In 1997, Chen helped found, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), a “global research-policy network that seeks to improve the status of the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy.” The informal economy comprises around 300 million laborers worldwide who work without employment security, social security, or other state or employer benefits. Around 70% of informal workers are self-employed, and many live below the international poverty line.
Here, Prof. Chen discusses her organization’s multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary approach to supporting informal laborers, as well as her journey from a small NGO in former East Pakistan (Bangladesh) to Harvard’s Kennedy School, and leadership of one of the most important NGOs in informal sector development.
ASAP: You described your career as progressing, “from activist practitioner to activist academic”. Can you describe that progression? What motivated you to enter academia?
The activist practitioner part of my career, which was the first half of my career, began when my husband and I and our young son were living in Dhaka, East Pakistan in 1970. The coast of East Pakistan was hit by a very large cyclone and tidal wave, in November of 1970. At that time there were very few NGO’s in East Pakistan, unlike today. A group of us started a cyclone relief project and that got many of us into development. That was followed by activism around the recognition of Bangladesh and the civil war that was being perpetrated on East Pakistan by West Pakistan. Then, in the mid-70’s I joined what is now the world’s largest NGO but was at that time quite small: BRAC [then known as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee]. The founder of BRAC [Fazle Hasan Abed] and I had worked together on the cyclone relief and some of the money we had raised for cyclone relief he spent to rehabilitate refugees returning from India after the Civil War, and that’s how BRAC was born. He invited me to join BRAC, so I did and started the women’s program in BRAC. That was the beginning of my activist practitioner career.
I worked with BRAC for 5 years. The work involved organizing village women, but also supporting their livelihoods in various ways: craft revival, poultry farms; all the inputs that were needed to make their livelihoods more viable.
The next chapter of my activist practitioner career was that I was invited by Oxfam America to set up their first field office in India, and I did that in 1970-71. I was in India for going on 7 years. I took all the lessons I’d learned from BRAC Bangladesh and supported a portfolio of grantees who were working with either village women or city-slum dweller women around their economic empowerment. I worked with about 60 NGO’s.
ASAP: I’m imagining that work informed a lot of the work you’ve done with WIEGO
Yes, both those chapters of my activist practitioner life sort of propelled me into the WIEGO work. Any of the knowledge I’d gained, the contacts I made, the commitment I gained, all of that was then channeled into WIEGO.
ASAP: How did you come to form WIEGO?
When I left Oxfam America in India, I came to Harvard and I started doing research and teaching at the Kennedy School. For about a decade I tried to stay involved in the more activist practitioner part of my life. I did consulting, and I did field research.
In the early 1990’s, three of us [at the Kennedy School] began to say, ‘we need to do something about how the informal economy is perceived in mainstream academia, and in mainstream development discourse,’ because we knew that it was stigmatized as underground, illegal, black, gray, and that the working poor that we worked with were mostly in the informal economy, and most were simply trying to earn an honest living against actually great odds. So we began circling the idea of a project on the informal economy.
In 1997 we convened a group of 10 experts on the informal economy for what was called the team residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, in Bellagio, Italy. Some of us didn’t know each other before but we knew about each other so we gathered people who we thought were had the same concerns that the informal economy was misunderstood and somehow undervalued in development circles. We had four or five days at Bellagio to spell out how we saw the problem and what we thought would address it. We had a member of that founding group that loved to do charts for us. He did a chart that had a pyramid and an inverted pyramid. The pyramid was what the labor force looked like. At the tip of it you had the formal labor force, at the base of it you had the large informal workforce. On the inverted pyramid at the top you had all the resources and support (policies, regulations) supporting the small formal workforce, and at the inverted tip of the pyramid, you had the very few resources and support going towards the broad base of the informal economy. We wanted to make a rectangle instead of the inverted pyramid where appropriate; resources and support would go to the base of the informal workforce.
ASAP: What are some of the particular challenges that face female workers in the informal economy? How does WIEGO address those challenges?
We address them in a 2-layered way. One is that we see the problems that all informal workers face, and usually those are sector specific, and then we look at the particular constraints that women within those sectors might face that the men do not. There are 2 kinds of issues that we look for. One is what are the negatives, the sort of binding constraints on informal workers as a whole, and by sector. Then we look to see what kind of support they are demanding, either legal, policy, services, resources, what kind of support would help them. So it’s partly what would reduce the negatives and also what would enhance the positives for informal workers by sector.
