The tragedies of unintended consequences

I think (no promises, though!) that this will be my last post related to my thoughts on Half the Sky. And it’s really only tangentially related to the book, but it has stuck with me for the past couple of weeks.

Early in the book (p. 17), the authors tell the story of Senator Tom Harkin’s effort in the early 1990s to do something about child sweatshop labor in Bangladesh. Alarmed by what he had learned about the plight of girl laborers there, he introduced legislation that would have banned imports made by workers under age 14. The legislation didn’t even advance, but, in reaction to its introduction, the factories that employed young workers (many of them girls) fired tens of thousands of them. Advocates on the ground believe that many of them ended up in brothels, with many of those now dead of AIDS.

Then, in The Blue Sweater, there’s another unintended consequences story that’s equally dramatic. In Rwanda, the parliament tried to address the practice of ‘bride price’, which essentially reduced women to property, as their husbands viewed that their wives had a responsibility to ‘work off’ the price that had been paid for them. Afraid of the political consequences of eliminating the practice altogether, women’s rights advocates in Parliament succeeded in reducing the bride price to something merely symbolic. As they celebrated, though, rural women were outraged; now, they felt that their “value” had been degraded overnight.

My mind keeps returning to these stories in part because I know Senator Harkin a little bit. He has a terrific legislative record in standing up for communities at risk and advancing social justice, and he has been a real ally for social work causes in Congress. He did what we wish all members of Congress would do, right? He found out about an injustice and he tried to use his power and influence to do something about it. If everyone used his/her authority with a similar sense of global responsibility, our world would look much different. And the measure in Rwanda was led primarily by forward-thinking WOMEN members of Parliament, who were bucking their own male-dominated society to try to address policy matters of concern to women in the first place.


But we can’t deny the reality of the impact that this particular legislation had, nor, unfortunately, its rather predictable nature. The more I’m learning, the more that it seems obvious to grassroots workers (including former sex slaves and other survivors) that, without other, viable economic alternatives, forced sexual slavery would be the likely avenue to which those pushed out of sweatshop labor would be pushed. To them, it was tragically foreseeable; to a U.S. Senator understandably outraged by 9-year-olds producing goods for U.S. consumption, it was a devastating lesson in the limits of economic sanctions. And, given that the Rwandan measure did not address the underlying inequities facing rural women at all, it’s pretty understandable that, if they’re going to be purchased, they’d rather that it be for a high price than a low one.

But this post isn’t about Senator Harkin. Or about Rwanda. Not really. And it’s not even about sweatshop labor, or the strategy of selective boycotts (only advised when called for by folks on the ground, by the way), or about sexual slavery or traditional practices that insitutionalize injustice for women.

It’s about process.

About how we make social policy, and about how to avoid these kinds of unintended consequences, not by collecting better data or designing better oversight, but by bringing policymaking closer to those who are impacted by it, where the consequences about which we’re concerned are not so surprising after all.

There will always be unknowns, especially in social policy, where we’re dealing with the variables of human behavior and the permutations of future contexts. But I believe that we can minimize the number of truly tragic unintended consequences by finding ways to integrate the lived experiences of those affected by the social problem into the decision-making arena. That doesn’t mean ‘policymaking by anecdote’. It means changing how people get elected, so that we have more actual representation by those directly affected by the problems they’re addressing. And it means grassroots organizing and lobbying to build relationships that can serve as reality checks and accountability measures for those in power. And it means a different approach to social problems in the first place, that understands their complexity and addresses them at the root (in this case, poverty and gender inequality) rather than in one of their many manifestations.

That’s tougher policymaking, for sure. It takes longer, and it’s ‘messier’, and it doesn’t sound as good on a press release. But it’s not only more likely to get us where we want to go, which we certainly need in this context of scarce resources and abundant need; it’s also less likely to take us to where we never even knew to fear we might end up.

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