to engage men—for instance, land rights, or larger-scale business enterprises. "If we are actually going to do community development, men have to be part of that. The work has to be designed for men in terms of what's important to them."

Article continues below

Though secular agencies usually avoid pronouncing on the moral importance of families, Christians will have no doubt. Fostering families, encouraging unity and mutual respect, is a good thing in itself, and it holds the additional promise of economic progress. I admire development initiatives that target women. It is only fair and right that girls go to school; that girls eat as well as boys; that women be free from abuse; that female children not be aborted. Anything done to boost women in poor communities is good. But those who aim to help a community become healthy—not merely survive from year to year—will want more. As a purely practical matter, development that involves mainly one sex can transform life only so far.

Tim Stafford is a senior writer for Christianity Today, and author of Never Mind the Joneses: Building Core Christian Values in a Way That Fits Your Family (InterVarsity, 2004).

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.