Although there isn’t any evidence of the microcredits alleviating poverty and NGOs solving the social problems, they continue spreading. What is empowered here is not women but money.

Informal economy denotes economic activities that are not regulated and taxed by the state and that are carried out without rights such as social security. We can think of the informal economy as a social domain where commodities, services, and exchanges are performed outside these rules.[1] Informal economy is, at the same time, a gendered domain. For instance, according to the most recent DİSK (Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey) data, the overall rate of informal labor is 32.5%, while it is 41% among women. And in general, formal wage labor is declining.[2] Leaving aside the fact that formal wage labor has become a sphere of exploitation in and of itself due to neoliberal attacks, I want to discuss women’s role in informal economy. In doing so, I give examples of two mechanisms which serve the expansion of the informal economy through women’s labor.

Microcredits, micro jobs, indebted women

One of these examples pertains to the Bangladeshi Economist Muhammed Yunus’s microcredit programs which he spread all over the world by marketing the tragic stories of poor peasant women. The assumption of these programs is that if small amounts of credit are given to the poor to whom banks do not lend money, they will set up small-scale businesses and escape poverty. The World Bank, the United Nations, governments, development agencies, companies and even banks joined hands and spread this belief all over the world. Target group of the programs was women. According to the implementers, women are not only poorer than everyone else, but they also ensure the welfare of families because they are “mothers above all else”. For this reason, credits are predominantly given to married women. Therefore, it is argued, they can save themselves and their families from poverty and will become entrepreneurs and get empowered.

These Grameen-type programs vastly expanded after the 1990s. They collapsed in many countries of the global South in the mid-2000s,[3] but continued spreading. For instance, the first implementation of this program in Turkey is the Turkey Grameen Microfinance Program (TGMP) which was established in Diyarbakır in 2003.[4] In our interviews conducted with women who got loans from this program,[5] we saw that while some women meet their basic needs (food, household goods, household renovation) with credit which is hardly 1000 Turkish Liras, some others sell for very low prices the needlework they have produced at home. Thus, this mechanism both works as a kind of “welfare program” for the poor who cannot have access even to basic needs and it integrates women into the informal economy. Since these loans are paid back with an interest rate and the loaners have to pay in weekly installments, most of them were indebted. Microcredit systems, first and foremost, must be understood as parts of the expansion of financialization. This goal of “integrating people into economy”[6] reaches out to poor women in the urban slums, directing them to informal economic activities and introducing them to the market and the system of debt. Women, who previously had debts only for buying on credit from the neighborhood grocery or borrowing from their neighbors, become a part of the system.

NGOs: New magic wands from development to democracy

Secondly, new NGOs were established, or the existing ones were encouraged to distribute microcredits. However, it is more about the ever-inflating NGO sector than the microcredits. Especially after the 1990s, there was an explosion of NGOs all around the world but particularly and concurrently in the countries of the global South and former socialist countries. Reasons for that were manifold. In countries where structural adjustment programs were implemented, social services were seriously cut back and unemployment and poverty increased due to austerity policies. For this reason, institutions such as the World Bank launched their anti-poverty programs. One of them was financing microcredit programs. Another one was promoting NGOs to provide social services to poors which, in turn, caused NGOs to begin to fill the gaps in areas where the state has withdrawn. Thus, it is, in a sense, about the rising neoliberal policies. David Harvey calls this “privatization by NGOs”.[7] Once NGOs started providing social services, the state has largely withdrawn from that area in many countries of the global South. For instance, in Kenya, by the end of the 1990s, nearly all of the healthcare services were carried out by NGOs.[8] Similarly, after the 1980s, in Bangladesh, whose economy had just been opened to the global market, NGOs grew so much that they turned into an authority and a “shadow state”.[9]

On the other hand, after the fall of the USSR, NGOs were encouraged to establish a global civil society regime. They became widespread in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe with the goal of “promoting democracy” and in Turkey with the goal of the EU Accession Process. Basically for these two reasons, grants and funds as big as those that normally used to be given to governments in many places were given to NGOs.[10] Therefore, NGOs, which are not a new type of organization, were seen as multi-functional, cure-all mechanisms and were reformulated. This is one of the reasons why the United Nations, the World Bank, the European Union, private foundations, international organizations, governments, and even corporations fund NGOs through a consensus. For this reason, the issue in question is often discussed in relation to the expansion of neoliberalism and seen by some as a new kind of imperialist model.[11]

