WRS6. Ann Swidler on Africa NGOs

 

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Project Save the World Podcast / Talk Show Episode Number: WRS6
Panelists: Ann Swidler
Host: Metta Spencer

Date aired: 9 December 2020
Date Transcribed: 13 March 2021 
Transcription: Otter.ai
Transcription Review and Edits: David Millar 

 

Metta Spencer  

No, it shouldn’t be unlisted. Well, doesn’t matter now, because I don’t have any audience. But maybe I shouldn’t be that public. Anyway, it’ll be public in the long run when I edit it, which is probably what I need to do anyway. go now let me mute that. Now. Okay, so now we can start. Hi, Ann. How are you? Ann Swidler, you’re in Berkeley, California. 

Ann Swidler  

Yeah. 

Metta Spencer  

Yes, indeed, in Berkeley, my own stomping grounds. Wonderful. Now, I, somebody may join us in a minute from Burundi. But in the meantime, you can tell me about what you’ve been doing in Africa? Because I know you still keep going there  —

Ann Swidler  

I didn’t go there this past summer. I haven’t been there in over a year because of the Coronavirus. I’ve been touring to different projects; I was doing a project on religious congregations and chiefs. And that’s sort of the core of my interest. Because I had studied AIDS NGOs for a long time. And I had concluded that AIDS NGOs kept trying to sort of transform lives.

Metta Spencer  

What’s GO?

Ann Swidler  

I said NGOs, nongovernmental organizations, I had been studying those. And I had concluded that they kept coming in trying to transform the lives of local people, without any lasting result. And so, you know, they would come in, they would do their projects, they would try to create a democratically elected committee to govern a village or to decide on women’s rights or something. And then the minute their money went away, everything they had been trying to accomplish, also went away. And what I noticed is that the institutions that sustain themselves, in lives of regular people were religious congregations. And their people gave their own money in order to keep their religious congregations going, and were hugely affected by the authority of their pastors or sheikhs, leaders of those congregations, and by chiefs, who also have very few legal powers, but have decisive social powers in their own villages. So I started trying to understand their authority and how that works, and how those why those institutions sustain themselves. And the kinds of institutions that we right-hearted liberals try to… import don’t sustain themselves. So … given that institutional crises seem so important in the politics of the rest of the world. It seems like a good moment to be trying to figure out how you get robust, effective institutions… 

Metta Spencer  

So, it’s really a pity that this pastor isn’t with us now, because he is… apparently a Protestant minister in Burundi, and he goes to Finland for something. And… he has a number of… NGOs that do development work. And that’s what he wants to talk about, his development work. So it’s really a very interesting that, that you’re saying that this is exactly the thing that works. Now, are you saying that these are people who support their own activities? It’s… not foreign aid… they support, they pay for their own activities? And I don’t —

Ann Swidler  

That’s my point. It’s the NGOs that don’t sustain themselves, that can’t support their activities that rely on foreign aid, and if they don’t get it, they collapse. And it’s the churches and mosques and chieftaincies that do sustain themselves. That’s what I meant. Yeah, that’s the ones that work are the ones that do that are locally supported. Yeah, the people themselves. Right. 

Metta Spencer  

Wow, that’s a pretty serious indictment of foreign aid, isn’t it? Well, critique, if you’re saying that that’s generally something you have to count on. 

Ann Swidler  

Yeah, I mean, I think, again, my focus is not really on what makes good foreign aid. So I want to back off and say, wait a minute, wait a minute. For example, Western-funded aid organizations (including Canadian organizations) support… They did boreholes, for example — Canadians really care about clean water, which is a very high priority. And they do a lot of development work — the global community, the wealthy nations, pay for basically almost 100% of the HIV drugs given in Africa, which are keeping millions of people alive. So, the idea that foreign aid is no good is — I would object completely to that… you know, increases in longevity, that they’re just the infrastructure, the healthcare is all dependent on foreign aid… I don’t think I would critique foreign aid. But I do think that the kind of fantasy that Western ordinary people like you and me might have, which is what African countries really need is someone to come in and teach gender equality in the villages, teach men to cook with their wives, come in and tell local… villagers form an NGO, do HIV prevention work… come in and… teach villagers how to have a democratic form of governance. I think almost every study (it’s not just my research, it’s every study of such interventions) shows they do not work, they do not take hold locally. And they do not become important local sources of political and social effective capacity that just don’t increase the capacity of people to get things they need or want. So they appreciate the money, that’s for sure. If… you do a training on preventing intimate partner violence, that’s the typical kind of thing they do. Everyone wants to come and do the training, because they get a little per diem as part of the training, and they might get lunch, which there is no small matter… to get chicken, for people who can’t afford to eat meat in any form, basically, ever. These are huge benefits, and they love them. But does it actually change ways of life, beliefs? The way people operate on the ground? And I would say, the answer is no. 

