Tag Archives: Politics, government, power

NGO-graphies: On Knowledge Production and Contention

NGOgraphies logo

The NGOs and Nonprofits Special Interest Group held its second biennial conference before the AAAs last week. It’s designed to give anthropologists and practitioners working in and with NGOs a chance to engage with each other in a more intimate, focused way before diving into the chaos of the AAAs. Entitled “NGOgraphies,” this year’s conference explored the dual meaning of the term, coined by Steven Sampson and Julie Hemment in 2001, which refers both to critical ethnography of NGOs in general and to analysis of the human geography of NGOs in particular. The conference attracted 112 attendees from 13 countries, and session organizers were encouraged to use alternate formats to engage participants, ranging from workshops to roundtables. Rather than a general report on the conference, this post is a reflection on some of the specific conversations and lines of thought the conference generated for me.

When I circulated the call for papers for my roundtable panel What Is This ‘Local Knowledge’ that Development Organizations Fetishize? to the NGOs and Nonprofits Interest Group listserv in May, I got the following email in reply:

Dear All,

I might have been interested in participating, but will likely be traveling overseas for humanitarian work at the time. I have worked for international NGOs and aid agencies for 30 years, as I do now. However, I must say that the title of the session troubles me. As a long-time member and leader of such organizations, I have never known our community to “fetishize” local knowledge. I think the term is disrespectful to my colleagues and their work and insights. This seems like some sort of construct or perception of research-based academics.

Continue reading

The Riddle of Sean Lien

[Savage Minds welcomes guest bloggers Renée Salmonsen and Chuan-wen Chen.]

Originally posted on the Guava Anthropology Blog 28 September 2014

Author: Hsiu-Hsin Lin
Translators: Renée Salmonsen & Chuan-Wen Chen

Translator’s note: Contemporary youth and amateur politicians are taking an increasingly active interest and role in Asian politics. We feel it is important to translate this article because the result of Taipei’s mayoral election last year was a significant milestone for Taiwan. This article was written in the month leading up to the election. Many people view the result, independent candidate Wen-je Ko winning the capital city mayoral election, as a reflection of voters seeking change and expressing their dislike for both major political parties, the Kuomintang party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The election was held on November 29th, 2014. The two most popular candidates were Wen-je Ko and Sheng-wen Lien. Neither of the leading candidates had previous significant administrative or management experience in government institutions. Ko, a former surgeon, won the election with 57.16% of votes. Sheng-wen Lien, a.k.a. Sean Lien, is the son of Lien Chan, the former Chairman of the KMT and the Vice President of Taiwan. Sean Lien won the KMT mayoral primary, but lost the 2014 Taipei City mayoral election with 40.82% of votes.

The idea for this article stems from a class discussion. Taipei’s mayoral election has been the hot topic for weeks now. Anything seemingly unrelated to the election is now related. Due to recent circumstances, I haven’t logged-on to Facebook or watched TV lately which has enabled conversations with my students to skip over the hot, trending topics of the election and return to the greater issue of the “Sheng-wen phenomenon”. In other words, whether Sheng-wen is elected or not the emergence of a figure like Sean Lien is a very important phenomenon for the social sciences.

Continue reading

The Nuclear Option: For Anthropologists Who Have Considered Humor When the Drive to Modernity is Not Enough

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Donna Goldstein as part of our Writer’s Workshop Series. Donna is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. She is the author of  Laughter Out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown (University of California Press). She is currently writing about pharmaceutical politics, bioethics, regulation, and neoliberalism in Argentina and the United States, and is investigating the history of genetics, Cold War science, the health of populations, and the future of nuclear energy in Brazil.]

“Going through the Brazilian Portal. Hold on! We are heading into Porto Frade, a gated community of the rich and wealthy! Everything functions here!” These are the words of my Brazilian research co-pilot, Nelson Novaes Pedroso Junior, during our recent field excursion to Angra dos Reis to explore perceptions of risk and the role of the nuclear energy plants in the region. Together with doctoral candidate Meryleen Mena, our research team entered Porto Frade, a securitized community not far from the Angra I and II nuclear complex in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is a gated community and a world of yachts, million dollar homes, mostly empty streets (in March of 2015, at least), and security apparati just within the five-kilometer mark of the emergency evacuation plan of the nuclear plant.

Yacht Porto Frade
Porto Frade. Photo by Donna Goldstein.

