Eclectic Grounds

conflicts and conversation

Archive for the ‘Imagining Africa’ Category

Global affairs and the failure of liberal common sense

leave a comment »

The latest Theory Talk features an interesting interview with James Ferguson, Stanford political anthropologist and outspoken critic of the “development” doctrine. In the talk, he offers insights to his work and vita, but he also talks more generally about social science approaches to global studies:

One of the things that bothers me about a lot of what I read the in social sciences that’s, as you say, ‘globally oriented’, is that it seems to start with a bunch of certainties, a bunch of assumptions – a kind of Western liberal common sense – that we know how countries ought to be organized. They ought to be democracies; they ought to respect human rights; they ought to guarantee the rule of law; they ought to be at peace with their neighbors. And then you look at, say, a country in Africa and all you’re able to see is a series of lacks – of things that should be there but aren’t. And you end up constructing huge parts of the world as just sort of empty spaces where things ought to be there but aren’t. And it leads to a kind of impoverished understanding, I think, because you don’t really understand what is going on here. How do people conduct their affairs? How is legitimate authority exercised? How are rules made and enforced? You know, all the kinds of questions that ought to be the starting place tend to disappear or recede into the background. So, I think the real challenge is to approach this whole question with a sense of openness, a willingness to be surprised and learn something new and not to be so deductive.

This is pretty much the criticism of “development” and the subsequent category of “development countries”, which was discussed here before. From this angle the analysis of social relations — using the analytical unit of the state — focuses on an abstract ideal that reality is supposed to be molded into. The strategy can be likened to a literature critic who trashes a novel because its is different from what the critic had expected. Such linear concepts often blur one’s vision on what’s crucial.

Written by henrik

November 25, 2009 at 11:08 am

“Third World” – Stop saying it, stop thinking it!

with one comment

The term “Third World” is the issue of a post in an interesting new blog I recently discovered. Author Mar writes:

Hate the state in which your office bathrooms are kept? Liken it to a Third World country. Annoyed that your hotel only offers three varieties of cream cheese at breakfast? Call it a Third World diet. It’s an exaggeration, see? So it’s funny! Lawl and stuff!

Implicit in these comparisons is the realization that the speakers not only have no idea about the reality of life in the so-called Third World, but further, don’t give a crap. They’re able to so flippantly refer to the poverty and lack of opportunity in some of these nations because they’re comfortable – not with the actual state of things, of which they have only a vague knowledge, or none – but with the fabled state of things.

While I agree with much Mar says, I differ with her in that I think the generalisation ‘Third World’ is often used with apparent positive intentions, by politicians, aid advocates or in every other Sunday’s sermon. The inherent negative, patronizing and racially charged character of the word, however, is all the same.

Its division of the globe into three distinct “worlds” makes it particularly ugly. But replacing “Third World” with “Global South” or “underdeveloped countries” doesn’t make things much better.

One might wonder which term to use instead, and it seems like there is no solution because the problem is not the term itself but how it is charged. If a new, “politically correct”, term might arise of the discussion over the word “Third World”, it will soon be charged with the same demeaning and orientalist stereotypes as the former.

Is a generalisation like “Third World country” really necessary? There is no homogenous group of countries that can be classified with such a term. Countries with, say, a comparable GDP level, differ fundamentally based on their region, their political system, their cultural history, even their economic structure.

Writing a comparative macroeconomic study, it makes sense to group countries in relation to the indicator used: HDI, GDP, GNH, any other index (which all reveal quite different results, by the way). “An analysis of countries with HDI indicators between 0.35 and 0.40 reveals…” – this sounds like a promising start of a sentence. Using the term “developing countries” instead would be a pretty arbitrary step away from the former set.

From the perspective of dependency theory, it appears that “underdeveloped” vs. “developed” is a necessary dialectic to describe world systems. Yet it seems to me that it would make much more sense to focus on the system parameters that create dependency (terms of trade, political and military power) than to use detached and de-politicised language such as “Third World” or “Global South”.