NGOs, projects and women’s labor

Also, the NGO sector emerged as a gendered sector and a subcategory of “women’s NGOs” was formed. There is an extremely complex context to this. But one of the reasons is that after the 1990s, with the development of United Nations World Conferences on Women and international mechanisms for women, all the institutions –from governments to international organizations– began to see themselves as a party to women’s issues. Various institutions embraced gender equality since every step towards gender equality on the basis of “good governance”, development, and strong civil society ideology brings about a good image as well as financial support. Besides institutions such as the World Bank were also publishing reports on the fact that gender inequality poses obstacles to development. Needs and demands of these institutions for women’s organizations with which they can collaborate in the women and gender programs they have developed in their institutions have increased. Women’s organizations also started to establish relationships with these institutions. Once women are the target audience of poverty alleviation and development projects implemented everywhere, this model called “women’s NGO” further came to the fore.

This propensity strengthened a work model based on projects and income generating activity. Firstly NGOs, by way of funded projects, create wage labor opportunities for relatively well-educated and middle-class women since implementing externally funded projects requires a certain degree of specialization and knowledge of foreign language. Maintaining communication with the funder, accounting for how the fund is used, writing reports, and coordinating the entire process entail highly tiring and bureaucratic processes; hence, this has become a type of “profession” in itself. Some have argued that a new class of professional women/femocrats emerged as a result of this type of work at NGOs.[12] This type of work can be both formal and informal. However, even if it is paid work, since the duration of the projects are one year or a few years, when the funding ends, women also become unemployed. NGOs also need a form of labor called “voluntary” labor, which is often exploited. Therefore, tensions and hierarchies between “wage labor” and “voluntary labor” are one of the biggest problems faced by organizations working with funding.

At the same time, some NGOs develop income-generating projects for poor women and contribute to the expansion of the informal economy.[13] Neoliberal ideology of individual empowerment and entrepreneurship has strengthened periodic project-based NGOs that work with small groups in a goal-oriented fashion rather than collective group work. For instance, if the goal of a project is to provide a certain number of women with income-generating activity, once that certain number is reached, it is assumed that women have been empowered. Here, there are two basic points. Firstly, the number of women’s associations and cooperatives working on the basis of direct production has been increasing since the 2000s. These organizations can be places where their members can also earn income and they may not always develop projects for “beneficiary” poor women. However, we can still assume that they have a wider impact as they reach out to the women around them and integrate them into production. These organizations can be active in the socially precarious, irregular, and highly exploitative fields where intermediaries buy products for a low price and sell them to companies in large quantities.[14]

The second one pertains to women’s NGOs and other institutions which develop income generating projects directly for poor women. Sometimes they act as intermediaries to sell women’s products or they encourage women to do piecework jobs within the scope of corporate social responsibility. Some women’s organizations and cooperatives encounter women who demand employment because they work in very poor places and these organizations try to find solutions. In other words, NGOs are seen as a kind of employment opportunity. Some offer entrepreneurship training while others integrate women into income-generating projects. Also, various institutions working with women play an important role in the integration of poor women into the informal economy. One such example is ÇATOMs (Multipurpose Community Centers) established in the 1990s within the scope of the Southeastern Anatolia Project. In an example I have observed, women were doing piecework production within the scope of the social responsibility project of a large and famous garment brand. Women were embroidering beads on the t-shirts sent by this company and earned 5TL/piece, which took an average of three to four hours to produce.

The emphasis on “social” in economic activities: a means to conceal cheap labor and exploitation

