Naila Kabeer was researching concepts of citizenship in developing countries with the International Development department in the UK when she started wondering how citizenship was viewed at a grassroots level—how did the working poor see themselves and their relationships with their countries? This prompted her to begin an open investigation of the working poor in Bangladesh. The investigation examined the experiences of people who were involved with different types of organizations, including trade unions, microfinance, and social mobilization. Much to Kabeer’s surprise, the people involved with the social mobilization organizations had the best understanding of citizenship and human rights.

The angle of the investigation was not interested in asking a direct question about citizenship but rather to ask people how they viewed their place in society and to what rights they were entitled. The research showed that people involved with trade unions had a very narrow concept of citizenship and that their ideas of rights were labour-based. In contrast, people associated with social mobilization organizations understood what rights meant and were prepared to act on them.

Kabeer expected to find a strong economic impact with microfinance organizations that would result in a greater concept of citizenship, but her findings showed otherwise. She discovered that business and profit were the primary focus of people involved with microfinance and that this did not necessarily extend to their rights in the overall economy. Even ASA, the most powerful microfinance group in Bangladesh, had a weak economic impact. On the other hand, Nijera Kori, a social mobilization organization, had the strongest economic and political impact. Kabeer dug further into her research with the new goal of explaining why her investigations revealed these results. Kabeer will go into greater detail about her research involving microfinance, social mobilization, and citizenship during her presentation and will address the reasons behind her findings.

Kabeer has also explored the importance of gender in paid work and in concepts of citizenship. She seeks solutions to problems of women’s inaccessibility to paid labour, land, citizenship, and so forth. She believes that one of the things hindering practical solutions for people working in this field of development is that there is not enough knowledge about how labour markets work. Instead, the focus has been on rights and inequality. Kabeer’s tactic is to research the labour markets and the gender dynamics within them.

Another tactic Kabeer takes is trying to bridge the individual struggle with the collective struggle. For example, a woman has a very different struggle than a man in regards to labour rights. This means that women have to fight on two fronts; they have to fight for their rights as a worker while fighting for their rights as women. In this way, women have been doubly-oppressed. In order to resist exploitation, people need to have an organized voice. Kabeer believes that the key lies in making ties between different sections of society so that people can relate to one another.

Naila Kabeer is the Professor of Development Studies at the University of London in the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is also an author, editor, social economist, and avid researcher. Her work is very accessible, with several of her talks available on YouTube and other social media websites. A visit to her website,, provides access to many of her publications. Her credentials include a Professorial Fellowship at the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex, being on the board of the Feminist Review Trust, and training and advisory work with Oxfam, ActionAid, Women for Women International, BRAC, PRADAN and Nijera Kori. The UK, South Asia, and Southeast Asia are where the bulk of her work has been conducted.

She will be coming to Peterborough on Thursday, October 4 to discuss her unexpected discovery about the relationship between microfinance, social mobilization, and concepts of citizenship. Her presentation is called “Microfinance and Social Mobilization: Alternative Models of Social Change” and will take place at Market Hall at 7:30pm. Kabeer lives in the UK and will be coming to Canada for a short tour with presentations in Ottawa and York University, in addition to her talk in Peterborough.