Then we look at what’s affecting women in particular. So if you take street trade for instance, the big constraints are the insecurity of the vending site and the daily harassment by local authorities, specifically police. Within that, the problems are particularly acute for those who sell fresh produce, one of the reasons being that if your goods are confiscated and they’re fresh, they perish before you can retrieve them from the local authorities. We also know that the majority of fresh produce vendors are women and that the majority of vendors of more durable products are men. So that’s how we address the generic constraints and then the differences between men and women within them.
ASAP: Describe a few of WIEGO’s greatest achievements.
I’ll go from the more abstract to the more specific. I think with regards to mainstream thinking mindsets, we have changed the conceptualization of the informal economy to include not just the self-employed in informal enterprises but also the wage employed in what we call informal jobs. We’ve developed with the ILO (International Labor Organization) statistics department and other international and national statistical bodies a new concept and definition called informal employment, which includes both the self-employed and the wage employed. That is one of the main contributions at the more abstract, intellectual level.
More concretely, we have helped create or strengthen organizations of the workers and link them up by sector. We’ve helped create national, regional and international alliances of domestic workers, home based producers, street vendors and waste pickers. We know for sure that many of those organizations would not exist without our support or would not be as strong. Those are our two main claims to fame. Otherwise, we’ve been able to change mindsets and get more favorable policies in those contexts. But our two main achievements increasing visibility through the statistics and the second one is increasing voice through organization.
ASAP: You talk about the importance of inter-disciplinary cooperation in doing this kind of work. Why is that cooperation important, and how do you achieve it?
There is the academic context of interdisciplinary research, but the more important interdisciplinary aspect of WIEGO’s work is what I would call inter-constituency. We’re really a 3-legged stool. We have members and partners that are organizations of informal workers, we have members and partners that are researchers and statisticians, and then we have members and partners who are development practitioners in national government, international agencies, and NGO’s, and we bridge those three worlds. I think that’s a signature dimension of our work, that we really try to bridge those worlds and build on the comparative strengths of each to leverage more support for the working poor in the informal economy. We help build the advocacy capacity of the organizations of workers, we gain expertise from them, we get researchers and statisticians working on improving our knowledge of the informal economy and then we partner with development agency members and partners to try to bring about policy change.
ASAP: Do academics have a responsibility to be activists?
I wouldn’t say that all academics have a responsibility to be activists. I think that academics in the social sciences might be more likely to be engaged in the real world effecting some type of change in either policies, or theories or practices that relate to issues that impinge on the poor, so there’s a responsibility to make sure that what they do in the real world doesn’t have contradictory outcomes for the poor. Maybe one way to do that is to become more activist with what you do in the world. But I wouldn’t say that all the people in the humanities or the sciences have a responsibility to be activists.
ASAP: How has your activism work with WIEGO encouraged or inspired your academic research?
I was trained to learn and to think inductively rather than deductively: I don’t start with received wisdom and then try to test the theory, I tend to start with descriptive reality and then build up theory, so my exposure through activism is always feeding into that kind of inductive learning and thinking. There’s just no doubt that it has informed my academic work.
ASAP: What are your future goals?
I see myself for the duration of my career being both academic and activist, primarily through my WIEGO work. The research/intellectual agenda of that work is to continue to push for better statistics on the informal economy, since data drives so much of policy making and to complement that with better field research on the informal economy.
We’ve just completed the analysis of the first round of a 10-city study on what’s driving change in the urban informal economy. We plan, if we can raise the funds, to do a second round so we would have a longitudinal panel of data on observing the workers in those 10 cities.
ASAP: Does WIEGO present its findings to policy makers?
We don’t do research without having that in mind as our targeted outcome. We’ve presented the first round of findings at the World Urban Forum, I’m presenting to the European Commission, and a regional conference with urban officials in Bangkok next week. We wouldn’t do the research if it wasn’t going to be channeled. In each of the 10 cities our lead partner was a local organization of workers, so we have published advocacy tools and materials based on the city level studies for those organization to use in their ongoing advocacy work. It’s always research to advocacy. There’s no doubt about that. That’s the goal.
ASAP: What advice can you share with academics who might be interested in poverty related activism?
I think it’s very important to partner with some kind of member organization of the poor to first know what their needs, demands, and dreams are, and second to tailor your own research and activism to meet those needs and demands and dreams, and to build the capacity of those organizations to carry on the fight. Academics and policy makers will come and go but the poor and their organizations are the ones who are in it for the long haul, to try to make their working environment more favorable and supportive.
