Intersectionality and Development

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives”. Audre Lorde. Screen print image of Audre Lorde in pink next to the quote

Intersectionality has become a well-used term in development work, despite heated debates on its definition. Intersectionality is understood by many as a theory, a research paradigm or a strategy to transform power relations[1]. How the concept has evolved has also been heavily contested. Some argue that intersectionality’s current popularity has come at the expense of Black women, whose voices and knowledge is indiscernible.[2] Others argue that race has been overshadowed by class in the hands of global north academics[3] and ‘whitewashed’ intersectionality has lost its transformative potential.[4] Nash describes the ‘intersectionality wars’ in which Black feminists defend intersectionality from “misuse and abuse.”[5] By now nearly everything about intersectionality is contested: “its histories and origins, its methodologies, its efficacy, its politics, its relationship to identity and identity politics, its central metaphor, its juridical orientations, its relationship to ‘Black woman’ and to Black feminism.”[6]

What is Intersectionality?

Intersectionality is the legacy of feminists of colour who, in the 1970s and 1980s, aimed to empower silenced people in activist groups, academia, and social institutions. The term intersectionality was coined by the critical race theorist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989[7]. The actual ideas behind intersectionality have an older history. The geneses of intersectionality can be found in Maria Stewart’s writings in the 1830s[8], Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio[9], and practiced by Savitribai Phule through her activism in India in the late 1800’s[10]. But the intersectional approach that we understand today evolved in the social movements of the US in the 70s and 80s, as a critique of feminist and anti-racist struggles.

The concept’s intellectual and political importance grew significantly in the 1970s and 1980s thanks to the work of Black, Mestiza, post-colonial, queer, and Indigenous feminists, including Audre Lorde[11], Patricia Hill Collins[12], and bell hooks[13], who pushed social movements and academia to recognise previously ignored perspectives and identities. Proponents, such as the Combahee River Collective, pointed to the obstacles that women of colour faced in ascending to leadership roles within activist-oriented organisations[14] — particularly within civil rights and women’s movements. And while these advocates decried the lack of inclusion of Black women in the leadership of women’s and civil rights movements, they did not call for separating from these movements. Overcoming oppression in the many forms that Black women experienced it, they argued, was only to be achieved through coalition-building efforts.

Five types of intersectionality

There are five types of intersectionality outlined in Crenshaws work. [15]

Structural intersectionality refers to the creation and operation of certain systems and structures in society that maintain power for some groups or individuals while restricting the rights and power of others. Structural intersectionality encompasses the political, economic, representational, and institutional forms of discrimination and oppression. Structural intersectionality highlights the connectedness of systems and structures in society and helps us understand how each system affects or impacts others. Any discrimination is sometimes compounded by another discrimination reflecting the dynamics of a separate system or structure of subordination.

Political intersectionality refers to the structures and systems of the laws and policies that govern individuals and groups in societies. It focuses on the impact of laws, the criminal justice system, public policies, and the government in shaping the individual or group’s sense of fairness, equality, and justice in society. Political Intersectionality highlights how laws and public policies are shaped and informed by dominant cultural perspectives of race, class, gender, ethnicity, age, ability, and sexuality.

Institutional intersectionality focuses on the impact of institutions on the individual and the group. It highlights how institutions present in society restrict, limit, or deny access to resources for marginalised groups or individuals.

Economic intersectionality pays attention to the distribution of wealth and resources in societies; the individual or group’s access to information; and the impact of social class on an individual or group’s access to resources, opportunities, and mobility.

Representational intersectionality refers to the depiction of individuals and groups in dominant culture and society through media, texts, language, and images. It pays close attention to how both the dominant and marginalised groups are represented in society. It refers to the way race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnic images in society come together to create unique and specific narratives that shape and inform policies, laws, and institutions.

How is intersectionality understood in the aid sector?

It is now widely accepted that in addition to women, people’s identities such as those related to class, ethnicity, sexuality, gender diversity, age, physical ability and neuro-diversity, etc., shape our experience of discrimination and oppression; and the understanding that not all ‘marginalised or vulnerable’ people in singular identity groups experience the same type, or the same amount of discrimination has improved gender equality work. It is true that it is incredibly difficult to capture the complexity of people’s experiences in what are often (too) short-term projects with restrictive conditions from donors. This in itself requires a critique of the system within the lens of Institutional Intersectionality. Going back to Crenshaw’s initial thinking on intersectionality can help us plan how to change this. Crenshaw states that “the failure to embrace the complexities of compoundedness is not simply a matter of political will but is also due to the influence of a way of thinking about discrimination which structures politics so that struggles are categorized as singular issues. Moreover, this structure imports a descriptive and normative view of society that reinforces the status quo.”[16]

Somewhere along the way, the idea of intersectionality has become depoliticised, and its transformative potential is minimised and distorted. It seems now that intersectionality is reduced to a tick box approach to categorise identities. Much like gender and development (GAD), intersectionality has been turned into a conceptual position rather than the practical application of a radical political position. As a result, many gender practitioners in the development sector use an ‘intersectional analysis’ simply as a way of capturing and understanding oppression and discrimination that different individuals and groups are subjected to. While this is an important step towards a deeper understanding of the lives of the people and communities that we work for and with, simply adding one layer or form of discrimination on top of another in an accumulative way — otherwise known as an additive approach- is not the point of an intersectional perspective. Nor is it transformative.

