Tag Archives: Haiti

Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola, or that Book that Kept Me in Grad School

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this guest column from Gina Athena Ulysse in tribute to Karen McCarthy Brown. Gina is an associate professor of anthropology at Wesleyan University. Born in Haiti, she has lived in the United States for the last thirty years. She is also a poet, performance artist and multi-media artist. Prof U, as her students call her, is the author of Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica (Chicago 2008). She recently completed Why Haiti Needs New Narratives, a collection of post-quake dispatches, essays and meditations written between 2010-2012. Currently, she is developing VooDooDoll, What if Haiti Were a Woman, a performance-installation project. Her writing has been published in Gastronomica, Souls, and Transition.)

News that Karen McCarthy Brown passed away after years of deteriorating illness reached me earlier this month. I kept it to myself. When more official announcement from Drew University–where she was Professor Emerita of anthropology and sociology of religion—showed up on my Facebook feed this past Sunday, I shared it with the following comment:

Reading Karen’s Mama Lola kept me in grad school. Vodou got a human face from her. A tremendous loss, indeed.

When the first email arrived from UCSB’s Claudine Michel who penned the preface to the third edition of Brown’s award-winning ethnography in 2010, I had a flashback to nearly two decades ago. Continue reading

“Divorce your theory” A conversation with Paul Farmer (part one)

 (This guest post comes from Ståle Wig. Ståle has recently completed a research based MA in Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo, with a thesis on development workers in Lesotho. He is affiliated at the Center for Development and the Environment, and teaches a class in Science Outreach and Journalism at the University of Oslo.)

Paul Farmer was never an orthodox anthropologist. As an undergraduate I remember reading his article, An Anthropology of Structural Violence. It took me by surprise.

Not because I was unaccustomed to scholars arguing that we need to link the ethnographically visible to history and political economy – or, in Farmer’s words, “the interpretive project of modern anthropology to a historical understanding of the large scale social and economic structures in which affliction is embedded”. No, my class had already read Sidney Mintz. It was somewhat fascinating to read an anthropologist who at the same time was a doctor committed to heal the sick in his ethnographic surroundings. But that’s not really what got me, either.  Continue reading

Culture in Development

This was supposed to be the title of one of the chapters in Seeing Culture Everywhere, except in the final proof it somehow got reduced to just “Culture,” which in a way is a more striking title. The chapter describes two types of “culture talk” in the world of development professionals: one, exemplified by Lawrence Harrison’s Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, that sees certain national cultures as development-prone and others as development-resistant, and another, reflected in Vijayendra Rao and Michael Walton’s excellent Culture and Public Action, that takes a bottom-up ethnographic approach and emphasizes the need for understanding local cultural mechanisms while refraining from general statements. The former is a close relative of Samuel Huntington’s views, except that where Huntington is consistent (cultures cannot be changed so don’t tamper with them) Harrison is not (cultures cannot be changed, but sometimes they can, so keep trying). Of course, this tension between the idea of a national culture and the idea of individual self-realisation in spite of it goes all the back to  the Enlightenment.

Exporting Paternalism
A few weeks ago Kerim blogged about David Brooks’ New York Times opinion piece on Haiti, which is squarely in the Harrisonian mold: we need to go in and change their culture so they can develop. He (erroneously, we think) quotes Huntington in his support, but at least, contrary to Huntington’s infamous comparison between South Korea and Ghana (they were at the same level of development in 1960), Brooks’ argument compares Haiti to places like Barbados and the Dominican Republic, which means he operates with more specific cultural categories (which implicitly include political and social history) than Huntington’s “civilizations”.

But what we found remarkable in Brooks’ article was something else:

it’s time to promote locally led paternalism. In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.

These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance. It’s time to take that approach abroad, too.

Wait a minute. Sure, Brooks is a conservative commentator, but still – what? A piece in the New York Times advocating promoting locally led paternalism and exporting paternalism abroad?

How is this different from what China is doing in poor countries – for which it gets all kinds of flak, none more than from U.S. conservatives?

China’s emergence in the development/aid field – its Eximbank is now a larger lender than the World Bank – is beginning to impact approaches in the whole field. In China, there is little patience for the kind of participatory development approach that has recently been so popular in the West (but is widely criticised as failed) and endless faith in ‘60s-style, highly interventionist development projects that combine large-scale infrastructural development with instilling a “modern work culture,” bodily discipline and all. (China is often described as differing from the West in its lack of a missionary agenda, but this is hardly true for Chinese investors; they are very like so many Henry Fords.) And this approach has appeal. People, at least some people, in Africa and Southeast Asia feel like the hopes for development that existed in the ‘60s and ‘70s have been given back to them.

So where does that leave “culture” in development? Our hunch is that its place has already shifted since we wrote Seeing Culture Everywhere. On the one hand, there is China and David Brooks. On the other, there is a new trend in “development thinking” around the World Bank and elsewhere (like Narayan. Pritchett and Kapoor’s Moving out of Poverty and Jessica Cohen and William Easterly’s What Works in Development) that seem to abandon the term altogether and focus on micro-scale interventions – rightly, we believe.