Academics Stand Against Poverty has added significantly to its poverty and organizational expertise with the appointment of three new members to its Global Board of Directors, as well as communications and web officers.
Joining the Board are Helen Yanacopulos of the Open University in the United Kingdom as Fundraising Director, and Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics and Political Science as Membership Director. Miles Thompson of Canterbury Christ Church University will serve as Web Director.
Ellen Szarleta of Indiana University Northwest has been appointed Global Communications Director, and Oskar MacGregor of the University of Skovde in Sweden will serve as Vice-Chair of a new ASAP Web Committee. The Board expansion and creation of officer positions is designed to help ASAP meet both its expanding remit and growth in membership. Directors and officers will be tasked with overseeing all aspects of operations in their designated areas, and with generating ideas and creating opportunities for ASAP members to become more directly involved.
As Fundraising Director, Yanacopulos will oversee specific campaigns and help develop ongoing support for ASAP activities. She is Senior Lecturer in International Politics and Development at the Open University in Milton Keynes, just north of London. She holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Cambridge, an MA in International Development from the University of East Anglia, and a BA in International Relations from the University of British Columbia.
Her areas of expertise include international NGOs, social movements, civil society networks, public engagement and media in development. She has been an academic consultant for the British Broadcasting Corporation on various International Development-related television series, and she is the editor for the Zed Books’ ‘Development Matters’ series. Her latest book, NGO Engagement, Activism and Advocacy will be published by Palgrave in 2015.
“One of the most powerful roles that academics can play is to critically engage wider publics, beyond students and other academics, around development, inequality and social justice,” Yanacopulos said. “ASAP is a unique organisation whose mission matches my own; it is an honor to be appointed to the ASAP Board!”
Hickel, as Membership Director, will lead efforts to develop member volunteer opportunities and enhance recruiting. He is Lecturer in Anthropology at LSE, and received his PhD in Anthropology from the University of Virginia in 2011. His core research looks at how the moral values that underpin western liberalism are contested in South Africa. His forthcoming book, Democracy as Death: The Making of Anti-Liberal Politics in South Africa (University of California Press), explores why many migrant workers from rural Zululand regard certain liberal elements of “democracy” as morally repulsive and socially destructive.
Hickel’s work has been funded by Fulbright-Hays, the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation. In addition to his academic research, he contributes to Al Jazeera, Le Monde Diplomatique, Global Policy, Monthly Review, The Africa Report and other online outlets. A recent Al Jazeera piece on the World Bank’s ‘Doing Business’ scheme can be viewed here.
“I am thrilled to be joining the ASAP Board,” Hickel said. “I’ve long admired what ASAP stands for, and I believe it has the potential to gain serious momentum in the coming years as a platform for academics to take a stand not only against poverty, but – even more importantly – against the ultimate drivers of poverty. This is particularly urgent in the wake of the recent financial crisis, which exposed the pathologies of an economic system that enriches a few at the expense of the world’s majority. People are beginning to seek alternatives to this system, and ASAP is perfectly poised to lead the conversation.”
Thompson is Senior Lecturer in Psychology and brings to the Web Director role several years’ experience in a similar role for the Association of Contextual Behavioral Science. Besides his academic work, Thompson continues to practice as a clinical psychologist. He earned his PhD in Psychology at Goldsmiths University of London, and a PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Plymouth in the UK.
Thompson said that, although his academic training was not focused on poverty issues, “the mission of ASAP is very close to my heart and current research programme. I echo the idea that seems central to ASAP: that academics interested in helping to reduce global poverty can have most impact by collaborating across the disciplinary and hierarchical boundaries within academia. Also by collaborating across the boundaries that can exist between academic institutions and the outside world.”
Szarleta serves as Director for the Center for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE) at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Indiana, just outside Chicago. She earned a PhD in Agricultural Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1987, and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1995. Her courses include public health, environmental policy and law, and her academic publications have focused on issues related to environmental sustainability. She has a long record of funded research and collaborative activities.
Macgregor is Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Neuroscience at Skovde, and an Adjunct Lecturer in Philosophy at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics and Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, Australia. He completed his PhD at Swansea University in Wales, United Kingdom, in 2013, and he has published on issues in cognitive neuroscience and the ethics of sport. He brings to the Web Vice Chair post several years’ experience as website manager for the British Philosophy of Sport Association.
