Giving Back (Without Giving Up) In Neoliberal Times

A guest post from our sometime co-conspirator Wanda Vrasti. Wanda teaches social studies at the Humbolt University and international politics at the Feie Universitaet in Berlin. Her book Volunteer Tourism in the Global South just came out with Routledge. She has also written on the uses of ethnographic methods in IR (in Millennium, twice) and on questions of global governmentality (in Theory & Event and Review of International Studies). Her current interests (still) include the politics of work and leisure, social movements on the Left, and anarchism and autonomism. Images by Pablo.

UPDATE (9 Nov): Wanda is now happily a member of the Disordered collective. And thus, this is retrospectively no longer a guest post.


Last week my PhD dissertation entitled Volunteer Tourism in the Global South: How to Give Back in Neoliberal Times came out as a book with Routledge’s Interventions series. Publication usually marks the end or the completion of a research project, but in this case I feel like the puzzles that animated it are still very much alive in my mind. Rehashing some of these, at my blog hosts’ invitation (also considering that the book goes for a price I imagine not many people will be able to afford outside university libraries), is an exercise in keeping the thinking and writing that went into this book alive beyond its publication date.

In a sentence, the book is an ethnographic study of volunteer tourism projects in the Global South (Ghana and Guatemala specifically) with a particular focus on the kinds of subjects and social relations this rite of passage cultivates and the reasons why we attach so much value to them. The argument I make in the book is not very different from the common indictment against voluntourism seen in the media. The accusation is that volunteer tourism does more for the Western (in my case exclusively white middle-class) tourists who enrol in these all-inclusive tours of charity than for the impoverished communities they are claiming to serve. Volunteering programs, most of which focus on English teaching, medical assistance or minor construction projects, have neither the trained staff nor the organizational capacity to make a lasting impact upon the lives of developing populations. Often the commercial travel agencies offering these tours fail to deliver even basic assistance goods, let alone encourage grassroots community initiatives that could lead to more sustainable change. What they can offer, however, to Western customers willing to pay $500 to $2,500/month is the chance to travel to places outside the Lonely Planet circuit without being a tourist. A tourist, as we have all experienced it at some point, is a rather pitiable figure reduced to gazing at things or being gazed at, their only meaningful encounter being with the guide book. A volunteer, on the other hand, can live with a local family, get to know traditional cultures, and participate in the collective good. Not surprisingly, the formula has become a growing trend among high-school and college graduates hard pressed to find many opportunities for meaningful participation in the alienated (and austere) market societies they come from.

Sadly, the majority of volunteers I worked with in Ghana and Guatemala did not have their feelings of lack and longing satisfied on these tours. Besides having to cope with all sorts of cultural frustrations and racial tensions, the work we were doing felt boring and useless. Our tour organizers failed to provide work that was challenging and gratifying for the volunteers and socially useful for the local community. Still, most people returned home with an improved sense of self, feeling like these trying circumstances had helped them develop greater confidence and cultural awareness.

Volunteer tourism appears here as yet another form of aesthetic consumption designed to confirm the racial, economic and emotional superiority of white middle-class individuals who are able to afford it. Continue reading

#Kony2012 from Advocacy to Militarisation

Although the attention spike and mainstream media attention on #Kony2012 has receded, not least thanks to Jason ‘Radical’ Russell’s own brush with infamy, the implications of muscular-liberalism-as-social-media-experiment continue to unfold. My feed at least continues to be peppered with anger towards Invisible Children from informed activists and scholars (although Norbert Mao, for one, takes a much more positive view and Jason Stearns makes a few qualifications of the anti-case worth reading). On Saturday, CEO Ben Keesey and ‘Director of Ideas Development’ Jedidiah Jenkins (formerly ‘Director of Ideology': yes, really) released a short teaser video promising a sequel to #Kony2012 and declaring that the campaign was “working”. Staying stubbornly loyal to the understanding of foreign policy decision-making expressed in the original narrative, this was said to be because the people at the top were now being forced to respond to an issue they previously hadn’t cared about/known about, all thanks to the public pressure of predominantly young activist-citizens. The major consequence of this pressure being the introduction on March 12 of a Resolution in the US House of Representatives, sponsored by Jim McGovern (a Democrat) and Ed Royce (a Republican), to end Kony’s atrocities and bring justice to Norther Uganda. There’s now a Senate version of the Resolution too, taken by Keesey and Jenkins to dispel those loose accusations of ‘slacktivism’ against Invisible Children and its supporters.

But what does the Resolution actually ask for? Having reaffirmed previous declarations, it:

…calls on the Secretary of State and heads of other government agencies to undertake diplomatic efforts with partner nations focused on—
(A) expanding the number of capable regional military forces deployed to protect civilians and pursue LRA commanders; (B) enhancing cooperation and cross-border coordination among regional governments; and (C) promoting increased contributions from European and other donor nations for regional security efforts.

