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BLUE SMOKE: A monthly column, from PassBlue and UNA–UK, spotlighting senior appointments at the UN

The UN’s First Feminist, Peg Snyder, Describes Her Brilliant Career


Peg Snyder
Peg Snyder, the founding director in 1978 of Unifem, which has become UN Women, in her apartment in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of Manhattan, decorated with art she collected from her many years in East Africa. DULCIE LEIMBACH

As the Commission on the Status of Women convenes to tackle 21st-century feminist issues, Margaret Snyder — “Peg” to almost everyone who has met her — can take a long view of the history of women in the United Nations system, the hurdles they overcame and the changes they have made. Best known as the founding director in 1978 of Unifem, or the UN Development Fund for Women, now folded into UN Women, Snyder was by then a recognized international expert on girls and women in the economic development of Africa.

She has since been an assistant director of East African studies at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, a Fulbright scholar in Uganda and a visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Snyder, who holds a master’s degree in sociology from the Catholic University of America and a Ph.D. in that field from the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, is the author of “Women in African Economics: From Burning Sun to Boardroom” and (with Mary Tadesse) “African Women and Development: A History.”

A legend among pioneering women in the UN at 87 years old, Peg Snyder is still traveling and speaking to promote the economic progress of women. Here, in her own words, she writes about her life. — BARBARA CROSSETTE

My UN career began at the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa 45 years ago. I was hired to design a five-year program to implement 1960s resolutions adopted by African women at five regional conferences sponsored by the UN and the commission, with support from the Swedish development agency. I was the first to be hired. I had worked with women in Kenya on two national women’s seminars and one East African women’s seminar, where women defined how they wanted to participate in their soon-to-be independent countries.

The Danish agricultural economist Ester Boserup had just published her book “Women’s Role in Economic Development,” based on research in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It became an overnight best-seller among UN staff and academics because Boserup was widely respected internationally for her earlier book on agriculture. Her credibility, plus that of the Nobel laureate economist Sir Arthur Lewis, then president of the Caribbean Development Bank, coincided with the appointment of Helvi Sipila, the UN’s first female assistant secretary-general and a Finn.

In 1972, these luminaries led the UN’s first pathbreaking global expert meeting on women and economic development. Boserup and Lewis made the issue respectable and influential among governments during the UN’s first Decade of Development. The Economic Commission for Africa’s five-year program that I presented at that meeting was welcomed as a possible instrument for transforming policies of the UN and governments into actions.

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The Mexico City world conference on women in 1975, in International Women’s Year, was a logical follow-up to the Boserup-Lewis event. Attendance in Nairobi — 5,000 at the government conference and 6,000 at the parallel NGO [nongovernment organization] tribune — broke UN records and alerted governments to women’s potential.

At that time, the UN was highly respected in “third world” countries, as they were called. The Africa commission used that global stature to strengthen its own economic development mission. And the founding of the African Training and Research Center for Women followed. So yes, I found the global conferences helpful in spreading the word and celebrating women’s activities as central to national growth and equity. And they created networks.

To my knowledge, neither African nor donor governments were negative about the work of the African Training and Research Center, which attracted program resources from Western countries, foundations and NGOs. African governments were eager to host our activities.

For example: Itinerant training workshops, led by FAO agriculturalists, were hosted by 24 countries for government and NGO rural training leaders by 1977; national commissions on women and women’s bureaus in governments were featured at an Africa-wide seminar in Morocco in 1971, and as a follow-up, teams composed of an African woman, an Economic Commission representative and a representative from a women’s bureau (often the US or Canada) visited 17 countries in the 1970s. In addition, 30 national commissions and bureaus were created by governments by the end of the 1980s.

To close an information gap, national bibliographies on women in development were commissioned and, for the first time, data from a whole region — Africa — were compiled and analyzed in a database and articles were published in Canadian and American academic journals. These activities were welcomed by African governments eager to be involved, due at least in part to the African training center’s location in the Economic Commission for Africa, with the result that we could cite the backing of member states and speak in the name of the United Nations.

But the African Training and Research Center for Women created quite a stir in the African commission, and some senior staff attempted to exile it out of the UN to a member state. A review mission of government and donor representatives put this notion to rest with its observation that the center’s effectiveness had attracted many donor agencies, and that this success appeared “to threaten less progressive elements of the bureaucracy.”

Grass-roots women’s organizations became visible globally at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, but they have existed locally and often nationally for decades and even centuries. Women have always joined forces to help each other.

Ela Bhatt, the gentle, visionary founder of India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association, with its more than one million members, explains why grass-roots groups exist: “Organization is the answer for those who are weak economically or socially.”

When I worked in Kenya in the early 1960s, rural women had created 5,000 nursery centers under trees, in churches or other buildings. At the Nairobi 1985 International Conference on Women, many delegates visited the countryside to plant trees with the Green Belt Movement or pump water with Kwaho, a water-for-health NGO. In Peru in the late 1970s, community kitchens (comedores populares) and glass-of-milk groups were created by women from the countryside as means of survival for their families in slums. These were collective answers to the food supply problem. There were some 6,000 comedores in Lima by the early 1980s.

In Burkina Faso, women who gathered and processed shea nuts into shea butter formed cooperatives, with strategic support from Unifem, to buy equipment and sell their butter to the beauty products company L’Occitane of France in the 1980s. L’Occitane still helps some 17,000 producers every year by giving all their profits on International Women’s Day to literacy training and microcredit. In 2014, the company gave these women 142,000 euros [about $160,000].

