My area of specialty is political and social participation in a comparative context, with a focus on Latin America. I am broadly interested in the roles of gender, identity, and institutional rules in encouraging or discouraging participation among marginalized groups. I hope to extend the findings of my dissertation work to future topics, including that of gender, ethnicity, and immigration in Latin America and the United States. My current research centers on understanding why individuals and groups engage in different modes and degrees of social and political participation across time and space and identifying the conditions under which their experiences with participation are translated into meaningful outcomes.
In my dissertation, I develop a theory to explain how marginalized actors are able overcome social and economic obstacles to participate in movements, groups, and organizations in order to positively affect their own life circumstances. I develop this theory through a nuanced and systematic comparative analysis of the nature, scope and outcomes of women’s participation in economic development efforts in rural Guatemala. Though women in rural Guatemala have traditionally been blocked from participation in a variety of public spheres on the basis of gender, education, and/or ethnicity, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and microfinance institutions (MFIs) are increasingly providing important opportunities for them to participate in “loan groups.” Moreover, despite the fact that MFIs generally rely on similar strategies for the socioeconomic development of the same target populations, I find that the scope and end results of women’s participation in these organizations varies dramatically across several dimensions. What explains this puzzling variation?
I argue that NGOs’ organizational characteristics affect who participates, how they participate, and what they get out of that participation. Drawing on multi-method field research that took place over the course of three years, my research rests on controlled-comparisons of women’s participation in two NGOs – Namaste and Fraternidad de Presbiteriales Mayas (FPM). While both provide loans to poor women in rural Guatemala, the two organizations in many ways exemplify contrasting strategies for empowering poor women in the Global South. I show that women’s reasons for participation, and the ways in which they participate, can change over time because through the process of participating, their interests and identities can change.
Namaste’s organizational characteristics – its focus on efficiency, specialization, and “bootstrap development” – lead women to experience participation as a relatively passive process wherein they see themselves as clients or beneficiaries and maintain this conception throughout the course of their participation. By contrast, FPM’s organizational characteristics – its emphasis on comprehensive development and on gender, ethnolinguistic, and religious identity – broadens women’s participation by selectively encouraging some of its participants to see themselves as teachers, leaders, or philanthropists. While many women joined FPM for material benefits (access to a loan), through the course of their participation, some women come to value the non-material benefits of participation. In the latter case, women ultimately understand participation as an active process in which they are both capable and valued – with implications for their likelihood to participate actively in other spheres. By moving beyond women’s initial decision to join NGOs to their later participation decisions and experiences, I highlight that participation is not a dichotomous outcome. Instead, people participate with varying degrees of intensity and endurance, and the ways in which people experience their participation, even in the same organization, may differ. The fact that my fieldwork spanned three years further allowed me to study participation as a contingent, dynamic, and potentially transformative process.
In addition to contributing to our understanding of participation, my dissertation research makes a number of contributions to the literature on NGOs and MFIs. Whereas many studies of women’s NGOs focus on urban NGOs and are based largely on research conducted at the organizational level, I focus on NGOs that work in rural areas and bring together the organizational and individual levels of analysis – thus contributing both empirically and theoretically to the study of women’s participation in NGOs and MFIs. Women living in the rural areas of developing countries represent an understudied population despite the fact that their circumstances present unique challenges to empowerment given that women in these areas tend to be poorer, less educated, and generally have fewer social networks and resources than their urban counterparts.
Additionally, marrying a close analysis of these two very different organizations with a focus on individual women’s experiences participating in them highlights that the role of NGOs and MFIs in the developing world is much more complicated than is often depicted. Not only is there a good deal of divergence between these two NGOs, but each NGO has both positive and negative “spillover” effects. FPM appears to have little effect on women’s incomes, and may even create troubling dependencies among its participants. Moreover, FPM privileges some members over others – creating new inequalities that largely follow ethnic divisions. And while one may critique Namaste for its “Western approach” to development that blocks more substantive participation within the organization, it pursues efficiency and specialization in the name of increasing poor women’s incomes – and it has overwhelmingly succeeded in doing so.