This post builds on the research article “Left Behind: Security, Salvation, and the Subject of Prevention,” which was published in the May 2013 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Cultural Anthropology has published articles on subject formation in the context of humanitarian intervention (see, for example, Ramah McKay's "Afterlives: Humanitarian Histories and Critical Subjects in Mozambique" ) and faith-based activism (see, for example, Omri Elisha's "Moral Ambitions of Grace: The Paradox of Compassion and Accountability in Evangelical Faith-Based Activism" ). See also Peter Redfield's "The Unbearable Lightness of Expats: Double Binds of Humanitarian Mobility" (2012) and "Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis" (2005).
Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of articles on neoliberal governmentality. See, for example, Tomas Matza's "Moscow’s Echo: Technologies of the Self, Publics, and Politics on the Russian Talk Show" (2009), Aradhana Sharma's "Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle: Women's Empowerment, Neoliberal Governmentality, and State (Re)Formation in India" (2006), and Erica Caple James' "Witchcraft, Bureaucraft, and the Social Life of US(AID) in Haiti" (2012) on the intersections of compassion economies, humanitarian aid, and spiritual beliefs and practices.
Interview with the Author
Why are you so critical of something so good? Kevin Lewis O'Neill (KLO): I'm not critical. I think there is a difference between being critical and thinking critically about something. And many of the perceived critiques that I raise in the article are nothing new to child sponsorship. They are debates that have circled internally for decades. My interest is in a moment when child sponsorship, as well as a whole range of faith-based programs, gets folded into a rather amorphous effort at regional security.
But the article reads like critique… KLO: I did not write it from a place of critique. I actually wrote it from a place of total ambivalence. For one, I really like the people who run this organization. I think they do great work that advances at least one longstanding political commitment of my own: redistribution. They move money from the north to the south. They also let their ideals guide their lives. I find them to be totally inspiring. But, I'm an anthropologist thinking about security strategies across the Americas, and I'm interested in their effects, both those intended and those unintended. So, for me, it was difficult to strike a completely critical tone.
Then you seem really ambivalent about short term mission trips… KLO: Yes, I am really ambivalent about short term mission trips. But those who run sponsorship programs tend to be more critical than I am. They say that they are tremendously expensive and a questionable use of resources. I agree. But my first experience in Latin America, in Mexico, in fact, was a two week trip in college—to build houses and to study up on liberation theology. I ended up getting interested in the Zapatista movement and spent the summer in the conflict zones. Now I'm an anthropologist. So one really can't tell where these trips will take people. But, again, for me it's that these trips now get put to work, or are at least framed by, those concerned with regional security. They were once irrelevant to security in Central America. Now they are a resource.
So you went native? Or you were already native? KLO: Neither. I'm not Christian. I'm a recovering Catholic, as they say. So that's not the source of my ambivalence. One source is just how anthropological child sponsorship can seem. The short term travel, with its interest in alterity, and how it all prompts people to announce really broad statements about the human condition—it can seem really uncanny at times, the return of the repressed. I write in the article, "a half-dozen child sponsors sat on the bed of a recent gunshot victim." But so too did an anthropologist. And, believe me, no one could tell us apart.
So you're no different than the sponsors? KLO: Well, one of the major arguments of my article is that child sponsorship is a technique of self-cultivation. So child sponsors race to the poorest, most dangerous parts of the world because this helps them cultivate a certain sense of self. Again, that's not too far off from what anthropologists tend to do. And everyone around that bed, including me, all seemed pretty intrigued by the realities of gang violence. It did something for each of us.
But if we take the work of Michel Foucault and others seriously, and agree that we are all cultivating the self in one way or another, then the observation can actually seem rather banal. We all cultivate ourselves. This Cultural Anthropology Supplemental Page, for example, is a really tedious effort at curating my own self. Black and white photo? Stern gaze? Rolling hills punctuated by simple structures. That's hot! But my question is, and continues to be, what happens when this impetus to craft ourselves becomes a constitutive dimension of hemispheric security? What happens when security becomes a matter of the soul rather than that of the state? What kind of people does this produce? What kind of security does this make possible? These questions are as ontological as they are ethnographic.
Does it work? KLO: The anthropological answer is 'yes.' Of course it works. Everything works, the anthropologist tends to argue, because most everything we study does something; it produces something. For me, in the study, my evidence pushed me towards the observation that sponsorship puts some kids on the grid while leaving others off. Again, this perceived critique is very familiar to the industry itself. But this division between those sponsored and those not, I argue, highlights what I call the surgically selective nature of Central American security. It's all so singular. And this is fascinating because it pushes the security debate, especially in Latin America, beyond the built form, beyond the material realties of walls and razor wire. Those are important but only one part of the process.
Why North Carolina? North Carolina is super important for my work in Guatemala. The sponsorship program is one reason. But the money from Plan Mexico, the cash set aside for soft security programs, is handled by USAID and then subcontracted to the Research Triangle Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina. Another part of my research involves Alejandro Umana. He's a Salvadoran national, a member of MS-13, now on Federal death row. He’s the first Central American gang member to receive the federal death penalty. He's being held in Terre Haute, Indiana, but he’s on death row for murders he committed in Greensboro, North Carolina. His lawyers are in North Carolina. Finally, North Carolina is on the very forefront of deportation policy. It's a model (at times laboratory) for the coordination of local law enforcement with the Department of Homeland Security. Their 287(g) Program has been central to my research.