This is not only a less well-known Monaco or Sausalito, but also a community of second homes that are underutilized by their wealthy Brazilian owners. The homes are perfect, the gardens well-kept, and the yachts are supersized. In Porto Frade you can find restaurants with French names and menus that would please the most discerning cosmopolitan foodie. If I had no social conscience at all, I could probably have enjoyed my late Saturday lunch that much more. But knowing a tiny bit more about the broader context made enjoyment somewhat difficult. One needs a good sense of humor and sense of the absurd to work in Brazil and to write about its contradictions. Continue reading

A Place for Poor People? Peri-Urban Land & “Development” in Lesotho

This post was contributed by Charles Fogelman, and is part of a series on ‘Rending land investible‘, guest edited by Jenny E Goldstein and Julian S Yates.

Charles Fogelman is a Research Fellow with the Cultures of Law in Global Contexts Project and a Ph.D. candidate with the Department of Geography and GIS at the University of Illinois. He tweets at @charlesfogelman.

The title of this piece comes from a conversation I had with a senior unelected official for the city of Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. As he described the planned sprawling 18-hole golf course in a village on the outskirts of town, I asked him what would happen to the poor people who currently used the land for small-scale agriculture. “The city is no place for poor people!” he told me. His perspective, in direct conflict with discourses of international development, demonstrates a key tension between the objectives of poverty reduction and economic growth.

My dissertation project investigates that tension via the logics and impacts of a major land reform project in Lesotho. My presentation at the AAG meeting in Chicago will focus specifically on the uses of mapping and other technologies in Lesotho’s land reform, while other elements of my work focus on gender and authority. For this piece, however, I want to talk about my project more broadly to investigate what “development” means in the context of Lesotho’s land.

Land Act 2010 is the centerpiece of legislation that sets the rules for land reform in Lesotho. Together with several other laws, the Land Act set out to make land a more legible and exchangeable resource. The biggest element of the law was that it eliminated customary tenure in urban areas and instead mandated leaseholds (de facto titles). As the government minister responsible for the execution of the law phrased it, “The current land reform program in Lesotho is driven by the desire to achieve social growth and development on the one hand and economic growth and development on the other” (Sekatle 2010). The text of Land Act 2010 is nearly identical to its predecessor, but Land Act 1979 failed to successfully disempower customary authorities in land matters.

The reason Land Act 2010 has been successfully implemented is that a $363 million grant from the U.S.’s new development wing, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), provided the funding to measure, map, adjudicate and deliver the leaseholds that the law requires. In 1979 these expensive logistics were left to individual landholders. Together with wording that removes land allocation power from unelected local chiefs, who were seen as potentially capricious and unsanctionable by their constituents, Land Act 2010 successfully moved urban land tenure to the hands of the market. The goal of making Lesotho’s land an engine of economic growth is consistent with other MCC projects and with the MCC motto – “Poverty reduction through economic growth.” How this market-led land reform works toward economic growth is clear. However, its work toward the goal of poverty reduction is murkier.

The questions I have asked about this reform are rooted in a framework of access. In short, vulnerable people have been granted the right to benefit from their land, but have they been granted the ability to benefit? (Ribot & Peluso 2003). What my work demonstrates is that legal frameworks are necessary but insufficient to provide true land access to vulnerable land users. It is the institutions that govern the execution and application of the laws that are most important. They are the ones who can determine who truly benefits. In Lesotho, the beneficiaries of land reform do not appear to be the poor and vulnerable people said to be targeted by the MCC’s development plans.

That leads to a final point: who are the true beneficiaries of Lesotho’s Land Act 2010 if not the vulnerable people ostensibly targeted? In my research village, two real estate developers are reaping the benefits of secure and exchangeable land tenure. One is building the aforementioned par-71 golf course on half of the village’s former agricultural fields, the other is building a 700-home suburban development on the other half of the fields. Two things are notable about this. First, these developers are empowered by bureaucrats, who are able to influence the votes of the elected officials who are supposed to determine land allocation. The bureaucrats are, like the chiefs before them, unelected officials who can be capricious or corrupt with little ability for public sanction. Second, discourses of “development” that privilege economic growth as the driver of poverty reduction need to be more explicit in how poverty reduction will happen. All the good intentions in the world have not kept economic growth at my research site from trampling on the land access of the poor.

If a development project is to be truly pro-poor, the poor need to truly be at the forefront of planning and execution. These concerns are hardly academic: the MCC is planning a second grant for Lesotho, and their initial plan identifies “Poor land management and allocation systems” as a “binding constraint to economic growth” in Lesotho. A further U.S.-led redefinition of the social relations that govern land access may lie ahead. Poverty reduction and economic growth are very different things. To truly reduce poverty, institutions and development agencies must target reforms and projects that directly help poor people rather than waiting for the fruits of trickle down to accrue to the poor. Trickle down development like Lesotho’s can create a situation where security of land tenure is for golf courses, not the vulnerable, and the city is truly not a place for poor people.

