PsycCRITIQUES book review: Development practitioners speak out: aid in the new millennium

Jeanne Marecek and Cynthia Caron review “Aid, NGOs and the Realities of Women’s Lives: A Perfect Storm.”

"Aid, NGOs and the Realities of Women’s Lives: A Perfect Storm" brings together essays written by experienced practitioners and theorists in the field of international aid. Intended primarily for development professionals, the book has two sections, along with an introduction and postscript. The first section contains eight essays that sound an alarm about current trends in the international development or aid sector. In the contributors’ view, these trends constitute a “perfect storm” — a confluence of negative conditions that have led to nothing short of a calamity. The second section offers eight accounts of projects that have resisted these trends.

The essays in the first section of the book portray and analyze the mounting pressures on the field of development — on donor agencies, the local organizations that implement their programs and development practitioners themselves. The essays offer a sophisticated crash course in development studies. Some contributors reflect on the long and variegated history of international development policy and practice.

AIDS, NGOs and The Realities of Women’s Lives: A Perfect Storm.Stan Thekaekara, for example, notes that international development has had many guises, tracing back to charitable giving and missionary service during the era of European colonization of the "global south." During the progressive 1960s and early 1970s, development projects unabashedly aimed to redress socioeconomic injustices and exploitation and to overturn the structures that held inequalities in place. But as the political systems of the "global north" came to emphasize economic liberalization, globalization and neoliberalism, aid agendas were reformulated in apolitical terms such as poverty alleviation, sustainable livelihoods, entrepreneurship and financial inclusion.

Beyond terminology, the goals that aid serves have also shifted. An example is microcredit schemes, which are programs that provide small bank loans to the poor. Microcredit schemes have often been promoted as an empowering, bottom-up alternative to cumbersome top-down state projects. Women are often the intended beneficiaries of microcredit programs, and such programs have often been touted as a feminist strategy for addressing women’s poverty and subordination. But, as Nancy Fraser (2013) recently pointed out, microcredit programs have burgeoned just as states have abandoned macrostructural efforts to end poverty. Rather than empowering citizens (in particular, poor women), microcredit now serves to legitimize marketization and state retrenchment.

The contributors argue further that nowadays aid often is granted under conditions that undermine effective and ethical practice. Styles of working and metrics devised in the corporate sector of the global north have been imposed on the development sector in the global south, where they are ill-suited. Many contributors criticize faddish management tools — such as strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analyses; logical frameworks; specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-scaled (SMART) objectives; and “results-based management” — arguing that they have supplanted careful project design, local knowledge and democratic participation in determining project practices and goals. The contributors also chafe at modes of program evaluation that rely blindly on quantitative indices, insist on randomized control trials and privilege short-term “deliverables” and “outputs” (for example, tabulating the numbers of people attending an awareness program without assessing actual changes in individual or community practices).

Readers who lived through the corporatization of mental health care in the 1990s will surely note parallels between the “perfect storm” confronting development practice and the transformation of psychotherapy under managed care regimes: the imposition of a managerial ethos, a reductive view of the person, and a bureaucratic emphasis on the standardization and regulation of care. Like the contributors to this book, many therapists have reported that working under managed care regimes has compromised their effectiveness and their ethic of care (Cohen, Marecek, & Gillham, 2006).

The second section of the book, titled "Changing Conversations," contains a set of case studies by development practitioners working in South Asia and Africa. They detail a diverse set of projects mainly concerned with women and girls. These include projects to curb gender-based violence in Ghana, to support out-of-school adolescent mothers in Sierra Leone and Liberia, to train women in Delhi’s urban slums to work as chauffeurs, and to build toilets in low-income areas of Nairobi and Dhaka. None of these projects easily fits the one-size-fits-all template that many international donors seek, nor can any of them be readily scaled up for thousands of beneficiaries. Nor do they proclaim to yield quick fixes that can be measured by quantified indicators.

