Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sharra reviews Englund, Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor

Harri Englund, Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor (University of California Press, 2006) is reviewed for H-SAfrica by Steve Sharra, Michigan State University. Hat tip. Sharra writes, in part:
Despite the presence of a number of studies that examine the impact of NGOs since the 1994 advent of multiparty democracy in Malawi, few, if any, of them do what Harri Englund does in this book. Malawi's 1994 transition from the thirty-year one-party dictatorship, under Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, to multiparty democracy has been the subject of numerous studies both inside Malawi and outside. Change in Malawi was long coming, taking the form of movements and political parties largely outside Malawi. But it was 1992 that saw the first real bold move to criticize openly the government, through a lentern pastoral letter written by the country's seven Catholic bishops. The several studies that have examined the transition period and the democratic process since then have been in fields such as theology, cultural and literary studies, politics, and education. There have also been studies on the issue of language and how the insistence on English as the official language of government, politics, business, and education keeps the majority of Malawians, who do not use English in their day-to-day lives, out of the democratic process.

Englund's study is based on an engagement with Malawi that starts in 1999, and becomes concentrated between 2001 and 2003, when he does an ethnographic study that focuses on three particular aspects that capture the discourse on democracy, human rights, and freedom: the translation work on key documents in the political transition; a civic education NGO; and a legal aid NGO. Englund arrives at the conclusion that the human rights discourse on freedom and democracy, rather than empowering the ordinary Malawians that it takes as its main preoccupation, actually disempowers the very people it seeks to empower. It is a powerful and persuasive argument made painstakingly and eloquently throughout the study, relying on both fieldwork and critical analyzing. Englund uses what he terms "ethnographic witnessing" to expose how the disempowerment is operationalized in the way terms such as freedom and human rights have been translated into the national language, Chichewa. He further shows how the disempowerment operates in the way civic education and legal aid are actually carried out among the NGOs and human rights activists studied.

Continue reading this detailed review here.