By Cynthia Enloe
There are so many times in life when one finds one lacks the relevant skills to make sense of, and to grapple effectively with a pressing condition. That repeated realization has made me think about skills – and what “counts” as a skill, and who gets to do the “counting.”
Feminists working in war zones have learned to be skeptical about who defines what ability as a “skill.” They have learned – and taught the rest of us – that, for instance, the capacity to persuade mutually hostile neighbors and the opposing men with guns to agree to dismantle a local check point so that trucks carrying needed humanitarian aid can get through is a skill. It is a skill that requires not the ability to muster firepower, but, instead, the skills of trust-building and respectful persuasion. Most of the people with guns or commanding (and paying) the people with guns refuse to see those as skills, much less as crucial skills.
For patriarchal commanders, warlords and their civilian sponsors and allies, it is easier to denigrate those capacities by sweeping them under the hems of femininity. Those local trust-building check-point dismantlers – so often women – are not, these patriarchally dismissive people claim, skilled; they are imagined to be just doing what women “naturally” do, talking to neighbors, caring for family members. Any capacity that can be dismissed as “natural” can be discounted as a skill. In this impoverish imagining, the relevantly skilled person likewise can be dismissed; she can be ignored, seen as a person not equipped to be a fashioner of the long-range solution.
Thus I read the WILPF “Covid-19” series contribution by Genevieve Riccoboni with special interest. She described how Sylvie Ndongmo and her Cameroonian feminist colleagues went about using trust-building skills they had developed in the grassroots peace activism to conduct an anti-Covid-19 public health campaign. These Cameroonian feminist activists had found that in both curtailing collective violence and addressing a pandemic, people needed to learn to trust each other and, when worthy, to trust the government’s health officials.
Right now, in the middle of this globalizing coronavirus pandemic, we – all of us – need to be equipped with, and to imagine new skills. To not just get us through this pandemic, but to successfully reorder our local, national and international relationships so that we are prepared for the next pandemic – and the next natural disaster, the next climate change catastrophe, and the next outbreak of armed conflict – we need women and men equipped with these newly valued skills. Those relevantly skilled women and men need to be allocated sufficient resources and authority. Those patriarchal people who continue to dismiss these relevant skills as “merely feminine” need to be moved out of the way; by their ignorant dismissiveness, they have proved themselves to be irrelevant to this historic moment.
The alleged skills that many of the people now in senior political and economic posts are conventionally seen to possess do not match the challenges of this historic moment. They are the skills of protecting state and corporate interests, winning and staying in office, maximizing profits, escaping accountability and coming out on top. These conventionally rewarded skills are not the skills that will restore global health safety, prevent armed conflict, sustain the environment and equitably distribute economic security.
Ask any hedge fund CEO, ask any bank director, ask any general, ask any political party leader, ask any finance minister, ask any electoral strategist – what skills do you bring to this global pandemic moment? Very, very few of them with a straight face will be able to answer: skills of complex information collection and absorption, skills of multi-dimensional care, skills of empathetic imagination and expression, skills of localized trust building, skills of gender equity creation, and skills of non-nationalist, anti-militarized solidarity-building.
We are facing today’s multi-dimensional global challenge with glaringly unskilled people in power in too many countries and in too many transnational commercial and multilateral institutions. This is not to say we don’t have people – scores of them, many of them feminists – equipped with precisely these skills that this historic moment demands. We do. Now we must take action to insure that it is those relevantly skilled people who are in charge, locally, nationally and internationally.