Meet the Council: Naila Kabeer
The DSA council is enriched by the presence of Naila Kabeer who is Professor of Gender and Development at the Department of International Development at the LSE. She is also Faculty Associate of LSE’s International Inequalities Centre. She is a social economist working on the social and economic interactions between households, communities and the wider economy.
Naila’s work bridges academic research, teaching and advisory work with international agencies, governments and NGOs. She is on the editorial boards of Feminist Economics and Gender and Development and on the international advisory boards of Development and Change and the Canadian Journal of Development Studies. She is also on the board of United Nations Research in Social Development and of the United Nations University: International Institute for Global Health.
Naila has been involved with the DSA for the last 20 years. “I think I am a person who values belonging to communities of people with shared interests and values”, she explains as her reason behind her long association with the organisation. “I think best when I think aloud, and clarify things in my mind and that’s what associations like this allow you to do” – although she admits this means that she sometimes sounds like she is disagreeing with someone when in fact she is trying to understand the points for herself!
The DSA represents one of the two communities Naila says she identifies with: ‘the development studies community and the community of feminist economists’. And given her own interdisciplinary approach to research and teaching, it is not surprising that she sees herself as part of communities that welcome inter-disciplinarity and methodological pluralism.
“We hear the criticisms about development. And we know that the word itself has become very contaminated by the type of unrealistic expectations built into it and by a history of trying to shape development trajectories in the Global South on the basis of lessons learnt from the historical experiences of the wealthier countries of the north. Of course we can learn from the experiences of other countries, and this is something that the development studies community does well, but it also recognizes that lessons cannot be transplanted mechanically from one context to another, that hard work is necessary to understand what is particular to a context and what kinds of policies and practices are likely to work best within it”.
Stories of change
Her interest in trying to understand these issues has given Naila a long-standing interest in impact assessment as ‘stories of change’, efforts to understand how purposive efforts to bring about change in different contexts fare. Some of her studies are of development projects as conventionally defined but she has also carried out research on interventions by activists and practitioners.
In her latest paper, Social Protection, Livelihoods and Structural Gaps: Impact Assessment as Stories of Change (forthcoming in LSE Public Policy Review) she describes these interventions as forms of ‘interruption’, motivated by the desire to change the normal course of things. They can have negative impacts if the interventions in question have been designed without recognition of local realties and the priorities of local people. But they can also be progressive when they attempt to challenge the status quo by promoting the agency of marginalized groups because it is often one of the conditions of marginalization that these groups are denied agency in their own lives.
The kind of research we need in development studies
Naila’s years of experience mean that the discipline of development studies can benefit from her perspectives on what the field needs to tackle the challenges of now and the future. She sees the DSA as part of the on-going struggle to make development more responsive to the needs and aspirations of people while remaining attentive to the structures that disempower them. Its interdisciplinarity means that its members enrich their own understanding of how change happens in different contexts by learning how people from other disciplines analyse change, often the very same change in the very same context. In a similar vein, she is a strong advocate of mixed methods – again because they allow researchers to benefit from the comparative strengths of different methods, to piece together a more holistic story than is possible from reliance on any single method.
And as an extension of the importance she gives to being part of communities of scholars with shared interests and values, she also feels she gains a great deal from collaborative work with teams as well as with individuals. Many of her publications are co-authored. In some cases, they are co-authored with younger scholars who are feeling their way into the world of academic publishing. In other cases, co-authorship helps to strengthen the interdisciplinarity and methodological pluralism of her work. It was her early training as an economist at the LSE that led her to this stance. She felt then, and continues to feel, that economists are trained in a way that makes them resistant to trying to understand the world as it really is rather than adapting it to how their models represent it: “The world is transformed into something tractable, manageable and manipulable. Statistics mediate their relationships with real people. They never hear what motivates them, why they behave the way they do, what causes suffering, what gives hope’.
But while she is very critical of the methodological fundamentalism of some mainstream economists, their insistence that the only way to know the world is through numbers, she is very happy to work with economists, both male and female, who are more open-minded, more respectful of what different disciplines and different methodologies bring to the table. “I am glad that the International Association of Economics has woken up to the male dominance of the discipline and now has a project to try and understand the reasons for this. But having more women economists in the profession is not enough if they simply model themselves on male economists. What makes you a good economist is your willingness to abandon the idea that the economy can be captured by truncated models that ignore the unpaid work that is done mainly by women, that see markets as objective arbiters of value in the economy and that see the nature as a resource that can be infinitely exploited for profit”.
Naila’s new book is called ‘Renegotiating patriarchy: Gender, agency and the ‘Bangladesh Paradox’. It will be published within the next few months by LSE Press and will be open-access so it can be downloaded for free by anyone with a computer anywhere in the world. It will embody the kind of interdisciplinary and mixed methods approach that she is championing. Watch our social media channels for an in-depth interview with Naila on the forthcoming book.