Now that’s a rather curious formulation of “diplomatic efforts”. Nowhere in the text is there any mention of the human rights records of the Ugandan or DRC armies, nor any suggestion that they are anything but (albeit junior) ‘partners’ in this military endeavour. The preamble makes repeated mention of ‘help’ to regional governments, and one line of text hints at problems (to “address shortcomings in current efforts”), but it is clear that these are deficiencies of coordination and military effectiveness, not of human rights concerns. The claims previously made in defence of the campaign (“we do not defend any of the abuses perpetrated by the Ugandan government or by the Ugandan army”) have rather evaporated in the transition to a formal Resolution, and Keesey and Jenkins make no complaint of that elision. Although recently rather keen to harness #Kony2012’s popularity, Human Rights Watch and others have long catalogued systematic abuses by the UPDF which match the Lord’s Resistance Army closely for brutality. The record of the FARDC (the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo) is worse still. Exact and proportional figures are hard to pinpoint, but there is no question that they are major (and quite possibly the main) perpetrators of rape, terrorism and atrocity in Eastern DRC.

All of this sets a brutal precedent. The vagueness of the call for action and policy detail, lost amongst the emotion ratcheting of being a ‘doer’ rather than a ‘sayer’, opened the door to any number of Liberal Saviour Hawk Military Industrial fantasies (to adapt Teju Cole). This is what groups like the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars warned of, a not-so-creeping militarisation of East and Central Africa. As apparently obvious as stopping Kony’s evil in a hail of righteous bullets cycles seems to Russell and Co., the cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency tends to be draped at each stage in stark aggressions, with those regional military partners enacting their own ‘invisible’ massacres as they go.

Conspiratorial ideas of Invisible Children as a front for the US government aside, there is clearly a whole set of non-humanitarian interests at play here. I doubt there is any real appetite, and certainly very little capacity, in policy circles for any kind of escalation of direct US military involvement in the area, but then ‘support’ and ‘advice’ for regional allies and proxies has more traditionally been the mark of foreign policy. What those exponential click counts will translate into in policy terms thus remains open, but the signs aren’t great.

Human Rights Contested – Part II

This is a continuation of my previous post

Who Are Human Rights For?

All of the authors take account of the ambiguous history of human rights, in which they can be said to have inspired the Haitian, American and French revolutions, while also justifying the counterrevolutionary post-Cold War order dominated by the United States. Yet recognising this ambiguity without also acknowledging the distinctive reconstruction of contemporary human rights that makes them part of a neo-liberal international order and the unequal power that makes such a quasi-imperial order possible would be irresponsible. A primary contribution made collectively by these texts is that they clearly diagnose the way human rights have been used to consolidate a particular form of political and economic order while undercutting the need for, much less justification of, revolutionary violence. Williams says of Amnesty International’s prisoners of conscience, who serve as archetypal victims of human rights abuse,

the prisoner of conscience, through its restrictive conditions, performs a critical diminution of what constitutes “the political.” The concept not only works to banish from recognition those who resort to or advocate violence, but at the same time it works to efface the very historical conditions that might come to serve as justifications – political and moral – for the taking up of arms.

Human rights, then, are for the civilised victims of the world, those abused by excessive state power, by anomalous states that have not been liberalised – they are not for dangerous radicals seeking to upset the social order.

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Human Rights Contested – Part I

This post (presented in two parts) is drawn from a review article that will be forthcoming in The Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, which looks at a recent set of critical writings on human rights in order to consider the profound limitations and evocative possibilities of the contested idea and politics of human rights.

Human Rights in a Posthuman World: Critical Essays by Upendra Baxi. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights by Mark Goodale. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

The Divided World: Human Rights and Its Violence by Randall Williams. Minneapolis, MN and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights by Robert Meister. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011.

The central tension of human rights is that they propagate a universal and singular human identity in a fragmented political world. No one writing about human rights ignores this tension, but the most important question we face in judging the value of human rights is how to understand this tension and the divisions it creates. The expected divisions between good and evil, between moral universalists and dangerous relativist, between dignified interventionists and cowardly apologists, have long given shape to human rights, as both an ideal and a political project. Seeing the problems of (and for) human rights in these habituated ways has dulled our capacity for critical judgment, as few want to defend evil or violent particularisms or advocate passivity in the face of suffering. Even among serious and determined critics our inherited divisions are problematic (and increasingly over rehearsed), whether we think of human rights as the imposition of Western cultural values, or in terms of capitalist ideology serving the interests of neo-liberal elites, or as an expression of exceptional sovereign power at the domestic and global levels. The ways that these divisions deal with the tension at the heart of human rights misses the ambiguity of those rights in significant ways.

