Dilemmas of Difference: Indigenous Women and the Limits of Postcolonial Development Policy

Sarah A. Radcliffe

Durham: Duke University Press, 2015, 372 pp.

Reviewed by April D. J. Petillo

Stemming from a previous project exploring the potential impacts of Indigenous transnational activism on development policy and decision making, Sarah A. Radcliff examines the tensions and misfires between the aims of development’s modernization, neoliberalism, and postneoliberalim frameworks and the lived realities of Indigenous Ecuadorian women in the research that informs Dilemmas of Difference. To do so, Radcliff engages a theoretical framework invoking coloniality, postcolonial intersectionality, and citizenship to prioritize Indigenous women’s perspectives. Radcliff finds ample support for her critique—that current modes of development reify and continue “single issue” ideas about social difference through their insufficient consideration of intersectional positionality in both local and globalized contexts—based in the experiences of these racialized women. The refusal to take intersectional positionality into account creates more development harm than good and, ultimately, exacerbates the postcolonial conditions that create the need for development assistance.

One of Radcliff’s contributions to development literature is her use of ethnography in this context. This work centers on the creative ways that her Tsáchila and Kichwa interlocutors engaged with and advocated through the realities of rapid urbanization and declining farming economies as well as reproductive rights and intercultural public health care. In particular, Radcliff focuses on the specific ways that development “solutions” require Indigenous creativity to access the promised benefits while maintaining the knowledge and lifeways central to a specific identity. Grounding her work in the productive and reproductive physical, political and cultural workloads that these women navigate helps pinpoint interlocking structural barriers related to employment, education, Indigenous recognition, and land/natural resource control that undergirds the marginalization that current development strategies encourage, even if unwittingly.

Radcliff’s contribution to ethnographic literature focused on Indigenous women’s lives includes explanations of the inherent challenges present in development policy tendencies to assume and encourage sociospatial homogeneity. This work also touches on the benefits of applying anthropological perspective to the question of how policy might, instead, take sociospatial differences into account without compounding existing challenges that come from an intersectional reality (3). Those who engage in research that prioritizes and centers Indigenous experiences and interpretations of coloniality and colonialist approaches will also appreciate the care with which Radcliff addresses the development barriers created by living in internal colonies. Within this power relationship—biopolitically defined by ethnorace, place-belonging, state created lack of access, as well as identity bound concepts and gender based responsibilities—Indigenous women bear the brunt of development’s failures. That, coupled with their incomplete citizenship—which, according to Radcliff, affords these women minimal if any assurances of an effective political voice or authority, as well as limited access to state managed resources—ensures that these women are constructed as dispensable. From the first story of a deaf, disrespected Kichwa caretaker of elderly parents to text interludes built on field notes of Tsáchila and Kichwa organizing efforts—Radcliff incorporates Indigenous knowledge both about development and its inability to understand the areas where ethnorace and gender meet poverty and state neglect.

For feminist anthropologists, Radcliff offers analysis of Indigenous Ecuadorian women’s civic participation, development engagement, and demonstrations of political agency in policy discussions about sexuality and health rights, as well as their moves to fuller citizenship and expression of their political voice. In doing so, Radcliff also highlights how these women have defied the exceptionalist, xenophobic portrayal of Indigenous women as stripped of political agency, trapped by “anti-woman” tradition, and constrained to biological work sustaining their cultural legacy. As complicated political beings focused on individual and collective rights via their intersectional experiences as ethnoracial and gendered people, Radcliff’s discussion of Tsáchila and Kichwa women’s response provides both evidence of gender asymmetry across cultures and a critique of male, Western bias hostile to “alternative” knowledge production.

Overall, Dilemmas of Difference: Indigenous Women and the Limits of Postcolonial Development Policy offers important insight into the areas where development projects and the targeted populations disconnect. There is no doubt that such insight is an important contribution to several bodies of literature and disciplines. Additionally, Radcliff’s effort is a testament to the importance of feminist and applied anthropology to help those sectors focused on doing “good work” to actually provide work that is experienced as good by the communities meant to be served.

April D. J. Petillo is an Assistant Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Native American/Indigenous Studies Emphasis, at Kansas State University. Her research interests include contemporary targeted violences and exploitation, colonial and conquest logics, activist scholarship, community defined justice and the law. April’s work involves transnational feminisms and feminist ethnography.

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