While microcredit programs and some NGOs actually create both formal and informal employment opportunities for women, they consolidate forms of informal working given the number of people reached out and the number of participants. For example, the number of people who can have a paid job with social security benefits is very limited in a project. However, if their goal is to reach a wider group of women, they can engage many people in income-generating activities. Similarly, although microcredits have become widespread thanks to the propaganda of “entrepreneur woman who sets up her own business”, the number of women who open their own business with the microcredit is very low. One of the critical issues here is that the work of women earning income within such mechanisms is not considered to be an economic activity. Because, both microcredit programs and some NGO activities are implemented with normative concepts such as “social empowerment”. The products that women produce at home or in workshops and that are sometimes supplied to national and international markets through intermediaries and sold at high prices are legitimized as “for the benefit of women” or “women’s empowerment”. This way, the fact that companies exploit women’s labor by paying very low wages without any social security is concealed under the name of social responsibility projects. Highlighting economic activities in terms of their social functions, first and foremost, forecloses the cheap women’s labor. Women also do not see what they do as “work” and themselves as “workers” since their work is not paid or does not provide social security and is linked to traditional gender roles. As an example, the women interviewed in KEİG’s (Women’s Labor and Employment Initiative) research on women’s cooperatives sometimes defined their production in the cooperative as “just like work but not quite”.[15] Moreover, cooperatives’ legal statuses are different from that of NGOs and are subject to heavy tax burdens. Employment with social security, on the other hand, is limited.

NGO-ization and the question of project-orientedness

Finally, we can think about the ways in which we can discuss the issue at hand in terms of feminist politics. Because feminists have been discussing for a long time the issues of microcredit, funding and projects and some of them radically object to these. This objection continues as the critique of NGO-ization and project-orientedness/project feminism. In some cases, concepts are used too quickly and in too abstracted ways. The issue here is not the NGO itself, that is, having a formal/legal personality such as an association or a foundation. Undoubtedly, formal organizations deal with more challenging aspects compared to informal structures such as a collective or a commune, because they are bound to the state and bureaucratic procedures. However, we need to think about women’s organizations in terms of their relation to women’s movement/feminist movements and their contribution to the struggle instead of their structure. Here, I am talking about the kind of NGO promoted by mechanisms of power, the “NGO-ized NGO”[16] a concept that I borrow from Sonia Alvarez.

NGO-ization does not simply refer to the increase in the number of NGOs or to NGOs getting external funding and developing projects. Funding itself can be discussed and criticized in the first place, but if every women’s organization which develops a project is called a project-oriented organization or an NGO-ized NGO, it becomes impossible to discuss the subject and see its connections. We need to see this concept as a certain type of organization and organizational practices –the one promoted by power structures. As Alvarez states[17] this is about neoliberal institutions, funders, and governments promoting collaborative, docile, apolitical NGOs that perform certain functions. What is NGO-ization is providing services to the poor on state’s behalf, acting like a “gender specialist”, implementing the government’s social programs, producing “knowledge” about poor women, rendering them the objects of the projects. This is not the exception; it is a very common and persistent situation. NGO-ization also means staying out of politics due to the fear of funding cuts and totally decontextualizing women’s problems and gender oppression and reducing them to a technical issue which can be solved within a year-long project.

The rise of this tendency might serve to shrink and absorb, if not appropriate, the space of a radical and oppositionist movement which challenges power, does not compromise, and aims at a greater transformation. There are numerous examples of this from Latin America to the Middle East. These mechanisms teach the poor, especially women, first of all that if they work hard and become entrepreneurs, they will save themselves. They not only expand the informal economy, but they also become the implementers of a form of government. By preventing the questioning of the source of gender oppression, poverty, and unemployment, they serve to manage these problems. This is why, as secure and good job opportunities shrink, all kinds of informal economic activities that will not burden the state are supported. This is one of the reasons why, despite the lack of evidence that NGO activities solve social problems and microcredits alleviate poverty, they continue to spread. These, in effect, serve to strengthen the capital using the propaganda “for our women”. As Julia Elyachar argues[18], it is not women who are empowered here, it is money. One of the main things that we should have issues with is the proliferation of such mechanisms and how they serve the widespread use of women’s labor. When we say, “women, at the least, make money”, we endorse the language of the World Bank which, first, impoverishes people and then tries to save them from poverty. We cannot develop policies on women’s labor without questioning why the income is distributed unjustly, why women work in the worst and most precarious jobs, and the connection and relation of this situation to male domination.

Translator: İpek Tabur

Proof-reader: Müge Karahan

For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için

[1] Julia Elyachar, “Empowerment Money: The World Bank, Non-Governmental Organizations, and the Value of Culture in Egypt”. Public Culture, 14 (3), 2002, p. 496.

