Oral Presentation Session
Invited by: Interest Group on NGOs and Nonprofits
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students
Primary Theme: The Political
Secondary Theme: Exchange
Anthropologists have long worked alongside those who aspire to change the world by “doing good” (Lashaw, Vannier, and Sampson 2017). We study funded volunteer and professional intervention work across international, national, and local contexts. In past research, applied social science studies have often searched for success, answering the question, "Was the desired change achieved?" However, a large body of anthropological critique identifies program failure and unintended consequences as more significant outcomes (e.g Ferguson 1990; Fischer 1997). Anticipating a turn in anthropology to expanding ideas of “the good” (Bornstein 2012; Brodwin 2013; Ortner, 2016; Robbins 2013), success and failure are complicated in these studies that show how the best outcome can be resistance to social intervention rather than acceptance or adaptation.
This panel will focus on studies by anthropologists with direct work experience in social change oriented fields. We have been inspired to bring change and have also been first hand witnesses to local failures. In the pull between asserted effort to achieve “the good” and failure as a frequent option, this panel explores insight gained through closer examination of the gap between success and failure. This draws attention away from intervention work as the pursuit of instrumental goals to open space that examines the complex interplay of responses and results to intervention change efforts. This complexity comes in part from involvement of more than one group of beneficiaries and/or benefactors, and the interaction of more than one identified problem to solve. Resistance, adaptation, and resilience are then found amongst benefactors, beneficiaries, and various interlocutors within intended intervention encounters, interdependent intervention contexts, and unintended intervention effects. In the U.S., a humanitarian disaster created through providing blood transfusions both creates community and basis for resistance. In rural Ohio, those trying to help human trafficking victims find their work compromised by structural violence. Crossing boundaries between the U.S. and India, NGO proponents of “Engaged Buddhism” use advocacy work to obscure collateral and self-serving projects. The positive and spiritual discourse of this work complicates resistance efforts. In Senegal, the state and transnational NGOs perform rights work on behalf of Qur’anic school students. They mobilize global compassion but never bring more change than basic relief. Their "success" eclipses potentially more substantive advocacy by the students themselves. Turning to another example of destruction with positive intervention, the Israeli military is increasingly engaging soldiers in civic organizations through a policy observed as “conscripted volunteering.” The resulting contradictory engagements become part of producing militarized subjects. In China, engagement of a locally created orphanage with a foreign NGO resulted in greater empowerment of the state through unequal competition between purported benefactors. Finally, bringing back the topic of epidemics, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa reinforced top-down and bio-medicalized solutions. In turn, victims of disease were further victimized by the state, which thus transformed crisis into more chronic suffering. As a whole, these papers call for greater attention to the complex aftermath that “doing good” creates (and may constrain) in the wake of state, INGO, and NGO intervention and response.