The appointments expand the ASAP Board from eight members to 12, working in seven countries. ASAP continues to interview for new officer roles, and further appointments are expected to be announced soon.
For more information, contact ASAP Vice President Luis Cabrera at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Marta Castillo
Illicit financial flows are gaining recognition as an important issue for development. As 2015 and the expiration of the Millennium Development Goals draws nearer there are calls both from civil society and from within the UN system to make control of such flows a priority within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There is still an open debate as to the role they should play in the world’s sustainable development agenda.
Illicit financial flows are international movements of funds illegally earned, transferred or utilized. Examples include the proceeds of crime and corruption and funds involved in tax avoidance and evasion schemes. Evidence suggests that developing countries are losing very large amounts of money to illicit financial flows. According to Global Financial Integrity, illicit flows from developing countries totaled $946.7 billion in 2011, and $5.9 trillion cumulatively from 2001 to 2011. This is roughly ten times the amount of money developing countries received in official development assistance. As a result of these losses, the affected countries are less able to finance infrastructure development and provide essential services such as healthcare and education.
Recent UN reports identify the importance of addressing illicit financial flows in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). For instance, in its report to the UN General Assembly, the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda stated that the new framework should be used to bring about “a swift reduction in corruption, illicit financial flows, money-laundering, tax evasion, and hidden ownership of assets”. Beyond 2015, a global coalition of over 1,000 civil society groups working to influence the SDGs, has also called for the new framework to establish policy responsibilities for countries to stem illicit financial flows. The Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals has also proposed that the SDGs confront illicit financial flows. Its proposal for the SDGs, which includes 17 goals and 169 targets, refers to illicit financial flows and related tax and governance issues in three targets. These are:
- 16.4 by 2030 significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen recovery and return of stolen assets, and combat all forms of organized crime
- 16.5 substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all forms
- 17.1 strengthen domestic resource mobilization, including through international support to developing countries to improve domestic capacity for tax and other revenue collection
Importantly, aside from strengthening domestic capacity for tax collection, the proposal from within the UN system have focused solely on the desired outcome of reducing illicit financial flows without specifying the actions to be taken in order to achieve that reduction. If the new framework does not identify specific measures to be taken by specific actors, it risks losing its effectiveness. In an effort to help identify which measures should be taken, ASAP is conducting a Delphi study on how SDGs can be formulated to make the greatest possible impact on illicit financial flows.
The aim of a Delphi study is to gain insight into complex problems by systematically making use of expert and stakeholder opinion. In a study, participants respond anonymously to a series of questionnaires, and after each round, a summary of the results is sent back to the group. Participants are encouraged to revise their original responses in light of others’ answers, and over a series of rounds, responses may converge around an area of consensus.
Participants will respond to three rounds of questionnaires, assessing policy responsibilities that could be included in the post-2015 development framework. They will be asked to name policies that could lead to a reduction in illicit financial flows and to discuss the feasibility and desirability of implementing such policies globally. Over the course of the study, we hope to discover policy options receiving the greatest support among experts and stakeholders as well as their reasons for supporting.
The first round of questionnaires is completed, with 21 people with expertise related to illicit financial flows and the post-2015 policy landscape participating. The final results of the study will be published in August.
The study is funded by donations from ASAP members, contributed during the crowdfunding campaign “Stop IFFs 2015”.
If you would like to learn more about the study, please contact Rachel Payne at email@example.com.
The launch event for ASAP’s Italian chapter will take place on May 9-10, 2014 at LUISS Guido Carli.
On May 9, there will be two side events on the themes of Responsibility for the realization of human rights, featuring LUISS Professors Nuzzo, Punzi, and Maffettone and Dr. Francesca Orlando, and Are we violating violating the human rights of the world’s poor?, a research seminar at the School of Political Science with two discussants.
On May 10, the official launch will take place, with presentations by Thomas Pogge, Sebastiano Maffetoni, and Antonio Punzi.
Mario Ascolese and Maria Ginevra of the ASAP Italy Organizing Committee will close the event by leading an open discussion of possible future projects for ASAP Italy.
The Public Attorney’s Office – 3rd Region makes available to the public the videos of the launch in Brazil of ASAP – Academics Stand Against Poverty, an international platform and academic network against poverty.