To me, such a distinction is utterly useless for anything beyond grossest economic theory . There is no essential cultural, political or historical insight that can be derived from such a terminology. What’s the similarity between North Korea, Botswana and Colombia, please?

In the end, the classification of “Third World countries” or “developing countries” does not evoke anything more useful than obscure colonialist fantasies. So let’s drop it altogether.

Written by henrik

October 28, 2009 at 8:29 pm

C. Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story

leave a comment »

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie shares her thoughts about how popular stories may create one-sided, single, images about places and individuals. These ‘single stories’, she argues, lead to misunderstanding the complexity of the lives of others; it emphasises difference and robs people of their dignity.

She beautifully illustrates this with stories of her own life and argues that we need a balance of stories between the culturally and economically powerful and those whose stories often remain unheard.

Writing about Africa if you are from the West

leave a comment »

This piece should be read by every Hollywood actor, adventure travel writer and aid-worker out there who talks about “Africa”.

Interestingly, the video was produced for (red)wire, the online plattform of Bono.

You must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.

I wonder if Bono has ever read this text himself and if it made any impression on him, since his often patronizing “I am the voice of the starving Africa” posture might well have been a basis the for Wainaina’s text.

Thanks to renee and macon.

Written by henrik

June 1, 2009 at 10:16 am

Western images of the ‘Muslim world’

leave a comment »

A great post by Robert Hariman published at Sociological Images. Hariman compares two photographs of the Iranian New Year celebrations in Afghanistan and Iran. Like I described in a previous post, this example also reveals how western orientalist preconceptions are reflected in photography:

Photograph 1:

Hariman writes that:

That image is one of throngs of working class men massed together in the street. What little business is there is in the open air markets lining each side of the densely packed urban space. We see small batches of everyday goods on display–probably to be bartered for, no less. The open baskets of food are a sure marker of the underdeveloped world.[…] Everything fits together into a single narrative, but the masses of men and boys make the scene politically significant. This is the place where collective delusions take hold, where mobs are formed, and where unrest can explode into revolutionary violence and Jihad.

Photograph 2:

Here he writes:

In this photo, there is no Arab street nor Iranian masses dominated by Mullahs and demagogues. A middle class tableau reveals that so much of what is in fact ordinary life for many people in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East is never seen in the US. And it isn’t seen because it doesn’t fit into simplistic categories, outdated stereotypes, and a dominant ideology. All that is shown and implied in the cliches is of course also there, but it is there as part of a much more complex and varied social reality.

Written by henrik

March 27, 2009 at 11:50 am

Photography and “Normal” Africa

with one comment

I came across an interesting article by Okwui Enwezor on the power of photography in Africa. Enzewor laments that our image of Africa is shaped by Western photography, which “seems often to evoke pathological images of disease, corruption and poverty”:

“No other cultural landscape has had a more problematic association with the photographic medium: its apparatus, various industries, orders of knowledge, and hierarchies of power. The act of photographing Africa has often been bound up with a certain conflict of vision: between how Africans see their world and how others see that world. In a way, this is a clash of lenses, a struggle to locate and represent Africa by two committed but disparate sensibilities — one intensely absorbed in its social and cultural world, the other passing through it, fleetingly, on one assignment or another.”

Okwui Enwezor is curator of “Snap Judgements”, an exhibition of contemporary African photography. It was presented in 2006 in Miami. Here is a slideshow of some of the photographs that are part of the exhibition.

The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung recently had an online photo gallery that presented the pity, infantilisation and paternalism Enwezor brings up. The gallery is juxtaposed with parts of Uzodinma Iweala’s essay “Stop trying to ‘save’ Africa“. 

image_fmbg_0_1-1185181957

PS: Why this post on the image of Africa in photography? The IFA Gallery in Berlin currently displays a selection of the Bamako biennal “African Enounters of Photography”: Spot on … Bamako

Written by henrik

December 23, 2008 at 1:09 pm