Afterlives: Humanitarian Histories and Critical Subjects in Mozambique

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This article draws on fieldwork conducted with the staff, volunteers and recipients of programs run by NGOs in Morrumbala, a rural district in central Mozambique. During the Mozambican conflict in the 1980s and early 1990s, a majority of district residents lived in refugee camps in Malawi. This article explores how recipients and volunteers draw on nostalgic memories of humanitarian experience in Malawi to critique and make claims on the humanitarian regimes that now provide services in Morrumbala. Anthropological literature has shown that refugee experience can be central to processes of political subjectification, becoming the grounds through which claims are articulated on neoliberal regimes of rights and services. These memories, and the nostalgic humanitarian lexicon they deploy, point to the historicity of humanitarian experience. As Morrumbala residents engage new configurations of aid and welfare today, the afterlives of previous interventions also allow for ambivalent and critical engagements with humanitarian practice in the present.

Ramah McKay, "Funds provided by the Global Children’s Fund and other NGOs have helped some Morrumbala residents to build new brick houses, replacing older building styles (visible on the left and in the background)." May 2012.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on humanitarianism, including Erica Bornstein’s "The Impulse of Philanthropy" (2009), Didier Fassin’s "The Humanitarian Politics of Testimony: Subjectification through Trauma in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict" (2008), and Ilana Feldman’s "Difficult Distinctions: Refugee Law, Humanitarian Practice, and Political Identification in Gaza" (2007).

Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on neoliberalism. See for example, Ahmed Kanna’s "Flexible Citizenship in Dubai: Neoliberal Subjectivity in the Emerging 'City-Corporation'" (2010), Thomas Pearson’s "On the Trail of Living Modified Organisms: Environmentalism within and against Neoliberal Order" (2009), and Daromir Rudnyckyj’s "Spiritual Economies: Islam and Neoliberalism in Contemporary Indonesia" (2009).

Related Resources

Additional organizations involved in refugee repatriation and humanitarian support in Morrumbala:

UNHCR - Evaluation of Repatriation Efforts to Mozambique

The International Organization for Migration

UNICEF - Mozambique

Current resettlement and aid projects have also been coordinated by the Mozambican government (news clips are in Portuguese):



Photographs from the Field

Ramah McKay, "The precarious infrastructural remains of previous humanitarian interventions (including this UNICEF tent, which serves as a school room) is visible in much of Morrumbala district." May 2012.

Ramah McKay, "Hygiene kits for distribution." May 2012.

About the Author

Ramah McKay is currently a postdoctoral research associate in Medical Anthropology and Global Health for the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.  She will be joining the University of Minnesota as Assistant Professor of Anthropology in 2012. Topically, her research interests focus on forms of knowledge, politics, and social relations through which global health regimes are enabled, attending to issues of labor, gender, and humanitarianism. She is currently at work on her first book, based on two years of ethnographic research in Mozambique. Focusing on the complex trajectories of local and transnational health workers, patients, and their families in a context of global health and humanitarian investment, the book explores how the multiplicity of medical aid regimes in Mozambique shapes practices of government and forms of value in urban and rural Mozambique.

Ramah McKay's website

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. How do former refugees describe their historical experience of refugee camp life in Malawi? How do their descriptions diverge from or converge with documentary evidence of camp life that McKay presents? What is at stake for recipients and policy-makers in the narration of alternate histories of humanitarian aid and development? How does this case illustrate broader implications for revisionist historiographies of Africa?  

2. How is care differentially allocated by the Mozambican state (and states generally) versus the humanitarian aid organizations like Global Children’s Fund? What facets of a person’s identity and being are elevated and made grounds to qualify for care? What are past and present contingencies that limit or open up the reception of care?  

3. What is the relationship between dependency on and the reception of humanitarian aid? How are Morrumbala residents enabled as political subjects in receiving aid? In contrast, how are residents’ reception of aid politicized, or as McKay shows, “ethnologized?”  

4. Susana has depended on humanitarian assistance but is also critical of contemporary modalities of aid provision. What does Susana’s trajectory reveal about how individual lives are shaped by aid regimes? How do her experiences and attitudes complicate, exceed, or subvert expectations about the uses and results of aid? How do Susana’s experience give credence to or complicate political understandings of the effects of humanitarian assistance?

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