The first ASAP Brazil Conference took place in Sao Paulo, on the 5th and 6th, December, 2013. The list of 23 videos bellow shows the topics and respective speakers in the event.
List of videos in chronological order:
December 5, 2013
The Right to Education and Public Policy for the Reduction of Inequality, Promotion of Development and for the Fight against Poverty
- Video 1/6: Opening Remarks and “Social Platform”
- Video 2/6: Lecture on “Promoting Equality: Education as a Means of Reducing Poverty”. Patricia Tuma Martins Bertolin (Mackenzie University)
- Video 3/6: Lecture on “Law, Public Policy and Governmental Coordination: The Challenge of Democratizing Access to Higher Education”. Maria Paula Dallari Bucci (University of Sao Paulo) [link unavailable ]
- Video 4/6: Lecture on “The Right to Basic Education in the Development Agenda”. Denise Career (Ação Educativa)
- Video 5/6: Lecture on “Strategies for Judicial Enforceability of the Right to Child Education as a Mechanism for Social Inclusion”. Alessandra Steps Gotti (Movimento Todos pela Educação)
- Video 6/6: Rapporteur and Q&A Session
Access to Health for People in Poverty Conditions
- Video 1/5: Opening Remarks and “Social Platform”
- Video 2/5: Lecture on “Aligning Health Sciences with Citizen’s Demands”. José Augusto Barreto (Sergipe Fedetal University)
- Video 3/5: Lecture on “The Universal Right to Health in Tension: The State Duty of Care for Vulnerable Groups and Individuals with Rare/Neglected Diseases”. Fernando Aith (University of Sao Paulo)
- Video 4/5: Lecture on “Law and Global Health: The Case of the Influenza A (H1N1) Pandemic”. Deisy Ventura (University of Sao Paulo)
- Video 5/5: Concluding Remarks and Q&A Session
The Right to Urban Development: Internationalization, Poverty and Contemporary Social Challenges
- Video 1/5: Opening Remarks and “Social Platform”
- Video 2/5: Lecture by Rogério Sottili, Sao Paulo Municipal Secretary for Human Rights and Citizenship
- Video 3/5: Lecture on “Welcoming and Social Integration of Foreigners: A Human Rights Challenge”. Claudia Moraes de Souza (UNIFESP)
- Video 4/5: Lecture on “Violence and Poverty”. Stephanie Morin (Human Rights Watch, HRW Brazil)
- Video 5/5: Concluding Remarks and Q&A Session
December 6, 2013
Inaugural Lecture on Local Poverty and Global Multidimensional Solutions:
- Video 1/3: Lecturer Thomas Pogge (Yale)
- Video 2/3: Aurelio Rios (PFDC/MPF) and Solange Teles (Mackenzie University) [link unavailable ]
- Video 3/3: Lelia Antonia Sanches (MPF-PR) and Maria Tereza Uille Gomes (Parana State Department of Justice)
Poverty, Access to Justice and Universal Rights in Brazil
- Video 1/3: Lecture on “Humanistic Conception and Universality of Human Rights”. Dalmo de Abreu Dallari (University of Sao Paulo)
- Video 2/3: Lecture on “Structural Interventions to Combat Poverty”. Calixto Salomão Filho (University of Sao Paulo)
- Video 3/3: “Social Platform” and Concluding Remarks
Social Security and Convergence Policies for the Elimination of Poverty in Brazil
- Video 1/7: Opening Lecture on “Social Policies and Poverty Reduction in Brazil”. Jorge Abraham Castro (Brazilian Ministry of Planning)
- Video 2/7: “Social Platform”
- Video 3/7: Lecture on “State, Overcoming Underdevelopment and Poverty Alleviation”. Gilberto Bercovici (University of Sao Paulo and Mackenzie University)
- Video 4/7: Lecture on “Social Security: an Interpretation for the Fight to Eradicate Poverty in Brazil”. Marcus Orione Gonçalves Correia (Federal Judge, University of Sao Paulo
- Video 5/7: Lecture on “Poverty, Citizenship and Development.” Eduardo Fagnani (Unicamp)
- Video 6/7: Lecture on “Reflections on the UN Conventions for the Social Inclusion of People with Special Vulnerability”. Christoph Käppler de Oliveira (University of Dortmund and University of the Ruhr Metropolitan Region in LA) [link unavailable ]
- Video 7/7: “Social Platform” and Concluding Remarks