Metta Spencer  

Well, okay… what’s your next move? You want to shut these things down? I’m not mad, I think here, I would say, you’re concerned with us like, what, what’s the next move? What should we do? What should we do? What should we do? 

Ann Swidler  

I’m actually interested in saying, before we think about what we do, we should really understand how they operate. What is going on? How do local institutions actually function? What is it that pastors, sheikhs are doing? What is it the chiefs are doing? What are they act[ually] — not my stereotype “Oh, the chiefs are all men? So that’s bad” —  But how… Why are they such central figures? … if you want to intervene, it’s… like if you want to cure disease in a body, but you don’t know anything about physiology. You’ve never studied the circulatory system, you don’t know what the lungs are, you don’t know what the heart does, then you say, “Oh, my God, this person is ill, we should take out the heart, that will be good, that must improve things, you know, the person’s blood is too hot, that’s what’s wrong… let’s just take out the heart. Well, I think our approach to foreign aid is a little bit like that, which is, we don’t see that it’s incumbent on us to actually understand the systems we’re so confident we have a right to change.

Metta Spencer  

Okay, I’m willing to understand — now the problem is, what is it that I if I understood I would want to do I mean, I am so much a policy-oriented person, I have to decide for myself how I’m going to fix the world. And that’s all I do day and night, is trying to fix the world. And I certainly want to know how to do it right. But… don’t tell me “Don’t do anything? Well, because I might say to that —

Ann Swidler  

Well, then… that’s your problem. I would say… you can’t do that… before you start trying to fix parts of the world that are very, very different from your world — 

Metta Spencer  

Okay. I’m willing to listen. I definitely want to understand and let’s say — 

Ann Swidler  

For instance, there is this sort of growing school in development studies, that — it’s got different names, but “developmental patrimonialism” or something that says something like, it’s better to work with the kinds of institutions that already exist on the ground and work sort of within their structures, encouraging them to evolve in fruitful directions, rather than trying to displace them. Right. Okay. So that’s, that’s the kind of advice I could —

Metta Spencer  

I could absorb. I don’t, I’m not in a position to do much with it. But I can listen to that. And now, if I, okay, now, with that maxim, how would that? Could you advise any, anybody in particular about how they should change some practice, they’re actually doing?

Ann Swidler  

Well, again, since I’m an academic, and I study things… I’m not an activist… an academic. So, I don’t spend my time trying to change the things I’m studying, I try to understand them. But I would say that you could ask a question like, are chiefs, for example, more effective in what they’re trying to do, which is get clean water for their communities, repair the local roads, so that their villagers can get to and from the market… enforce what we would call property rights, which are critical to the daily lives. I mean, if somebody steals someone’s gold… in the chief’s court I went to last time I was in Malawi, in 2019. An old woman’s dog had eaten a man’s goat. And he only had two goats. So, you know, this was a pretty serious threat to his livelihood. And it’s the chief’s authority. The chief hears this in the court, adjudicates and gets the woman to explain why she can’t keep her dog under control, and so forth. But if you wanted to transform people’s lives, you would… want to preserve their access to legal, effective legal protections. And you would want to be very careful, for example. So right now, there are attempts to privatize landholding, because you have these communal lands and people farm them, but the chief gets to decide who farms which piece of land. And so, no wonder the Chiefs have a lot of power… it means that, well, the theory behind it, which is a good one, I think, is that if one family has very few children, fewer offspring, they don’t need as much land and another family has more offspring and needs more land… so he can kind of reallocate within certain traditionally understood limits. If you come in, you have a landlord that privatizes all the land… there are almost certainly huge abuses. But the second thing is, wait a minute, if you undermine all the powers of the chief, where would people get their basic access to some kind of judicial system? Where would they get somebody to prevent the locals taking sweet potatoes out of their garden, which is what they eat? I mean, a garden isn’t a decorative thing. It’s your farm, basically. So, I think in all these ways, you want to think — when you’re making changes, we don’t have modern institutions to replace, effective modern institutions, to replace these existing local institutions. So, I think you want to tread carefully, before you go, altering ways of life. And then I think you do want to think about how some kinds of interventions work with local patterns. I’ll give you a positive example — when I got to know one chief very well, I met him originally, I guess in 2018, and he’s great. I was —

