"NGO means business [byabsha] and theft [churi]. But within this, there is also change. Today, some village girls are able to say that they need to stand on their own feet, go out, and not just think within the limits of the household."
Sumana illustrated with characteristic clarity, the paradoxes of the work of NGOs. Their self-presentation as ‘do-gooders’—especially for poor rural women like her—obfuscated the extent to which the development sector operated as a business with the intrinsic possibility of being corrupt and exploitative. At the same time, her words underscored what we also know to be a truism from critical ethnographies of gender and development, namely that governmental and non-governmental interventions do create a potential for change and that too, in the agents of development rather than in its intended beneficiaries. Sumana—whose story is not the subject of this article (but of another)—was one such agent called upon to deliver the goods of development in a globally resonant and deeply gendered mode. She had managed, in a short period of time, to rapidly rise up the ranks of Kolkata’s development sector, becoming a well-known gender trainer for various city-based women’s NGOs as well as sustaining a small funded outfit in her village of origin while living in the metropole. Still occupying an economically precarious position—sustained through piecemeal external funds and payments for her services—she nevertheless cut an aspirational figure for some of the women around her. These were rural, working-class, lower-caste, poorly educated women, employed as caseworkers and peer educators, in the lowest rungs of a sector that was itself marked by low, insecure pay, and the lack of benefits. One of them was a caseworker who I will call Ruma, who invariably compared herself to Sumana, complaining how the latter had accrued more recognition and respect from NGO didis (elder sisters) than she had but also clarifying the distinct nature of her own aspirations. These were far more modest than running an NGO. Ruma simply desired a salary to continue doing what she loved, which she described as helping or even ‘saving’ women from oppression. Individual aspiration of this sort embodied several of the contradictions when it came to the twin processes of the restructuring of women’s development under neoliberalism and the NGOisation of feminist activism. In this article, I dwell on the paradox of producing precarity in the name of empowerment by showing how NGOs can, on the one hand, offer employment opportunities to women who are otherwise outside of the labour market but can, on the other hand, ensconce them in new forms of precarity, particularly in offering up forms of (feminised) labour that are almost exclusively insecure, poorly paid, and short-term—or, precarious. Such precarity exceeded questions of pay. Women like Ruma desired salaries as clear indicators of their self-worth and value beyond the economic. It was ultimately precarious NGO work—invariably referred to by individual women as a bhalo kaaj (a good deed)—that generated such new aspirations that were tied to specific classed and gendered futures, thereby drawing our attention to another set of paradoxes, namely the manner in which empowerment-induced-precarity was the locus of not just new aspirations but fostered in subaltern women new capacities to aspire.