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Impact Interviews

Impact Interview: Martha Chen

In this article, Gabriel Neely-Streit interviews Professor Martha Chen, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Read more of our Impact Interviews.

Martha Chen

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.


Student Q&ASAP with Sophia Ireland of Oxfam Great Britain

Ravina Khela, the incoming Chair of the ASAP Students-Birmingham Chapter speaks to Sophia Ireland about her role as Midlands Youth & Schools Co-ordinator, Oxfam. Ireland shares insights on Oxfam’s approach to poverty alleviation, and she offers some tips for students who may want to apply for an Oxfam internship or pursue a career in development more generally.