Identity and Development in Rural Bolivia : Negotiating Gender, Ethnicity, and Class in Development Contexts

Christine Hippert

PhD Thesis 2007

This dissertation examines participatory development in its cultural context: how people define it, the significance of their definitions, who participates in it, and how. Since the passage of the Law of Popular Participation in 1994, participation has become obligatory and emblematic of Bolivian citizenship. At the same time, identity based on culturally determined conceptualizations of gender, ethnicity, and class has become increasingly salient in questions of policy, politics, the law, education, and the Bolivian economy. In this social milieu, local people first and foremost must engage identity discourse in order to “do development.” My central argument is that local people are required to deliberately accommodate, resist, and/or construct their own particular “development identities” in different development contexts. They employ a variety of subject positionalities – either forged themselves or imposed on them – on instrumental grounds, so that they sell the community as a good risk for development in order to garner development funding, and for transformative reasons, to engender community social relations.

The study is based on 13 months of anthropological fieldwork in the small, rural community of Huancarani near Cochabamba , Bolivia . I conducted participation observation in three development contexts: 1) the local governing body, 2) a grassroots food security organization, and 3) a local women's organization. Although many of the same community members participate in more than one of these contexts, they forge different development identities for each. Participation observation was also complemented with intensive, unstructured interviews with 10 key informants and semi-structured interview schedules with 30 community members and 20 community leaders.

Identity politics has the potential to both limit community participation and empower local people. My study shows that participatory development work in Bolivia is squarely a matter of negotiating and reformulating collective community identities. Instead of leveling the playing field, participation in Bolivian development often means that not having the right development identity restricts people from competing for already very scarce development resources. Under these conditions, the current model of development in Bolivia is one in which external political processes attempt to regulate not only the direction of rural development, but the very identity of communities.