The following is the complete address given by Colgate’s Mary Moran, professor of anthropology and Africana and Latin American studies, at Duke University in September. It was written for oral presentation, is unrevised, and should not be cited or circulated without permission.
When I submitted the title for this talk about two weeks ago, I was very much thinking of the term “survive” in its metaphorical sense. Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected president of an African nation, faces the greatest challenge of her career, and unprecedented criticism both at home and abroad for failing to rebuild the national health care infrastructure and for her handling of the present crisis, including calls for her resignation (VOA news, Sept. 2, 2014).
I am a political anthropologist, not a medical one, and my intention here today is to try to place the government and public response to ebola in Liberia squarely in its local, historical and social/cultural context. But metaphor became concrete reality with a Front Page Africa headline on Sept. 10, “Ebola Hits Seat of Liberian Presidency; 1 Dead, 1 Quarantined” reporting that an administrative assistant to the Foreign Minister had died from ebola while her husband, also infected, was a staffer in the President’s office, two floors above in the same building. Continue reading
Monrovia: October 3, 2014
Not so many years ago, I was part of a team monitoring and preparing humanitarian interventions to address the effects of drought in a certain region in eastern Africa. In our meeting room in London, we assessed the needs based on the latest information; our goal was to preposition lifesaving supplies and experts for rapid deployment. Then news about the rains emerged. This I greeted with optimistic fists. The crops will emerge again, waterholes will be filled, and the cattle will have their grazing fields.
The communities that have lived through several experiences of drought were less enthusiastic, members of the response team that had worked in drought affected regions were cautiously optimistic. Their experiences told them something that we would later come to understand. Continue reading
In a speech addressing the international community, United States President Obama criticized the world leaders for their slow and inadequate response to the Ebola outbreak. Authorities warn for an exponential increase in the number of infections and even consider the possibility that Ebola could become endemic.
Like other anthropologists who have woken up mid-career and found the countries where they’ve lived and worked awash in mass deaths (and let’s be real… that’s quite a lot of us), my initial response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was to hope that the experts had the situation under control, and bury my head in the sand.
Soon, the epidemic outpaced the global health response, and the calls for help grew more urgent, but anthropologists’ phones have stayed startlingly quiet. While leaders at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and the World Health Organization explained how factors like culture, weak governance systems, human behavior, and social organization made the outbreak unintelligible to the global health community, academics who work in the region like Danny Hoffman, Rosalind Shaw, Mats Utas, Chris Coulter, Mary Moran, Susan Shepler, Adia Benton, Mike McGovern, Sasha Newell, Gwen Heaner, and Marianne Ferme, not to mention anthropologist from the global south like Sylvain Landry Faye, have remained untapped as resources for understanding and creating innovative new approaches to attacking the Ebola outbreak at its source.
Hillary Clinton at ICG Annual Award ceremony (Picture borrowed from glkcreative.com)
Recently the New York Times caused turmoil among prestigious and influential US think tanks when it published an investigative article about concealed connections between these non-profit research organisations and a broad range of foreign countries, among them Norway, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar (NYT online, 6/9/2014). The article revealed that leading think tanks like the Center for Global Development, the Brookings Institution and the Atlantic Council are receiving funding from foreign governments in exchange for influence on the organisations’ recommendations to US policy-makers. The article criticized this practice for its lack of transparency and the supposed loss of intellectual freedom and objectivity. ‘The money is increasingly transforming the once-staid think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign governments’ lobbying in Washington’, the authors cautioned. The attacked think tanks rejected the accusations, pointing to ‘credibility’ and ‘scholarly independence’ as their major ‘currency’, although one interviewee admitted that self-censorship could be a future problem because in times of dwindling funding sources, saving one’s job could well trump the urge to be critical.
Humanitarian organizations may easily succumb to the temptation to misuse numbers and statistics in order to promote their own causes. Does the end justify the means?
Illustration: Espen Friberg / Morgenbladet
Disasters are most dangerous for moms reported Save the Children’s Carolyn S Miles in Huffington Post when presenting the organization’s State of the World’s Mothers report for 2014. The claim was followed by a number: women and children are ‘14 times more likely to die in a disaster than men’. A sky-high number when one is talking about differences in death rates and a colossal injustice if the information is reliable. But it’s not.
Sasha Newell. 2012. The Modernity Bluff: Crime, Consumption, and Citizenship in Côte d’Ivoire. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. 305 pp. [original source: African Studies Quarterly | Volume 14, Issue 3 | March 2014; pp. 143-145]
Sasha Newell’s The Modernity Bluff starts out by pulling the reader into one of Abidjan’s typical outdoor bars where, around tables fully covered with bottles, groups of young men lavishly outspend each other. They flash rolls of money, prominently display their cell phones, and exhibit their prestigious US brand name clothing in the most refined ways. We witness a bluff: many of those indulging in seemingly unlimited consumption that night “would struggle to find enough money to feed themselves the next day” (p. 2). What follows is an extraordinary account of how such bluffing makes sense in the Ivoirian context. Newell delineates in its most intricate details how the fakery of being wealthy and the performance of being “modern“ (i.e. “Westernized“) are of constitutive importance to such diverse phenomena as street language (chapter 1), the illicit urban economy (chapter 2), masculinity and social cohesion (chapter 3), consumption (chapter 4), migration (chapter 5), and the Ivoirian political crisis (chapter 6).