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Abstract

The inclusion by Northern stakeholders of a discursively constructed category of ‘Southern women's NGO’ – increasingly heralded as the ultimate organisational form of grounded, subaltern, collective action – has come to represent a signifier of commitments to gender equality, poverty reduction and/or social justice. Southern women's NGOs are frequently credited with the capacity to facilitate the inclusion of marginalised groups conventionally excluded from development's frame. This critical review argues that this essentialism derives firstly from the belief in the Southern NGO as a grounded, democratic and accessible organisational form well suited to reach and represent the diverse and disparate needs of the grassroots. Secondly, it reflects the tendency, despite an abundance of critical black, Third World and postcolonial feminist theory warning to the contrary, to cast ‘Southern women’ as a category of politicised agents who share trajectories of historical and contemporary oppression that allow them to transcend other axes of difference to achieve improved development outcomes. The discussion examines this tendency, and whether it has led to a wholesale belief in the capacity of both ‘Southern women’ and ‘Southern NGOs’ to reach as well as represent anti-hegemonic, subaltern and thus alternative development paradigms. The analysis concludes with some brief reflections on both the discursive and practical implications of privileging the ‘Southern women's NGO’, expressed as a homogenous category, as a key interlocutor between the powerful and the marginalised in development.