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Profiles: Snyder and Tadesse

By Elizabeth Banks | 2023




Key works

1. Margaret Snyder, Transforming Development: Women, Poverty and Politics (1995) 

2. Margaret Snyder and Mary Tadesse, African Women and Development: A History (London: Zed Books, 1995)

3. Margaret Snyder, Women in African Economies: from Burning Sun to Boardroom. (Kampala, Uganda: Fountain Publishers, 2000) 

4. Margaret Snyder and Sarah Kitakule, Above the Odds: a Decade of Change for Ugandan Women Entrepreneurs (Africa World Press, 2010) 

5. UN ECA, ‘Women: The Neglected Human Resource for African Development’, Canadian Journal of African Studies 6, no. 2 (1972): 359–70 

6. Margaret Snyder, “Women and economic development” (Addis Ababa: UN ECA, 1978)  

7. Daria Tesha, “The situation of young women in African countries: an overview, (Addis Ababa: UN ECA)

8. Daria Tesha, “Issues and problems involved in the quetion of the integration of women in development,” (Addis Ababa: UN ECA, 1977)

9. Daria Tesha, “Report of the implementation of project skill development for out-of-school girls through non-formal education” (Addis Ababa: UN ECA, 1982)

10. Economic Commission for Africa, Reports of the Regional Meeting on the Role of Women in National Development, Addis Ababa, 17-26 March 1969 



Margaret Snyder (1929-2021) and Mary Tadesse (1932-), trained in sociology and social work, were international economic thinkers who helped develop and disseminate ideas regarding the centrality of women to economic development. 

The pair met while working together at the UN Regional Commission for Africa’s (UNECA) African Training and Research Centre for Women (ATRCW) during the 1970s. Here, they argue in a co-authored book, they and their mostly female colleagues “created the concept of women’s centrality to development that would later inspire a transnational movement.”[1] According to their telling, they and their team developed these ideas from their on-the-ground work with African women early on and independently from “northern” thinkers, such as Ester Boserup, whose seminal work Woman's Role in Economic Development helped spur the inclusion of women in economic planning worldwide.

While the women and development approach likely had many origins, the work of Snyder, Tadesse and their colleagues reveals a hidden, distinct thread of international economic thinking that had a profound effect on the ideas, practices, personnel, and policies involved in women’s economic and development planning in the UN and beyond. This thread of international economic thinking was developed at UNECA--the regional commission most overlooked in histories of the UN; it valued collective and collaborative work, and it contributed to the movement of women’s economic ideas from global south to global north and back again. 


Becoming International Economic Thinkers 

Snyder was born in Syracuse, NY, in 1929 in a Catholic family. She graduated from the College of New Rochelle before gaining a master’s degree in sociology from the Catholic University of America, and later, after several years’ work in the US, Tanganyika, and Uganda, completed a PhD in sociology at the University of Dar es Salaam. At this time, Dar’s university – like Dar itself – was a vibrant city, filled with leftists, anti-colonialists and activists of many stripes.[2] In 1971, she moved to Addis Ababa to co-found what would become the ATRCW. After seven years, she moved to New York City to set up the UN Development Fund for Women, now called UN Women, where she stayed until 1989. 

Tadesse spent her early years in Addis Ababa before moving to Cairo and then London for her education. She completed a social work degree at the LSE before undertaking additional studies in sociology and economics elsewhere in the University of London system. She returned to Ethiopia in 1956 where she worked for the Ministry of Education, rising to be the vice minister for education and cultural affairs. After the revolution in 1974, Tadesse was dismissed from her position. In 1975, she began a short-term contract at the ATRCW at UNECA, where one of her first tasks was the collection of data that could be used to inform policies aimed at improving women’s lives. Her contract was renewed, and renewed, and renewed, allowing her to keep working for the Centre for years. The fact that, like many women in the international system, she remained on short-term contracts of less than a year left her with a sense of precarity. She was the only wage earner in her family. The suspense continued even after Tadesse took over as Centre director when Snyder moved to New York. She finally gained a more stable contract in 1988, just four years before she retired and moved to the US.[3]


International Economic Thinking at the African Training and Research Center for Women

The UNECA’s women’s program--which would later become the ATRCW--was founded in 1971 thanks to a small grant that paid for two staff members. These were Margaret Snyder, and Daria Tesha, a Tanzanian. 

One of the first tasks of the new center was the collection of data regarding women’s economic and social life. The gathering of statistics gave way to more in-depth research, monitoring, and evaluation as well as training programs and conferences for women from across Africa. The Centre was committed to development programs that approached women as active economic agents rather than only as wives and mothers. In the African context, the staff especially focused on women’s work as farmers, entrepreneurs, and merchants, which were common and traditional occupations for women.

Their approaches found expression in a 1972 article, “Women: The Neglected Human Resource for African Development.”[4] This paper was published under the collective authorship of the Human Resources Development Division at the UNECA, which was the institutional home of the Women’s Program Unit that eventually became the ATRCW. The Unit’s conferences are referenced within the article itself and, moreover, Snyder makes clear in a separate piece that the ideas within reflect the later work of the Centre. 


