How International Aid Labels People

We all label ourselves and others to signal different aspects of our identities. Labels are a means to construct our social world: they define norms in relation to others who bear similar or different labels.

Similarly, labelling is commonplace within development practice. As policymakers, practitioners and researchers, we use ‘frames’ and ‘labels’ to help our analyses and to describe to others what we do. We quantify and measure categories of people to define needs, justify interventions and to formulate and channel solutions to perceived problems.

While they may be efficient, such labelling processes are also dynamic and political. Therefore, they can produce unintended, and sometimes, unwelcome consequences. For example, labelling may shift – or sustain – power relations in ways that trigger social dislocation and prejudice efforts to achieve greater equity.

With funding from the UK Department for International Development, IDS researchers have been collaborating with a network of practitioners and academics to explore the key dimensions of the power of labelling in development, recommending greater self awareness from policy actors and more sensitive and nuanced responses to local political contexts.

Key contacts

Project details

start date
12 February 2006
end date
20 November 2010


Recent work


The Power of Labelling

How People are Categorized and Why It MattersThis book gives a comprehensive examination of how labels such as 'The Poor' or 'Asylum Seeker' are created and applied and how these labels shape power relations in development and aid work. It is Authored by leading development practitioners and...

1 December 2009