Radical practitioners informed by intersectionality reject a monolithic movement based on a single, exclusionary identity or single-issue politics, for example, ‘women’. Too often development practitioners do not take this to its logical consequence when designing programmes and implementing projects. Instead, we end up acknowledging that there are many different experiences of discrimination and oppression, but rather than adjusting our ways of working accordingly, we often proceed to design and undertake development programmes and projects along the same lines as always. Often with a footnote explaining the different tick boxes identity categories that some women may also fit into.

Markers of difference vs forms of oppression

To truly be transformative, we need to distinguish between markers of difference and forms of oppression. Race, gender, ability, ethnicity, sexuality, and other markers of difference are not inherently oppressive or forms of oppression. Forms of oppression and discrimination are racism, classism, heteronormativity, cis-normativity, binarism, ethnocentrism, ableism, or ageism, etc. They are systematic and violent acts of maintaining hierarchies and positions of power in society.

For example, simply being lesbian women of colour is not inherently oppressive or bad. As a lesbian woman of colour, I find strength and power in my ethnicity, my gender identity and my sexuality. The issue is being a lesbian woman of colour in a sexist and racist society that prioritises power to a particular race, gender, or sexual orientation (i.e., white, male and heterosexual). Understanding markers of difference verses forms of oppression, acknowledges the need for revolutionary change in societies, which is an inherently political and transformative agenda.

How can we practice intersectionality?

1. Deepen your understanding of intersectionality

It is important for intersectional practitioners to become familiar with the history and inherently revolutionary nature of intersectionality. This will help the development sector better understand not only marginalised people’s burden of discrimination but the importance of their political agendas too. Although the concept of intersectionality has been discussed in the development sector for decades, it often seems to stay in the theoretical sphere. When it comes to our programming work, we do not seem to translate that understanding into initiatives that address the reality that intersectionality describes. Instead, we continue to artificially isolate different aspects of people’s identities and lived realities along thematic lines that suit our own organisational structure and the logic of our institutional donors: economic empowerment, political participation, gender-based violence, etc.

2. Move towards a multi-causal framework

Multi-causal frameworks and approaches recognise that there may be many root causes for a social issue or problem. They also acknowledge that identity is fluid and individuals may share membership in more than one group; and this shared membership impacts how they view and are impacted by a social problem or issue. Multi-causal frameworks also recognise common targets, strategies, and political positions for action across differences and communities. Multi-causal frameworks appeal to a broader cross-section of the population because issues tend to be framed broadly and in ways that cut across difference. Thus, creating opportunities for solidarity movements. Development organisations tend to organise around a single identity or group-specific concerns. Women or people with disabilities, or Indigenous people for example. Mono-causal frameworks focus on oppression based on one primary marker of difference as the root cause of a social problem or issue. Strategies employed using a mono-causal framework often ignore the complexity of a social problem or issue by negating other factors that might be contributing to or impacting an individual’s or group’s ability to obtain their rights and needs.

3. Support movements to challenge power

Transformative approaches in the development system are based on the idea of transforming the system to eradicate the underlying causes of the discrimination. Therefore, focusing on the political as well as the structural, institutional, economic and representational components of intersectionality can bring the concept back to its radical roots. Development organisations should use an intersectional perspective not just to “quantify” the discrimination that different groups are subjected to but to understand how that discrimination shapes their political action — and ultimately, how development organisations can support such action. Political intersectionality can also help centre development programming around the strengths and needs of rights holder and activist groups and movements. Rather than being seen primarily as people who are subjected to structural oppression, it helps INGO’s recognise them as people who make active decisions about how to fight the discrimination that they face. When applied in this way, an intersectional perspective can help development practitioners and organisations become allies to movement building groups as they work towards actual justice and equality.

[1] Keuc Hancock, A. M. (2007). When multiplication doesn’t equal quick addition: Examining intersectionality as a research paradigm. Perspectives on Politics, 5(1), 63–79.

[2] Jordan-Zachery, J. S. (2007). Am I a black woman or a woman who is black? A few thoughts on the meaning of intersectionality. Politics and Gender3(2), 254–263.

[3] Carbado, D. W., Crenshaw, K. W., Mays, V. M., & Tomlinson, B. (2013). Intersectionality: Mapping the movements of a theory. Du Bois Review, 10(2), 303–312.

[4] Bilge, S. (2013). Intersectionality undone: Saving intersectionality from feminist intersectionality studies. Du Bois Review, 10(2), 402–424.

[5] Nash, J.C., (2019) Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality. Duke University Press, 2019. 182 pp. notes. bibl. index. ISBN 978–1478000594.

[6] Nash, J. C. (2017). Intersectionality and its discontents. American Quarterly, 69(1), 117–129.

[7] Crenshaw, K., (1989) “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. Iss. 1, Article 8.

[8] BlackPast, B. (2007). (1832) Maria W. Stewart, “Why Sit Ye Here and Die?”. Retrieved from

[9] Sojourner Truth (1851) Ain’t I A Woman?

[10] Santoshkumar M Katke, (2019)., Savitribai Phule Contribution towards Indian Social Elements — A Study JETIR November 2019, Volume 6, Issue 11

[11] Lorde, A., (1995) Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference in Campus Wars, Ed 1. Routledge.

[12] Hill-Collins, P., (2019) Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory. Duke University Press.

[13] hooks, b., (1984) Feminist Theory: From the Margins to the Centre. South End Press.

[14] The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977) by Combahee River Collective

[15] Crenshaw, K., (1991) Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color Stanford Law Review

[16] Crenshaw, K., (1989) Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, in Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics, p 166