This piece argues that most development planners fail to take women’s economic roles into account when planning their programs, with the result that the transformations achieved lag behind the true potential. The problem is not ‘tradition’, they argue, since women have traditionally worked in productive capacities and since men tend to prefer their wives to contribute to the household income. Rather, the authors warn that a modern contemporary reliance on technological or large solutions that are coded as male overlooks women’s labor and economic activity as a “resource” for national development. This tendency fails to improve women’s lives as national economies grow and, in some cases, even damages women’s economic prospects by disrupting their traditional activities in agriculture and commerce. Industrial development, they argue, was not necessarily good for women, as the benefits of large-scale modernist interventions were unequally distributed between the genders. 

The terms of this argument are significant; it stresses women’s traditional roles as economic actors. Women were always there, the Center pointed out, always performing economic labor, you just have to pay attention. They do not claim modernity and progress as women’s economic salvation, but argue for attention to women’s economic life, as well as equal access to training programs for women and girls, in “recognition of their traditional roles both in the home and in the economy.”[5] This position reflects a certain stance in post-colonial debates that played out in political cultures across the continent over the claim that one can both be African and Modern, and that embracing new practices did not rupture one’s identity. It is also notable that the argument for greater attention to women in development is articulated in terms of women as a lost economic resource, rather than on the grounds of equality or improving women’s lives. Perhaps this rhetoric reveals a commitment to efficiency and growth as the primary markers of economic and social progress that underlay UN ECA’s work, and women’s choice to evoke it perhaps represents a strategy of more probable success. Either way, the emphasis on women’s work as tradition rather than progress was a key concept that held power. 


It's important to note that the ATRCW was the one section of UNECA where women could most readily find employment. While western women already found the international organizations to be a space of relative professional freedom from the first half of the twentieth century, UNECA remained an incredibly male space for much longer. In 1976, when women occupied just over 20% of all professional roles across the UN, only 3.5% of such positions at UNECA were held by women.[6] In 1980, there were 10 women among 169 regularly funded professional staff positions at UNECA, plus 11 more out of 93 extra-budgetary positions. Of these twenty-one, eight were ATRCW staff.[7] Seemingly relegated to “women’s issues” at the ATRCW, the female staff was able to forge a space to work for women’s inclusion, tackling key issues of development and economic planning from the apparent margins, by addressing women’s economic centrality. The ATRCW was thus an important site for women’s international economic thinking at UNECA. And, as we can see from Tadesse’s and Snyder’s academic training, a space in which non-economist intellectuals applied themselves to economic thinking.


Thinking as a Collective Work 

Numerous colleagues, many of them women, who supportеd Snyder and Tadesse in their work also deserve to be considered international economic thinkers for their roles in creating ATRCW’s approach to women in development. Snyder is undoubtedly the most well-known of these women and perhaps already the standard-bearer for the Centre’s work. In highlighting her, I want to also recognise her colleagues for their individual and collective work. The specific contribution of many of these women has been obscured as a result of collective authorship practices, the chronic use of short-term contracts for women at international organisations, mechanisms of visibility and status in their future positions, as well as related documentary practices. A short and incomplete list of collaborators includes Elizabeth Asfaw, Daria Tesha, Jean Ritchie, Suzanne Prosper, Marilyn Carr, Nellie Okello, Dianne Hedgecock, Turuwork Dawit, and Elizabeth Driessen. Further research has the potential to highlight their individual contributions.

[1] Margaret C Snyder and Mary Tadesse, African Women and Development: A History (London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1995), 1.

[2] Andrew Ivaska, Cultured States: Youth Gender and Modern Style in 1960s Dar Es Salaam (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Seth Markle, ‘“We Are Not Tourists”: The Black Power Movement and the Making of Socialist Tanzania, 1960-1974’ (Ph.D., diss., New York University, 2010).

[3] Mary Tadesse, My Life, My Ethiopia: A Diary of History and Love (Trenton, NJ: The Red Sea Press, 2021).

[4] UN ECA, ‘Women: The Neglected Human Resource for African Development’, Canadian Journal of African Studies 6, no. 2 (1972): 359–70.

[5] UN ECA, ‘Women: The Neglected Human Resource for African Development’, Canadian Journal of African Studies 6, no. 2 (1972): 368.

[6] Mary Tadesse, “Report from UNITAR colloquium ‘Women and Decision Making in the UN’ held in Vienna, 13-16 July 1977,” held in box 5, folder 11 of the Margaret Snyder Collection at Princeton University. 

[7] Snyder and Tadesse, African Women and Development: A History, 204.


Reference anything from this site as:

Banks, Elizabeth (2023) 'International Economic Thinkers-Profile: Margaret Snyder and Mary Tadesse', ECOINT IET Profile #3, available at: https://www.ecoint.org/post/profiles-snyder-and-tadesse


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