Monday, November 12, 2012

Thoughts on Englund’s Prisoners of Freedom


So I finally got a copy of Harri Englund’s book “Prisoners of Freedom.”  Englund, an academic,  spent considerable time in Malawi between 1999 and the mid 2000s studying the work of human rights NGOs and the impact, or lack thereof, of that work on the socio-economic conditions of Malawians.  His main argument is that human rights NGOs in Malawi have refused to promote and work towards the better realization of Malawians’ socio-economic and collective rights.  Instead, by focusing exclusively on the promotion of political and individual rights, they have actually disempowered the ability of Malawian’s to change the vast political and socio-economic disparities currently present in the country. 
The reviews of Englund’s book by fellow academics, Western and Malawian, were overwhelmingly positive.  For an academic Englund spent a considerable amount of time in Malawi, became fluent in ChiChewa, and consequently collected a large amount of information upon which he bases his arguments.  His commitment to first understanding how donor-funded human rights and civic education programs were in practice implemented rather than to quickly engage in an ideological or theoretical critique of such programs is refreshingly industrious.  As someone who has spent a reasonable amount of time in Africa himself observing various types of development projects, most of what Englund reports is familiar and rings true.  It is unfortunate that more such accounts are not published as they would give ammunition to those of us who are arguing for a more complex understanding of what exactly donor-funded development programs accomplish.  The fact that those who have been most critical of it come from development backgrounds themselves is sad but not surprising.  According to this crowd anything that seems to question the success of development efforts is labeled as Afro-pessimism.
On the other hand I’m not sure that Englund and I are entirely on the same page.  Clearly he is concerned that human rights development projects have not in his estimation improved the socio-economic welfare of the majority of Malawians.  I think he is mostly right about this, but I am not sure that, given the political, economic, and cultural space within which these projects live, we could have reasonably hoped for a different result.  And before you label me an Afro-pessimist myself, let me quickly state that this need not be a depressing conclusion.  In fact it is only depressing if you, as Englund seems to, rigidly hold onto the belief that an effective human rights campaign is the only way, or at least an essential element, to improving the socio-economic welfare of the majority of Malawians.  For all of his sophistication in exposing the hypocrisy of Western-led human rights discourses, Englund seems to be more frustrated that projects promoting it in Malawi were improperly and incompletely implemented and therefore had perverse results than he is interested in critically examining whether or not such discourses, even in theory, are appropriately applicable to Malawi.  Instead he takes the more traditional critical approach of simply exposing and lamenting the difference between an ideal and reality without really examining the ideal itself.  I think this is ultimately naïve, philosophically blinkered, and most importantly leads to unnecessary pessimism about the future prospects of African development notwithstanding Englund’s denials.
Let me explain with an example.  In chapter two of his book Englund talks about how Malawian civic educators failed to do their jobs in an egalitarian manner by creating status barriers between themselves and villagers. They wore fancy clothes, carried cellphones, and associated mostly with the upper classes in the villages they visited. As a matter of fact, this observation is likely true.  But should it be surprising?  Why should we expect Malawians to act in anyway but a shallow one to a set of Western created human rights norms?  Particularly when the amount of time spent explaining those norms to them is so minimal.  Englund describes well the social and economic reasons that Malawians entertain such norms to the extent that they do but he seems to think it is a problem that they don’t more fully and authentically embrace them.  Beyond being naive, such a position, more problematically disregards the possibility that such norms are inappropriate to Malawi, i.e. that there may be good reasons for such shallow engagement, and that other local norms may be more effective at promoting the overall socio-economic welfare of the majority of Malawians.  Afterall Malawians have their own social, cultural, and philosophical resources to define for themselves what is, and what is not, a just Malawian society.  Although Englund himself must certainly be aware of these resources he doesn’t engage with them much.   And unfortunately too often the international community’s irrational fear, ignorance, and paternal pessimism of what they condescendingly label as “traditional” culture, and sadly the self-loathing of that culture by many Africans themselves (which Englund also documents well), has so far stifled the ability of such African conceptions of justice and governance to provide a foundational basis upon which Malawians might build their own political, economic, and social structures.  The argument is not that Western concepts of human rights or governance have no place in Malawi but rather that the political and cultural space in which Malawians choose to adopt, or not adopt, such concepts should be one in which they are not privileged over African concepts through a combination of international economic and political pressure.  I am actually agnostic as to whether or not such African concepts could actually deliver more socio-economic development but I do argue that it would be a more moral approach to development and that the current approach, as Englund so skillfully shows, isn’t living up to its ideals.           

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