Race is a Technology (and so is Gender)

I think there are two very different ways of talking about race and racism which frequently get conflated, and I think this confusion is responsible for a lot of wasted energy in various online debates. The same goes for discussions about gender and sexism. On the one hand we have a moralistic view of racism/sexism. This view seems more likely to be held by people who are decrying accusations of racism/sexism than by those who try to call attention to them, but not exclusively. Those who call out racism/sexism, on the other hand, are more likely to be talking about race/gender as technologies of power which work to systematically marginalize certain voices (and certain lives) than they are to be accusing anyone in particular of being immoral.

Continue reading

From #EbolaBeGone to #BlackLivesMatter: Anthropology, misrecognition, and the racial politics of crisis

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Thurka Sangaramoorthy and Adia Benton. Thurka Sangaramoorthy is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland. She is the author of Treating AIDS: Politics of Difference, Paradox of Prevention (Rutgers University, 2014). Her work on race, health, and inequality in the US has appeared in Medical Anthropology and Human Organization. Adia Benton is an assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University. She is the author of HIV Exceptionalism: Development through Disease in Sierra Leone (University of Minnesota, 2015). Her writing on the West African Ebola outbreak has appeared in Dissent, The New Inquiry and Cultural Anthropology’s Hot Spots series.]

Almost five months into the epidemic, on August 8, 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a “public health emergency of international concern.” Military and police responses — both international and national — played a crucial role in responses to the epidemic. A few weeks later, on August 20th, the Liberian military quarantined residents of West Point in the capital city of Monrovia without advance warning, essentially cutting them off from food and supplies and causing thousands of residents to clash with troops and riot police. Images surfaced of troops firing live rounds and tear gas and viciously beating back residents who challenged the lockdown. Military-enforced quarantines around entire districts of Sierra Leone and the shift of power from the ministry of health to the ministry of defense were key features of its Ebola response.

Across the Atlantic, on August 9, 2014, 18-year old unarmed Michael Brown was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Peaceful protests and civil disorder ensued in the following weeks, prompting the governor to declare a “state of emergency” and call on local police and the National Guard to control protests and maintain curfews. Greater public attention was placed on the increasing militarization of local police forces as the grand jury, which was convened to hear evidence of the circumstances surrounding the death of Michael Brown, reached a decision not to indict Officer Wilson. Continue reading

“An anti-nominalist book”: Eduardo Kohn on How Forests Think

Earlier this month I sat down with Eduardo Kohn to talk about his amazing book How Forests Think. We started out discussing his intellectual influences and ended up ranging widely over his book, the status of Peirce as a thinker, what ‘politics’ means, and a variety of other topics. Thanks to the hard work of our intern Angela, I’m proud to post a copy of our interview here. I really enjoyed talking to Eduardo, so I hope you enjoy reading it!

Wisconsin and the Amazon

RG: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk. I really enjoyed How Forests Think. When I started it I was a little on the skeptical side, but I ended up thinking it was a mind-blowing book. I thought we could begin by discussing the background for the book and your training. I see the book as mixing biology, science studies (especially Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour), and then some sort of semiotics. It seems like there are a lot of influences there. You got your PhD at Wisconsin, so how did that work out? Can you tell me a little about your background?

EK: The way I got into anthropology was through research, by which I mean fieldwork.  And I was always trying to find ways to do more fieldwork. I saw Wisconsin as an extension of this. When I was in college I did some field research in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I had a Fulbright to go back and do research after college, and only then did I go to grad school.   Although How Forests Think aims to make a conceptual intervention in anthropology, I think of our field as a special vehicle for engaging intensely with a place in ways that make us over and help us think differently. Continue reading

On the Defense of Confucius Institutes: At the University of Chicago, For Example

(This piece is a long guest blog by Marshall Sahlins. In an article titled “China U” published late last year in The Nation, Sahlins took issue with Chinese government’s global educational/political enterprise called “Confucius Institutes” (CI). These institutes teach Chinese language and culture which, together with cultural performances, films, celebrations of Chinese festivals, and the like, portrays China as generous, beautiful, and harmonious. Since the CI program was launched in 2004, some 400 such institutes have been founded in colleges and universities world wide—the US presently has 97—and nearly 600 “Confucius Classrooms” in secondary and primary schools. Sahlins argued that CIs exist “as a virtually autonomous unit within the regular curriculum of the host school”. Indeed, according to the standard agreement signed with host schools, the Confucius Institute Head Office (commonly known as “Hanban”) provides the teachers and textbooks for these courses.

In his article, Sahlins argued that CIs function in a way that is antithetical to academic values because they are intended to spread the political influence of the PRC. CIs, he argued, differ from other cultural institutes — such as the Goethe-Institut and Alliance Française — because they are located on university premises and are completely governed by state officials. By giving a foreign government charge of instruction, he claimed, universities promote censorship and self-censorship that are too much like the government prohibitions on discussion of politically-charged topics in Chinese universities.