For example, Meenu Vadera’s Azad Foundation trains poor women in Delhi to work as chauffeurs. Learning to drive (no mean feat in Delhi’s narrow lanes and choked thoroughfares) is not the only task that women must accomplish. They must also negotiate with husbands, kin and in-laws for permission to do such unseemly work; they must learn self-defense in order to ward off advances from male passengers; and they must steel themselves to face down rough-and-tumble, hard-drinking male drivers. It is not surprising that women’s progress is often halting and erratic; not every woman ultimately succeeds. Vadera’s account, like others in this section, vividly demonstrates the necessity of meticulous attention to the realities of women’s lives and to the entrenched gendered, generational and societal hierarchies that women must negotiate.

Where Do Psychologists Fit Into Development Practice?

Many of the essays in "Aid, NGOs and the Realities of Women’s Lives" will be of particular interest to psychologists who study gender. The practical examples in the second section of the book are not only compelling examples of good practice; they also demonstrate the critical importance of feminist theories and analysis. Deepa Joshi, for example, draws on classic works by Simone de Beauvoir and Mary Douglas to animate her analysis of how the rhetoric of the “special needs of women” and ideologies of pollution and feminine shame and modesty form the implicit logic of public sanitation programs and inadvertently perpetuate the social control of women.

Kate Grosser and Nikki van der Gaag criticize the current boom in “girl empowerment” programs. Such programs aim to help poor girls “stand on their own two feet” through such avenues to personal advancement as self-esteem building, self-assertion and leadership training. Girl empowerment, however, too often places the burden of changing families and communities on the shoulders of girls, despite the fact that they are at the bottom of both gender and generational hierarchies. Girls are further tasked with creating knowledge about their needs, advocating for their interests and figuring out how to attain economic success. As with microcredit schemes, the ultimate goal is to produce self-sufficient wage earners in a capitalist system in which the state assumes little responsibility for its citizens. Tropes such as “investing in girls” and the “girl effect dividend” (which crop up repeatedly in the donors’ talk) imply that the desired pay-off is a higher per capita gross domestic product.

Psychologists interested in gender and feminism will find much of interest in this book; however, they may look askance at the unruly profusion of the term gender used as an adjective: gender staff, gender analysis, gender indicators, gender perspective, gender unit, gender expert, gender mainstreaming, gender policies and gender centre. What, exactly, is signified by the adjective gender in these usages? What do “gender staff” do? What takes place at a village “gender centre"? What does “gender mainstreaming” involve beyond ensuring that female beneficiaries get their fair share of aid? This casual, taken-for-granted adjectival use of the term gender stands in sharp contrast to the enduring discussions and debates among feminist scholars about how best to theorize and study gendered social structures, gender performances and gendered identities (e.g., Magnusson & Marecek, 2012; Shields, 2008).

To date, psychologists have mainly participated in international aid projects concerned with disaster relief, war trauma and displaced populations (see, for example, Interventions: International Journal of Mental Health, Psychosocial Work, and Counselling in Areas of Armed Conflict). With interest in international psychology mounting, this may well change. Whether through rural electrification, land reform or microloan schemes, economic development calls for psychological change, such as shifts in attitudes and values, and reconfigured family and community relations. Moreover, the line between humanitarian aid and economic development is a blurry one, especially in post-conflict and post-disaster situations. Community psychologists, with their focus on settings and social ecology, have much to contribute to development work.

Overall, "Aid, NGOs and the Realities of Women’s Lives" offers an accessible and politically astute introduction to the current state of international development policy and practice. It challenges readers to think critically about how neoliberal ideologies inflect international development (and human services more generally), about development managerialism, and about the unacknowledged pitfalls of the current rush to empower girls and women.


Cohen, J., Marecek, J., & Gillham, J. (2006). Is three a crowd? Clients, clinicians, and managed care. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 76, 251–259.

Fraser, N. (2013, October 13). How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden — and how to reclaim it. The Guardian.

Magnusson, E., & Marecek, J. (2012). Gender and culture in psychology: Theories and practices. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Shields, S. A. (2008). Gender: An intersectionality perspective. Sex Roles, 59, 301–311.