Martha Chen

Martha Alter Chen
Born Martha Alter
(1944-02-09) February 9, 1944
Alma mater University of Pennsylvania
Occupation academic

Martha Alter Chen (Marty) (born February 9, 1944) is an American academic, scholar and social worker, who presently a Lecturer in Public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School[1] and International Coordinator of the global research-policy-action network WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing). Dr. Chen is a development practitioner and scholar who has worked with the working poor in India, South Asia, and around the world. Her areas of specialization are employment, poverty alleviation, informal economy, and gender. She lived in Bangladesh working with BRAC, one of the world's largest non-governmental organizations, and in India, as field representative of Oxfam America for India and Bangladesh for 15 years.[2]

In 2011, she received the Padma Shri from the Government of India for her contributions in the field of Social work.[3]

Early years and education

Born February 9, 1944 to Barry and Jim Alter, Chen, with her brother, Tom Alter, was raised in India as a third-generation American. Both her paternal grandparents and her parents were Protestant Christian missionaries in India. She attended Woodstock School from 1948 to 1960. After graduating, she studied for a year at Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow, India. She then went to the US for her undergraduate and graduate studies, where she received a B.A. cum laude (with honors in English literature) from Connecticut College for Women and a PhD in South Asian Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.

Career milestones and honours

During the 1970s and much of the 1980s, Dr. Chen lived with her husband and children in Bangladesh, where she worked with the NGO BRAC. Afterward, she lived in India, where she was the field representative of Oxfam America covering India and Bangladesh.

Dr. Chen joined Harvard University in 1987 and teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School. She has undertaken four field studies in India: on household coping strategies during a prolonged drought in a village in Gujarat; on widows in 14 villages in seven states; on the membership of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), and on the urban clients of the SEWA Bank. She has also carried out policy research on issues relating to the working poor, taught several courses on international development, and provided advisory services to international development agencies.

In 1997, Dr. Chen co-founded (with Ela Bhatt and Renana Jhabvala of SEWA) the WIEGO network which works to raise the voice and visibility of the working poor – including domestic workers, home-based producers, street vendors, and waste pickers – around the world.

In 1999, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University invited Dr. Chen to be its Horner Distinguished Visiting Professor in recognition of her scholarship on the situation of working poor women around the world. In 2001, the Radcliffe Institute extended appointment for a third year. From 2003-2006, she was a Visiting Professor at the SEWA Academy in India.

In 2006, Woodstock School in Mussoorie recognized Dr. Chen as a Distinguished Alumna for her work with poor women in South Asia, especially for her work examining the status of widows in India by undertaking extensive field research and organizing a national conference on what can be done to improve the status of widows. Dr. Chen edited a volume of proceedings from the conference called Widows in Rural India: Social Neglect and Public Action. She is one of the Board Members of the Technological Change Lab (TCN) at Columbia University.[2]

Dr. Chen has written or edited more than 10 books as well as numerous articles. A selected listing of publications appears below.

Personal life

Dr. Chen is married to Lincoln Chen. They have two children and six grandchildren.

Awards and honours




Book chapters

Journal articles

Encyclopedia and handbook entries

Other publications


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