[2] “Kayıtdışı patladı!” DİSK-AR Unemployment Report -April 2018,

[3] For instance, in India and Bangladesh where the Grameen-type programs were implemented first, many people who could not pay their debts, committed suicide. There was a news coverage, titled “Microcredit suicide epidemic in India”:

[4] TGMP was first founded in Diyarbakır in 2003 and then spread across Turkey. It operates with 90 branches in 60 provinces. It distributed 725 million TL-worth microcredits to 175,000 women. These programs were launched under Turkey Waste Prevention Foundation (TISVA). There are five types of loans in TGMP: Basic, entrepreneurial, animal husbandry, social development, and communication. Basic loan ranges from 100TL to 1000TL. It is paid back in 46 weeks, including interest. These programs work as follows: Credits are given separately to women only when they form a group of five. The underlying logic is what is called “social guarantee”. The women guarantee that they will also be able to be responsible for each other’s debts. Weekly debts are delivered by hand on site where one or more groups gather. These gatherings play a very important role in securing repayments. Women do everything they can and pay their weekly debts in order not to experience “embarrassment” of not being able to pay their debts in front of everyone else. For this reason, repayment rates amount to %100.

[5] Semiha Arı ve Çağla Diner, “Neoliberal Ahlak ve Yoksulluk Kıskacında Batmanlı Kadınların Mikrokredi Deneyimleri”, Kadın/Woman 2000,  17(2), December 2016.

[6] Elyachar, 2002, p. 495.

[7] David Harvey, Neoliberalizmin Kısa Tarihi, [Short History of Neoliberalism] (İstanbul: Sel, 2015), p. 186.

[8] World Resources Institute, 2002–2004: Decisions for the Earth: Balance, Voice, and Power, 2003, p. 85,

[9] Lamia Karim, “Demystifying Micro-Credit: The Grameen Bank, NGOs, and Neoliberalism in Bangladesh” Cultural Dynamics, 20, 2008, p. 8.

[10] For example, in 1994, the European Commission gave a total of 14 million dollars to NGOs working in the field of development and environment in India. Funds of this size were previously given to governments. See Alnoor Ebrahim, NGOs and Organizational Change: Discourse, Reporting, and Learning, (USA: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[11] For a few prominent studies from this perspective, see, Nanette Funk, “Women’s NGOs in Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union: The Imperialist Criticism”, Femina Politica,1, 2006; Kristen Ghodsee,“Feminism-by-Design: Emerging Capitalisms, Cultural Feminism, and Women’s Nongovernmental Organizations in Postsocialist Eastern Europe”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 29 (3), 2004; Julie Hearn, “African NGOs: The New Compradors?” Development and Change, 38(6), 2007; James Petras, “Imperialism and NGOs in Latin America”. Monthly Review, 49 (7). 1997,

[12] See Sabine Lang, “The NGOization of feminism: Institutionalization and Institution Building within the German Women’s Movements”  in B. G. Smith (Ed.), Global Feminisms since 1945 (New York/Londra: Routledge, 2002); LeeRay M. Costa, “Power and Difference in Thai Women’s NGO activism”, in V. Bernal and I. Grewal (Ed.), Theorizing NGOs: States, Feminisms, and Neoliberalism, (Durham/Londra: Duke University Press, 2014); Victoria Bernal and Inderpal Grewal, “Feminisms and the NGO Form”, in V. Bernal and I. Grewal (Ed.), Theorizing NGOs: States, Feminisms, and Neoliberalism, (Durham/Londra: Duke University Press, 2014).

[13] Elyachar argues that NGOs are representatives of the informal economy and a very important part of the global political economy. Julia Elyachar, Markets of Dispossessions: NGOs, Economic Development and State in Cairo, (Durhan/London: Duke University Press, 2005).

[14] For two reports published by KEİG on the problems faced by women’s cooperatives and production associations, see  “Kadın Kooperatiflerinde ve Üretim Derneklerinde Kadın Emeği”; “Kadın Kooperatiflerinin Çıkmazı: Az Kazanç Çok Vergi”,

[15] KEİG, Türkiye’de Kadın Kooperatifleşmesi: Eğilimler ve İdeal Tipler, Araştırma Raporu, 2015,

[16] Sonia Alvarez, “Beyond NGO-ization? Reflections From Latin America”, Development, 52(2), 2009.

[17] Alvarez, 2009.

[18] Elyachar, 2002.


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