Continue reading

anthropology + design: silvia lindtner.

[This post is part of a two-week series featuring interviews with designers reflecting on anthropology and design.]

SILVIA LINDTNER. DIY maker, hacker, and ethnographic design researcher.

silvia 13


Many disciplines and fields often work with competing notions of what counts as design, claiming authority over the term, practice, and definition. Think for instance about efforts in critical design (e.g., Dunne & Raby 2007) and the strong oppositions its practitioners often make to product design. Critical design is aimed at engaging people in critical ways with commonly used products. As Jeff and Shaowen Bardzell illuminate, critical design is positioned in opposition to affirmative design—the latter considered as “the common practice, and this practice is amoral and ultimately a dupe for capitalist ideology, while critical designers are described as moral agents who seek to change society for the better” (Bardzell & Bardzell 2013).

It is important to not shy away from the politics of design, or to brash aside such heated debates over definitions, terms, and authentic practices–many of which are legitimizing efforts of new approaches in an overly competitive market (both industry and the academy). The question is how to engage the politics of design in a way that remains open to multiple viewpoints and approaches. At numerous times in my research, I have heard people argue that the process of making and designing itself is apolitical. There is much that refutes such statements–think for instance of questions of labor when we turn towards sites of production that manufacture the technological products we use on a daily basis, or listen to debates of hackerspace members over what counts as hacking versus making versus product design. What is important here is to consider the differences that lie in designing as a mode of inquiry, a leisure practice, or central to one’s profession and livelihood.

Continue reading

Empathy: A Companionate Redux

I thought I would kick off the last morning of the year by chiming in on the comments to Dr.LibertyBell’s very generative second post on empathy here at SM.  But I seemed to have found the post and comments so generative, that I now find myself rounding off the last afternoon of the year by posting this companionate redux instead.

On the Particularity of the Empathetic Subject

Continue reading

Global Stats: Who is Reading Savage Minds?

Anthropologists like to say that we cover the whole world, the entirety of human experience in all places and times. But that doesn’t always translate into global conversations about anthropology and its findings. Questions of access to published research often get in the way, as do language barriers. As we close 2013, we take an inside look at who is reading Savage Minds—this U.S.-based, English-language group anthropology blog.

Our #1 audience is in the U.S.A. While this is no surprise, the global list of readers does include some surprises, and offers a particularly situated view into who is reading anthropology around the world—from Argentina (#35 on our list) to Zambia (#113). Continue reading

A Disempowering Rant

Welcome to the NHK

I usually try to avoid ranting about my pet-peeves, but I just gotta get this one off my chest: what’s up with leftist academics criticizing a theory for being “disempowering”? I don’t even know where to begin with such criticism. It is as if someone, upon learning of such a theory, would be so overwhelmed by the inevitability of domination that they simply give up trying to make the world a better place. Has this ever happened to someone? Really?!

Continue reading

Anthropology After No Future

London's Overthrow

“The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.”

—Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism

Sarah Kendzior’s interview from the summer over at PolicyMic started making rounds again on my facebook feed recently. If anything, it seems to resonate more now.

I spent this past Thanksgiving with a bunch of orphaned activists and grad students. At some point, I foolishly started asking people for advice on grad school, assuming I’d find similar sympathies with more perspective. But I was shocked: several people told me it wasn’t that bad, that they enjoyed it, that it was better than anything else they could be doing—and even that finding jobs wouldn’t be that much of a problem.

Continue reading

Made in China: Notes from the CIA Gift Shop

What might an anthropology of the covert look like? I think of the covert as a particular type of secret, one grounded in deception and shadows, and populated by individuals pretending—in part—to be someone other than who they actually are. My current research project is about the CIA as agents of US empire during the Cold War. It is about being invisible, being undercover, and being a legitimate ethnographic subject rather than just a historical or political one. Yet, what sort of ethnography can be written about covert, undercover subjects? How does one humanize the CIA?

I’ve been turning this question over since October 2009 when I found myself at CIA Headquarters. Two weeks before, a mysterious envelope arrived in my on-campus mailbox in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. The return address read “CIA Fine Arts Commission.” I remember looking around the office to see if this was a joke. The CIA Fine Arts Commission? For real? The CIA had an art department? It didn’t help matters that the envelope looked sort of homemade, as if someone had printed the mailing and return addresses on a home laser printer. Perhaps they had. At any rate, I opened the envelope up in the main anthropology office, thinking it was somehow safer to open it there rather than alone back in my own office.

There was no explosion. Phew. Continue reading