Englund, H. 2006. Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 247pp.
Harri Englund’s book is an ethnography that describes and analyzes how human rights are ‘promoted’ by activists and NGOs in Malawi since 1990, which is the first decade of its liberal democracy. The main proposition of this book is that the abstract definition of human rights as individual political and civil freedom serves as a means of governance, hampering the impoverished majority’s potential to claim alternative rights.
The main argument is inducted through Englund’s investigation in four related domains in Malawi: 1) translation of human rights; 2) civic education; 3) legal aid; and 4) eruption of a moral panic. 1) In chapter 2, Englund investigates human rights translation which is a top-down process with assumed expertise and rare public scrutiny. He also situates it in Malawi’s broader political history indicating how the definition serves specific interests in the democratic transition. 2) Chapter 3 and 4 present a case study about an international civic education program called NICE under two circumstances: training local volunteers in a workshop and educating grassroots on the ground, respectively. Status distinction is what Englund concludes the major feature in the workshop, which is achieved by constructing grassroots as ignorant and passive recipients at one hand, and improving the self-esteem of volunteers with a sense of experts. Encountering grassroots during service delivery, the officer tends to define the community as both the source of and the solution to the problem, thus reducing the human rights advocacy to an apolitical sense. The officer is also characterized by his insistence on a standard message defined by NICE regardless of lively experience of the recipients. 3) Chapter 5 first introduces social context of legal aid in Malawi: the huge gap between wonderful labor-related laws and poor practice, and the ubiquitous inequality between employers and employees. Contrary to the circumstance, the legal aid officer exhibits his belief in piecemeal and technical solutions and the tendency of blaming the victim for their ignorance and irresponsibility. It is further illustrated by a legal case in Chapter 6 — a lorry boy seeking legal redress. Englund portrays how the legal aid officer takes the context of deep exploitation for granted and actually builds a rapport with the affluent employer. Hence, he concludes that the legal aid is becoming a tool of disempowerment like civic education. 4) The previous chapters show how a particular interpretation of human rights marginalized lively experience of the majority. In chapter 7, Englund describes a moral panic as the folk’s alternative to a right talk. Poor conditions of public school, popular mistrust in police combined with accidents happening to children, rumors about government’s involvement in transnational market of human body are widely spread.
Englund’s ethnography, as what is said by Wilson (cited in Crewe and Axelby, 2013: 113), demonstrates the advantage of anthropological approach to revive the ‘subjectivities’, ‘complex social relations’, ‘contradictory values and the emotional accompaniment to macro-structures that human rights accounts often exclude’. Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, there began the theoretical debate between universality and cultural relativism of the concept. Englund opens up the debate by examining how the rhetoric of human rights is defined and delivered in real life, whose interest is served and whose voice is marginalized.
From my point of view, the most impressing element of the book is Englund’s thick ethnographic description, which makes most of his propositions convincingly argued. In chapter 6, the author provides a detailed case study of legal aid. The content of the dialogue among the officer, the client and the accused employer is recorded at length so that even the subtle implication of certain words can be discerned. For example, Patel, the employer, used the word ‘problem’ to refer to the client’s claim to his salary. Meanwhile, the officer said three Yeses as a response. Coupled with other evidence, the author then contended that taking the social context of dehumanized exploitation of local labor for granted, the legal aid officer failed to transcend the structural inequalities. The abundance of his ethnography can be attributed to Englund’s long-time fieldwork in Malawi, and especially to his mastery of the local language Chichewa. His language competence contributes to the second chapter about translation of human rights. Only when the author can understand the language according to the cultural and historical meaning can the comparison between the English version of human rights and the local version become valid.
