Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2020
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
The Value of Poverty: Development Projects at the Bottom of the Pyramid in Rural Rajasthan

As of 2019, World Bank projects worth $3.9 billion are operational in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, implemented either by the government or by NGOs. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives have followed suit, leading to a proliferation of privately-funded development projects across one of India's poorest regions. Following the development industry's valorization of entrepreneurship and financial inclusion as market-based solutions to poverty (Roy 2010, Soederberg 2013), CSR projects disburse assets and credit to Rajasthan's rural poor. Through 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork focusing on two CSR-funded, NGO-run development projects in peri-urban villages near Ajmer and Udaipur cities, my project will interrogate the cultural labors through which development projects attempt to remake rural Rajasthan as a debt-saturated enterprise society (Foucault 2008), and the new definitions of poverty which are generated in the process (Li 2016). My research asks: why do developers advance new enterprises and more credit to the already enterprising yet indebted poor? I ethnographically track developers' re-posing of the poverty problem as a lack of market-engagement rather than a lack of incomes, asking: how are enterprises positioned as superior to better-paying wage labor? How are collective democratic demands for public funding redirected towards the individual market demand for credit? Situating private development in rural Rajasthan in the context of the call to tap the 'fortune at the bottom of the pyramid' (Elyachar 2012), I interrogate development projects' efforts to insert new markets into the nooks and crannies of rural society. By demonstrating how the 'bottom billion' continue to be approached as sources of profit and enfolded into wider circuits of accumulation (Kar 2017), I intervene in conceptualizations of the poor as surplus populations abandoned by state and capital (Li 2017, Ferguson 2015).