Review of Aid and the Help: International Development and Transnational Extraction of Care By Dinah Hannaford, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 2023. 228 pp.

Reviewed Book

Aid and the Help: International Development and Transnational Extraction of Care By Dinah Hannaford, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 2023. 228 pp.

Cover of Aid and the Help (2023)

Kritika Pandey

University of Southern California

The invisibilization of paid domestic work in mainstream labor discourses, both at the level of individual states and in policy analysis, reasserts the consistent devaluation faced by workers providing household care and reproductive labor across the globe. A burgeoning set of scholarship in the last few decades has foregrounded marginalization of care work across national and transnational contexts to highlight how persistent racialization, class-based hierarchies, and gendered processes together inform the global commodification of care. Dinah Hannaford’s fascinating book adds to this discussion through an invaluable investigation of a highly relevant and yet largely unexplored intersection of international development industry and paid domestic work. By bringing together feminist frameworks on the ethics of care work and critical perspectives on development studies, this book analyzes the extraction of local reproductive labor by expats in the African country of Senegal to underscore how “the production/reproduction of their class status and privilege was contingent on the abundance of low-wage labor of local people and their exploitation of that labor” (16). Thus, through this ethnographic research, the author makes a compelling case about the role of local labor in sustaining international aid and development work, which (a) challenges ideologies of altruistic and charitable initiatives of developed countries in the West, and (b) exposes the cyclical sustenance of post-colonial inequalities through fields like international development and aid. Hannaford argues that the relationship of development and aid workers with locals employed in their households is an important dynamic to address the complications and issues around on-ground realities and praxis of the development industry. By bringing to fore the extractive nature of this field in terms of accessing and relying on local cheap labor, Hannaford expertly critiques this industry which is often still painted through the colonial lens of global “intervention” as care and support from the wealthier (often Western) nations.

As an ethnographic study drawing from multiple years of participant observation in expat Dakar, Senegal, this work is rooted in Hannaford’s consistent engagement with the complicated terrains of paid domestic work in expat households with an almost “longitudinal perspective” (22). Further, Hannaford’s use of digital ethnography to explore online employer and worker spaces as well as in-depth interviews brings nuance and rigor to the narratives of negotiating these different aspects of care work from different positionalities- that of the employer and the worker. This juxtaposition of employer-employee narratives also provides a valuable framework to better understand first, how different actors make sense of the inequalities at play in paid domestic work. Second, employer narratives in particular bring forth how international aid workers strategize to mitigate and/or morally resolve these hierarchies, which directly benefit their upward mobility as economic migrants while also being the source of ethical dilemmas for them.

Aid and the Help contributes to scholarly debates on care work, migration, and international development in three important ways. First, by arguing that international development structures are deeply dependent on local reproductive labor, this work destabilizes the still dominant claims of Western aid as benevolent and focused on global upliftment of impoverished communities. For instance, while discussing how informal networks and lack of clear formal contracts still make up the norm for domestic workers hired by international aid workers, Hannaford highlights how “The UN, while championing the rights of domestic workers globally, is reluctant to enforce those rights among its own staff, who see cheap domestic labor as one of the perks and necessities of their job” (67). Further, employer narratives also reveal how cheap reproductive labor which sustains a smooth running for aid workers’ households becomes a key source for them to have a better work-life balance, leisure time, more savings and further upward mobility in terms of promotions and progress at work. In this way, through the discussion of how whiteness in spaces like Dakar manifests racial privilege and power, Hannaford’s work encourages the reader to confront the colonial underpinnings of the international aid industry as well as the global inequalities which both sustain and are sustained by it.

In close connection to this, the second important contribution of this book lies in arguing for a methodological and theoretical reimagination of the term “migrant” to also include workers from developed countries working overseas. Hannaford’s work reverses the usual dichotomy of migrant domestic workers and local employers by focusing instead on the case of local domestic workers and expat/economic migrant employers. This reversal holds an important role in critiquing classical frameworks that often privilege a one-directional move from economically weaker to stronger regions as migration. By recognizing aid workers as economic migrants, Hannaford’s work introduces a valuable nuance on how racialized and class-based affordability as well as choice to migrate drastically impact experiences of individuals as well as the labels they are accorded in global discussions on mobility. Further, Hannaford utilizes this reversal well and contrasts the widespread gains received by economic migrant women workers in the aid industry with the continued struggles of the local migrant domestic workers employed by them to impress upon readers how “class, citizenship and race impede solidarity” (155).

Finally, Hannaford’s discussion of the contentious intimacies between expat employers and their local domestic workers opens a valuable avenue to delve into questions around intimacy and economy, especially in the frame of reproductive labor. Hannaford shows, for instance, how informal networks used to find workers for hire are preferred by expats as these networks help them overcome the awkwardness of hiring strangers for their home by creating the possibility of making the domestic worker “a friend of a friend” (33). At the same time, “The lack of formal contracts or oversight means that there are few constraints on what employers can demand of workers” (57). Further, the informality of the profession implied that “domestic workers relied heavily on their bosses advocating for them to secure a new gig upon their departure” (36).

Overall, this book provides a valuable critical perspective on post-colonial global inequalities through a rich and nuanced yet grounded ethnographic account of paid domestic work in the homes of development workers. The lucid writing style combined with a lack of excessive jargon makes this book a solid choice to be used in advanced undergraduate and graduate-level courses on migration, labor, development, intimacies, and economy as well as global studies.