Metta Spencer  

Are these hereditary, or how does a person — 

Ann Swidler  

There is a lot of negotiation within the ruling lineage about which particular individual will actually become the chief. And sometimes it’s a woman. It’s less common, but it can happen. And they often are kin. So, there’s a whole hierarchy of chiefs, and the local headman, the one who actually runs the village, is often part of the larger kin group of the higher-order group, a village headman who might be part of the kin group of the highest level, they’re called traditional authorities. But… I want to give you a positive example. I was talking with him. And I think he’s a very good chief, if you met him… he’s a tremendously sympathetic figure, I’ll just say, badly, physically disabled from childhood, chosen, I think, for his kind of wisdom. And, you know, if you asked — Why did this person who can barely drag himself from one place to another on a single crutch, and has to be lifted… to use the toilet, his wife has to put him on the bed, they don’t have toilets, but you know, they have pit latrines — Anyway, how did he become a chief, I think it’s, he really is very public-spirited. And I was asking him about his village. And he explained that the best thing that had happened were these village savings and loans. And these were originally sponsored by NGOs. They are local, sort of mutual savings associations, and they don’t require outside funding. Now, once they were promoted, and became common, people use them for everything. And it’s basically enforced saving. So, you come in, the local pressure that all these people are your relatives, and enforces rules… if you put in… the equivalent of 20 cents every week, and then in six months, you get to take out the equivalent of $20 and start a small business, that can really transform your life. So that’s the kind of intervention that can work. And it’s because it works with what are already local patterns, which is… people are highly mutually dependent. They do a lot of petty trading. So, there are opportunities for somebody, once they have a little bit of capital, they can buy a bushel of tomatoes, and then sell it as little groups of four tomatoes. On their front — they make a little thing out of sticks or kind of a platform, and then… as people walk by in the village path, they sell these little groups of tomatoes, and that can generate income that can stimulate growth in the whole village. So, if you understand local patterns, you’re more likely to be able to develop things that now — let me just, I know I’ve talked the whole time. And I haven’t said one thing that really is useful to you. But I’ll say one other thing, which is I’m puzzled by something, which is Malawi is totally deforested. There’s a huge shortage of firewood. And people do make charcoal from — they go into even protected National Forests, or wherever trees have grown a little bit. And they cut them down and they roast them to make charcoal, then they sell charcoal in little bags this big in the market. So, people can cook one meal. And yeah. And so why isn’t there — so I’ll just say that I won’t say the whole background, but I was there’s a nice restaurant in one town about two hours from where I stayed at that summer in a little rural area. And the guy who owns that restaurant showed me — he has an amazing stove, that is some kind of iron contraption, and you put one log in the bottom and it can boil gallons of water for hours on end to make the staple goop they need, a kind of porridge called “sima”… and it’s so much more efficient. So why isn’t there an NGO… using carbon credits to provide those very efficient cooking-stoves to lower, these cooking stoves or — one I saw it just uses a log, you just put a stick into it basically, on one end and it… however it’s designed, that thing burns incredibly slowly and efficiently. And it cooks a vast amount of stuff for almost no input. Since gathering wood is one of the major burdens women face, it’s the you know, it’s a really huge part of people’s… burdens and of course it’s ecologically horrible. So anyway, yeah. Okay, well, I don’t have a very good answer, that I’m not well enough informed, but I would say this.

Metta Spencer  

I’ve heard that that deforestation is really largely attributed to the desire for, to making charcoal. And yet, it’s possible to create charcoal cooking stoves that are biochar, they call it, and you can gather things like leaves and twigs and stuff and use it and to make the charcoal and at the time… I understand that… if you look at the island of Haiti, and is it what the Dominican Republic that’s on the other side, you can see the line, if you fly over, you can see one side is green, the other side’s brown, it’s just that simple. And that Haiti is just ruined because of cutting trees for charcoal. But when there was this… catastrophe there several years ago, my contribution was to pay it, to give money to a fund that was making charcoal stoves that were supposed to be extremely efficient. There’s also such a thing as solar cookers… I don’t know how good they are. I do know that that supposedly using, and also there’s another reason for not wanting charcoal… fires indoors… there’s a huge problem with lung disease and illnesses caused by cooking inside. So, these biochar stoves are supposed to be partly anyway, a good solution. I don’t know whether it’s — 

Ann Swidler  

I just said what puzzles me is — I’ve seen absolutely no — I’ve never seen such a stove, except in this restaurant run by an Italian actually… And… on the ground. in Malawi, at least, there’s no evidence of such things. So, if NGOs wanted to do something really useful, providing things that fit into the ways of life people already have… you know —

Metta Spencer  

That’s very useful information. In fact, what it will do is I will now start looking for somebody who knows more about charcoal, you know, by choice, but also try to figure out what these iron stoves they use almost no wood, because that just seemed like a miracle to me. 

Ann Swidler  

I saw this thing. 

Metta Spencer  

Well, what about the fumes? 

Ann Swidler  

So was this guy actually keeps it in it in a shed — people often cook outdoors. So, people, I mean, their houses are…. in Malawi, at least they’re these tiny mud brick huts, and they don’t cook in their houses. They cook outside their houses. There’s still a huge mess of smoke. I have to go it’s 10 o’clock. Yeah. Okay. It was very nice, great plan. 

Metta Spencer  

And I’m glad whatever accident happened… wonderful to see you and we’re going to get back to you.

Ann Swidler  

Take care, dear.

Metta Spencer  

Give me give my good wishes, everybody that I should distribute among.

Ann Swidler  

Okay.

Metta Spencer  

Thank you. Okay, bye.