China Scherz is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia, and the author of “Having People, Having Heart: Charity, Sustainable Development, and Problems of Dependence in Central Uganda,” University of Chicago Press, 2014, an analysis of nongovernmental organizations working with AIDS orphans and children with disabilities in Uganda. In it, she challenges current international development norms and standards, suggesting that Ugandans see those norms as suspect refusals to redistribute wealth. For this post in the Cage’s 2015 African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular, I asked her some questions.
LS: In the book, you identify a disconnect between the values and goals of the charitable organizations you studied and the people they serve. This is true despite the fact that both of your subjects, Hope Child and Mercy House, are local organizations. Why do these differences persist, and how do they vary between the two organizations?
CS: As you say, both Hope Child and Mercy House are local organizations managed entirely by Ugandans and other East Africans. But in both cases their activities are to a greater or lesser extent determined by the priorities of their foreign funders. Funders often speak about the importance of listening to local people. But the funders and the locals have sharply conflicting value systems. The ethos of participatory development resists distributing material resources — money — to avoid breeding dependence. By contrast, the locals work within an ethic of patronage.
Here’s how this ethic of patronage works. Clients gain access to resources and opportunities by establishing relationships with patrons, often built on the exchange of goods, labor or favors. While some patrons do exploit their clients, crafting these ties is seen an important pathway to prosperity — and since there are many possible patrons, clients retain some control, as they can shift among patrons as necessary. Many of the goals that local groups have for their relations with international NGOs are organized around this ethic of patronage and an expectation that they are and should be building long-term interdependence.
In other words, despite international NGOs’ widely publicized commitments to listening to beneficiaries, they cannot hear this expectation of interdependence — because it conflicts with their core commitment to fostering independence rather than dependence.
This problem was especially acute at Hope Child, where employees saw keeping pace with international trends and best practices as a top priority — even though these trends were in direct conflict with the ethics of patronage that oriented the lives of the people they served.
By contrast, the Catholic sisters working at Mercy House were deeply committed to an ethic of charity that corresponded with local ethics of reciprocal patronage and unrequited generosity. The sisters only took up those donor mandates that they felt were consistent with their theology and founder’s vision. Their understandings of divine providence also led them to see themselves as protected and cared for by God. This gave them courage to resist their international funders’ demands, even when if they lost some funding.
LS: How do the historical experiences and understandings of collective identity of Kiganda ethnic group members relate to their understanding of what form charity and development should take?
CS: The Kiganda kingdom of Buganda has historically been governed through a complex hierarchy including a king, princes, territorial chiefs, officers, and clan leaders. While this system changed profoundly because of the slave trade in the 1800s and the establishment of the British Protectorate in 1894, people continue to seek upward mobility by establishing hierarchical interdependence through exchanges of goods, labor, and favors with others. Many charitable projects align well with this ethic of patronage and with Kiganda understandings of generosity — as they often present themselves as new forms of patronage.
LS: How does the notion of “sustainable development” affect how these organizations provide assistance to those in need, and how does this relate to Kiganda understandings of their identity?
CS: As international organizations seek to make their interventions sustainable, they avoid precisely these long-term dependent relations. At the same time, these organizations demand “community participation” that’s not so different from the sorts of things clients might do for patrons. For example, the population that’s being served might be asked to provide bricks or labor for construction projects or to perform songs when donors visit to demonstrate their loyalty and enthusiasm for the project. as a result, local people feel cheated: they have acted as good clients but not been abandoned instead of sheltered with long-term patronage. That can result in rumors of corruption and locals abandoning the “sustainable” project.
LS: Much of the contemporary debate over aid and development is heavily focused on evidence that an intervention works — evidence that’s gathered through randomized control trials, monitoring and evaluation, and the like. How do these international norms affect the practice of development in the communities you studied?
CS: Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) practices have a substantial influence on what projects get implemented. For example, an evaluation based on cost-effectiveness might look favorably on a project which reaches a large number of beneficiaries. It may be easy to count beneficiaries, but it is harder to know whether the intervention really had any impact. This pushes organizations towards interventions which produce high numbers of easily counted deliverables, such as the number of children who attended a training about their right to an education, and away from interventions which involve high per-person costs but may lead to more significant long-term outcomes, such as educational sponsorship.
LS: How should those who want to effectively aid those in need respond? Are some types of giving or forms of support better than others?
CS: While my book doesn’t offer a solution to global poverty, it does offer some thoughts as to how one might engage with people who have ethics similar to those in Buganda, in a fashion which beneficiaries are likely to see as ethical and likely to produce real change in their lives and communities. These generally involve the donor or foundation taking up a position akin to a patron or generous relative — providing credit on easy terms, sponsoring the education of a child, or paying for hospital bills. These forms of assistance both help people to advance their own initiatives and buffer families from certain shocks. Such activities are not “sustainable,” in the sense that they are not self-reproducing. They all require on-going donor funding. Yet they help people and communities make sustainable changes in their own lives. That’s the kind of sustainability that international donors should be aiming for.