In India, a sericulture project had 300 women who grew mulberry trees with vegetables planted between them, fed the mulberry leaves to the silkworms and sold them for silk production, using the income for family food and school needs. But an early evaluation revealed a classic situation: while income targets had been met, cash crops were replacing food crops, children were malnourished and alcoholism rose dramatically among men and women. Not for the first time, the income from what had been intended as a women’s activity was hijacked by husbands. Advice from the Indian evaluator corrected the situation.

My own experience of 11 years establishing and directing Unifem was based on our original mandate after Mexico. The fund was to finance activities of rural and poor urban women through “innovative and experimental activities.”

When Unifem morphed into UN Women, the bulk of its human and monetary resources — comprising more than 90 percent of the initial assets of UN Women — were, I understand, diverted. Its mandate to support innovative and experimental activities of rural and poor urban women was set aside and many additional staff were hired. Only a small fund — the Fund for Gender Equality — remains. In fact, the word “fund” disappeared in UN Women’s title — and was replaced by “entity.”

While admitting the real possibility that I am biased, it would seem that for a relatively small organization, resources might most effectively be invested in innovative and experimental activities in our profoundly changed world. How can technology help? Raising women’s economic independence has a transforming potential for women, their families and their countries. What are the policy and practical factors that prevent women from fulfilling their potential? What structural and/or economic and social change is needed? These are some of the questions to ask.

Peg Snyder with a community worker in Tanzania in 1989. Whether in India, Peru, Kenya or elsewhere, economic autonomy for women was and still is critical, she says.

Where are the rural and poor urban women of today who would be the recipients of Unifem assistance? They are still there, in grass-roots groups in rural areas, in the slums of cities and in refugee camps.

In my time, changes in the UN system were needed because the women asked that we give support directly to their groups rather than taking the tedious route through governments. After much bureaucratic discussion with UN accountants, two changes transformed development cooperation: support could be given directly to grass-roots NGO groups, and community-owned and managed revolving credit funds could be created, later called microcredit.

When I retired from Unifem in 1989, I thought of writing the history of its first 15 years. Then the Ethiopian gal who had taken over from me at the Economic Commission for Africa in Addis, Mary Tadesse, visited, and said that we had to do something together, namely to write the history of the African Training and Research Center for Women. So with grants from Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and a visiting fellowship at Princeton in 1992-93 at the Woodrow Wilson School, where all my documents from the Economic Commission and Unifem are now archived, Mary Tadesse and I wrote “African Women and Development: A History” and “Transforming Development: Women, Poverty and Politics.”

At Princeton, I saw a Fulbright brochure asking for applicants to a new women’s studies program for M.A. candidates at Makerere University in Uganda. I applied and became a scholar in the 1993-95 academic years. I wrote a book while there, “Women in African Economies: From Burning Sun to Boardroom,” about Ugandan women entrepreneurs, from market women to large-scale merchants. After that, with a small UNDP [UN Development Program] grant, a group of us here in New York researched and wrote “Liberian Women Peacemakers: Fighting for the Right to Be Seen, Heard and Counted.”

In late 2006, my former Unifem colleague Dr. Thelma Awori, who headed UNDP’s Africa bureau, and other friends of the new Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, organized the Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund, which honors Africa’s first elected female president and assists Liberia to restore community markets and provide education and financial support to market women after 14 years of civil war in the country.

I’m a member of the board of the Green Belt Movement International, which supports Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, founded by [the late] Wangari Maathai, Africa’s first female Nobel laureate, which received its first major grant in about 1980 from Unifem, then called the Voluntary Fund for the Decade for Women. It was about $120,000. Wangari said that she “never saw so much money in her life!”

She had had trouble with the Kenya forestry department, which said that one needed a degree to plant trees, so only foresters could plant trees. Here in New York, we had the same kind of resistance from the forestry expert who reviewed the Kenya proposal and said that we should not finance it. We decided that all those foresters didn’t know that women were farmers who produced more than half of the family food!

Along the way, I was an international election observer in 1992 in Ethiopia; 1995 in Tanzania; 1996 in Uganda; and 2000 in Zanzibar. Last year, I resumed active membership in the African Studies Association and was invited to do the keynote speech at the annual luncheon of its women’s caucus, talking about the interrelationships between the global women’s movement and the UN.

What has changed at the Commission on the Status of Women? An obvious one is the discussion and action around violence against women. It wasn’t much discussed in the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps because it is personal and individual in nature, although it has global resonance across cultures. I remember being asked at the African Training and Research Center to take up the issue of female genital cutting [FGM]. Consultations among our predominantly African staff concluded that while it was terribly important, FGM should initially be discussed as a health issue, and they asked the World Health Organization to lead the way. With that start, it became a global issue.

Another issue that was not widely discussed in those early days was migration. Women were migrating, but usually within their own countries due to drought and hunger — children’s health and well-being tugged at women’s heartstrings. But international migration of the scale and danger that exists today was unknown.

At both the African training center and Unifem, our major concerns were economic development and political participation. Neither Unicef nor UNFPA [UN Population Fund] — the UN funds whose mandates are directed to women — prioritized these issues. Whether in India or Peru or Kenya, economic autonomy was critical. I believe it still is, and I’m pleased to see the issues discussed in UN Women’s “Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016” and that they are given top priority by the appointment of the UN secretary-general’s high-level panel on women’s economic empowerment. We must watch both, to ensure that they actually cause the change that will move our world further toward economic and social justice.

At the 1985 world conference in Nairobi, Bradford Morse, then the administrator of the United Nations Development Program, said it concisely: To fail to pay attention to women’s productive activities is “not only morally indefensible but economically absurd.”


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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The UN’s First Feminist, Peg Snyder, Describes Her Brilliant Career
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