I once was asked an interview question along these lines: As a public policy organization, you are deciding what are primary issues for women in Afghanistan to write in a memo for a policy-maker. You know that the policy organization in the past has focused on promoting women’s rights, but you also know that, based on surveys of Afghan women conducted by the Afghan government, they place their rights low on their priority list – issues not specifically related to them, such as access to education for their sons, healthcare, and infrastructure are higher on their lists. What do you write in the memo?
At the time, I answered that the memo should reflect the survey results, and use the survey itself as a rationale. The fact that the survey was conducted by the Afghan government, and therefore might be biased away from women’s issues, is potentially problematic, but it is the official documentation available, and one could probably find other independent surveys to back up the data. The reason for preferring the survey results, as opposed to past policy from the organization, was that as a Western organization enjoying the comforts of Washington, we did not have the right to say that our prioritization of Afghan priorities should supersede Afghan prioritization of Afghan priorities.
Now, a few years later, I still stand by the basic tenets of my argument, but I missed the most crucial piece of my argument. We should honor what the Afghan women’s survey because that, in itself, is honoring Afghan women’s rights. By prioritizing the survey, the organization would be saying that the Afghan woman’s voice and choices matter. Even if the survey itself was biased in some way, the principle of attempting to honor the Afghan woman’s decision would be within the objectives of the organization. Moreover, even if I disagreed with the Afghan woman’s priorities, perhaps focusing on issues that did not relate directly to them would, eventually, lead to an Afghan society where women would place respect for their rights at the top of the list. Alternatively, perhaps the prioritization of family and standards of living are an expression of what women’s rights might mean to some of the participants of the survey.
Perhaps my amended answer is too complicated for a phone interview. I was lucky enough to receive an internship offer from that organization, so my original answer could not have been considered too shallow after all!