     Rather than trying to contain the tensions between singularity and pluralism, between commonality and difference, in a clear and definitive accounting, the authors of the texts reviewed here allow them to proliferate. Rather than trying to resolve the problem of human rights, they attempt to understand human rights in their indeterminate dissonance while exploring what they might become. To create and invoke the idea of humanity is not a political activity that is unique (either now or in the past) to the ‘West’. The people most dramatically injured by global capitalism sometimes fight their oppression by innovating and using the language and institutions of human rights. Political exceptions – the exclusion of outsiders, humanitarian wars and imperialist conceits – are certainly enabled by the same sovereign power that grants rights to its subjects, which is a metaphorical drama all too easily supported by human rights, but it is only a partial telling of the tale, a telling that leaves out how human rights can reshape political authority and enable struggles in unexpected ways. The work of these authors pushes us to reject the familiar divisions we use to understand the irresolvable tension at the centre of human rights and see the productive possibilities of that tension. If human rights will always be invoked in a politically divided world, and will also always create further divisions with each declaration and act that realises an ideal universalism, then our focus should be on who assumes (and who can assume) the authority to define humanity, the consequences for those subject to such power, and the ends toward which such authority is directed. Continue reading

Book launch: A Liberal Peace?

Tuesday 14th February 2012, 5.30pm-7.00pm

Westminster Forum, 5th Floor, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster, 32-38 Wells Street, London W1 (nearest tube Oxford Circus)

Panel with Editors David Chandler and Meera Sabaratnam, followed by publisher’s reception

All welcome

The 1990s was a weird decade for all kinds of reasons. The dice that were thrown into the air as the Soviet Union retreated landed in a particularly intriguing configuration for those politicians, public functionaries and academics from wealthy countries and institutions concerned with ‘peace’ and ‘development’. Their missions, marginalised for decades under concerns for national (i.e. military) security, were quite suddenly elevated as symbols of the new world order and installed as defining foreign policy priorities of wealthy states. Continue reading

Nothing Is Authentic Anymore: Disavowed Selves and the Lure of Realpolitik in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ (2011) and ‘In The Loop’ (2009)

Know this: *great clunking spoilers ahead*.


The critical praise heaped on Tomas Alfredson’s version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy reflects more than the hunger of intelligent audiences for post-Inception thrillers. Nor can it be explained merely by the excessive parade of grand thesps (Benedict Cumberbatch and the under-rated Stephen Graham both wasted, the former with a sub-Sherlock performance and the latter with a paper-thin bit-part, given historical fidelity by bad hair alone). Its visual and affective qualities are seductive and occasionally beautiful, but then so is its submerged vision of espionage and realpolitik.

The antithesis of Bond and Bourne, Tinker, Tailor offers up the almost forgotten Cold War as the stage for its intrigues. Although the voices are softer and the principals older, there is a more deadly game afoot. As Kermode comments, there will be large swathes of the audience who don’t know the political context at all. Not that it matters, since the detail (Hungary, the parallels with Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt et al.) are but window-dressing for the appeal of George Smiley (silent, menacing, magnificent Gary Oldman). Contra the brashness of post-9/11 global political allegory-fictions, we are gently ushered into an epic game of chess, played by men. Men whose tools are wit, logic and cunning. Men from an analog age who use little pieces of card to alert them to potential break-ins.

Our contemporary operatives, even those of clear intellect and cunning are, like Bob Barnes in Syriana, always eventually compelled to revert to Hollywood expectations (explosions, gun fights, fisticuffs) to bring matters to their appropriate climax. Not in Tinker, Tailor. At one stage Smiley and co. require small handguns but, although drawn, they are never used. Barring the quasi-orgasmic final exchange between Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux, our other vivid encounters with slaughter and disembowelment are after the fact, still, frozen scenes, crowned by flies. As if painted by Goya. We gulp and turn away, but what beautiful mutilations!

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Understanding Peacekeeper Sexual Violence

Why do soldiers rape? When footage of peacekeepers from MINUSTAH, the UN mission in Haiti, gang-raping an 18-year old boy surfaced earlier this month, that question resurfaced with it. Official declarations have predictably stressed how unfortunate it is that the actions of ‘a few’ should taint the efforts of ‘the many’, although 108 Sri Lankan peacekeepers were expelled from Haiti for sexual exploitation in 2007, and another Uruguayan soldier was recently discharged for sexual relations with a Haitian minor. Certainly, patterns of similar abuse are not restricted to the Haitian mission. One of the more disturbing points in my brief fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of Congo was when an international human rights official told me, with an almost confessional seriousness, that they had feared more for their sexual integrity while travelling with UN peacekeepers than when interviewing Congolese soldiers.

When discussing rapacious African warriors, it is common to interpret sexual violence as part of a drive to accumulate resources or as the reflection of communal hatred in war. Peacekeeper sexual violence constitutes something of a control case in such debates, since it is much harder to link rape to these dynamics. There is no genocidal project for which peacekeepers are the foot soldiers, and they cannot really be said to be frustrated by poor pay and conditions. Certainly there have been links between sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers and a kind of trade, although in the opposite direction than usually posited. In the case of UN missions, it has been peacekeepers who have exchanged goods for sex with locals, rather than using rape as a means of accessing additional resources for themselves (although they have also been implicated in other criminal networks for financial gain). Peacekeeper practices of sexual abuse are thus closer to sex trafficking and prostitution on a continuum of gendered exploitation than to models of rape as a tool of terror to facilitate resource capture.

Continue reading