However, there are two parts that I consider as shortcomings of the book. First, despite of the detailed description of human rights practice, the explanation the author provides is not strong enough for me to grasp the whole picture, especially the dynamics of various agencies in human rights discourse. As illustrated in a training workshop, the NGO officer actively gave young volunteers a sense of expertise with emphasis on their education and clean appearance, at the same time objectifying the ‘ignorant’ recipients. The volunteers seem to be part of the hierarchy without contrary opinions. Englund’s interpretation is that the status distinction satisfies the youth’s desire for status, which is embedded in the cultural disposition of elitism. The practice of human rights activities is maintained because it satisfies the psychological needs. Is it an over-simplified explanation? Can there be other theories rather than the mere functionalist interpretation? The argument of Mosse (2005) in his ethnographic study of international aid in India may provide some insight. He states that projects work by ‘the need to maintain relationships’ and as ‘systems of representations’ to sustain a policy model, through which ‘the chaotic practices are stabilized and made coherent’ (ibid.: 16-17). The analysis moves from individuals to a social system. On the other hand, what is the effect of volunteers on human rights discourse? Are they truly submissive and controllable as the author depicts, for Englund also states that the youth is regarded as a volatile political force? In contrast, Mosse (ibid.) demonstrates considerable autonomy of various agents in an aid project, from project managers, field staff to farmers. So in fact, the operational control of NGOs over the practices is often limited (ibid.: 8). Is the inconsistency due to different case or diverse culture? Or is it related with author’s presupposition of theory, that is, governmentality in this case? Moreover, Englund describes a moral panic in chapter 7, which is seen as the extreme outcry for alternative rights from the bottom. But he goes no further than this, without investigating the mechanism through which the moral panic may exert its influence on human rights policy and practice. Therefore, the role of the grassroots in human rights practice and discourse is largely missing in this book.
The other drawback of this book lies in the incompatibility between the supraterritoriality of transnational governance which Englund wants to demonstrate and the spatial focus of his ethnography within Malawi, on the basis of NGO daily work with grassroots. The author states that one of the central arguments of the book is ‘transnational governance’ (Englund, 2006: 8). But the theme is not fully supported by the ethnographic research. In introduction, he briefly familiarizes the reader with Malawi’s high dependence on foreign aid for its expenditure, and how donor’s insistence on certain definition of human rights excludes the role of bottom-up voice. However, in the subsequent empirical evidence, the only connection with transnational organization is the expatriate manager of NICE as the incarnation of transnational governance. The transnational feature of human rights activities serves only as a vague background in this book. The ethnographic description is based on local-level rather than on national- or international-level. Nonetheless, Englund made a good argument that discourse on human rights is ‘instrumental in governmentality’, domestically (2006: 37). For instance, chapter 3 describes the manager’s conviction of the necessity of an apolitical agenda. The evidence of governmentality of human rights activists is proved, but how the human rights discourse is shaped by the transnational governance is not empirically supported. The limitation of Englund’s ethnography to support the notion of transnational governance resides in the very nature of his situating the research in local context. As Ferguson and Gupta (2002) points out, in the new decade of neo-liberal globalization and transnational connection of NGOs, ‘an ethnography of the spatiality of governmentality’ is needed to be compatible with their superior spatial reach.
In conclusion, Englund demonstrates that in Malawi human rights activists in fact become a tool of governance. Returning to the book title, who is the prisoners of the human rights discourse? Are they the grassroots who are unable to deploy the one-dimensional definition of human rights to defend themselves but know what they need in spite of all the education and aid? Or are the prisoners the human rights activists themselves unaware of the governmentality? In the context of transnational governance and structural inequality, can we expect the prisoners coming out of the cage and exert more agency?
Crewe, E. and Axelby, R. 2013. Anthropology and development: culture, morality and politics in a globalised world. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp 107-130.
Ferguson, J. and Gupta, A. 2002. Spatializing states: toward an ethnography of neoliberal governmentality. American Ethnologist, 29 (4), pp 981-1002.
Mosse, D. 2005. Cultivating development: an ethnography of aid policy and practice. London: Pluto Press. pp 1-20.