Martha Chen
President Pratibha Patil presenting the Padma Shri Award at an Investiture Ceremony II, at Rashtrapati Bhavan, in New Delhi on April 1, 2011
Martha Alter

(1944-02-09) February 9, 1944 (age 80)
Tennessee, United States
Alma materConnecticut College (BA)
University of Pennsylvania (PhD)
Occupation(s)Educator, academic
SpouseLincoln Chen
RelativesTom Alter (brother)
Stephen Alter (first cousin)

Martha Chen (née Alter; born February 9, 1944[1]) is an American academic, scholar and social worker, who is presently a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School[2] and senior advisor of the global research-policy-action network WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing)[3] and a member of the Advisory Board of the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER).[4] Martha 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.[5]

In 2011, she received the Padma Shri from the Government of India for her contributions in the field of social work.[6] She also received the Friends of Bangladesh Liberation War award by the Government of Bangladesh.

Early years

Martha was born on February 9, 1944, to Barbara and Jim Alter in rural Tennessee.[7] Her family hailed from Ohio in the USA. Martha's grandparents had come to India as missionaries of the Presbyterian church. They pursued their missionary activities in undivided Punjab (mostly in Sialkot and Peshawar) and Martha's father was born in Sialkot. Later on, Martha's paternal grandfather took up a position as headmaster of Woodstock School in Landour, on the outskirts of Mussoorie. Their family settled here. Martha grew up largely in the hills of Mussoorie and Landour and in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand.[3] She was one of three children. Her brothers were Tom Alter, the well-known film and theatre actor, and John Alter.[8]


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.[8]

Career milestones and honours

During the 1970s and much of the 1980s, 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.[8] They arrived in Dhaka when a cyclone and tidal wave hit the coasts of the city. She then went on to provide a cyclone relief operation with three other women. Moreover, during this period, the tensions between Bangladesh and Pakistan was on a rise and all the Americans in Dhaka were evacuated to Karachi in Pakistan and then to Tehran. Once they reached the US, Martha and her husband joined the "Friends of Bangladesh" political campaign against the US for supporting West Pakistan. The money left over from the cyclone relief was used to start an NGO for Bengali refugees returning from India called the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee (BRAC), which is now the largest non governmental agency in the world.[3] Along with Bengali colleagues, she helped trained Bangladeshi women in animal husbandry, fish culture and helped revive traditional handicrafts so that women in remote villages have a form of income.[9]

Martha 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 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.[10]

In 1997, 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 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 to 2006, she was a Visiting Professor at the SEWA Academy in India.[8]

In 2006, Woodstock School in Mussoorie recognized 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. 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.[5]

Personal life

Martha Alter is married to Lincoln Chen; the couple has two children and six grandchildren.[8]

Awards and honours




Book chapters

Journal articles

Encyclopedia and handbook entries

Other publications