- How Development Projects Persist: Everyday Negotiation with Guatemalan NGOs by Erin Beck
Erin Beck's book, how development Projects Persist, is a valuable study of the local consequences of Western-dominated development, development norms, and development organizations in Guatemala. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork and survey research, Beck sets herself the task to conduct a comparative study of microfinance organizations that embrace two distinct approaches to development. Her aim is to disentangle how development takes place at the ground level in Guatemala. Beck, a political scientist, provides an in-depth, thick description analysis of two gender-based NGOs: Fraternity, located in the western highlands, and Namaste, in the southwestern part of Guatemala. Both development organizations are situated in areas that are mainly Maya-populated, a region that has been a magnet for international donors. Because both development organizations seek to assist Mayan women, in her ethnography Beck focuses on this particular segment of Guatemalan society.
Given her comparative approach, and the fact that both NGOs are remarkably different, Beck observes that initially one would be compelled to ask: "Which type of NGO and which development model works better? Which more effectively empowers women, contributes to development from the 'bottom up,' and has the most meaningful impact in the lives of women…?" (p. 3) These glaring questions, however, are the wrong ones to ask. Rather, Beck writes, we need to dig deeper, peel the layers, and pose the following: "How are NGOs' development projects constituted in the first place? What determines what actually happens on the ground?" (p. 3) In doing so, Beck reveals how each NGO—with its specific organizational structure, goals, and everyday negotiations and practices—plays an important role in how Guatemalan indigenous women are impacted by these development projects.
Namaste is supported by foreign aid and foreign-managed. The primary goal of Namaste is to provide first-time women borrowers small loans; in other words, micro-credit or microfinance (typically between US$225 - US$400) in rural and semi-rural Guatemala. These loans, however, come with strings attached. They require poor, Mayan female borrowers to attend monthly group classes that attend to business management and financial literacy. Ultimately, instead of addressing long-term structural change, Namaste seeks to empower women by increasing their access to resources in the short term. According to Beck, this NGO uses a bootstrap model of development based on individual entrepreneurship.
In contrast, Fraternity is a grassroots organization that embraces a multifaceted [End Page 303] approach, criticizes austere capitalist neoliberal policies, and seeks environmental sustainability, cultural recuperation, and personal transformations (p. 3). As a whole, the organization employs a holistic approach of development. For instance, it uses small loans to bring Mayan women into the development project, encourages them to recapture their ethnic identity, promotes empowerment, and strives to have them "live more fully in their faiths" (p. 135). The NGO is religious in nature, started by the Presbyterian Church, and thus is imbued with Protestant and Mayan practices and beliefs.
By providing vignettes and delving into the experiences that shape the practices and expectations of women acquiring loans and those who offer them, Beck offers a wealth of detail into how NGOs operate. At the same time, she brings women's agency to the forefront by showing how Mayan women actively negotiate development NGOs, and thus pulls us toward a grounded picture of development projects in Guatemala.
While Beck does a good job in providing an overview of the development literature in the context of Guatemala (chapter 2) and throughout discusses the complexities behind development NGOs that tackle microcredit in Guatemala, the text could have gained strength by addressing the widespread phenomenon of emigration. U.S.-bound migration and its attendant outcomes, especially that of economic remittances, have become a key feature in fueling Guatemala's economy. In fact, much research examining international migration and remittances look...