Witchcraft, Bureaucraft, and the Social Life of (US) Aid in Haiti: Supplemental Material

This post builds on the research article “Witchcraft, Bureaucraft, and the Social Life of (US) Aid in Haiti,” which was published in the February 2012 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on NGOs, including, Erica Bornstein’s “The Impulse of Philanthropy” (2009), Thomas Pearson’s “On the Trail of Living Modified Organisms: Environmentalism Within and Against Neoliberal Order” (2009), Aradhana Sharma’s “Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle: Women’s Empowerment, Neoliberal Governmentality, and State (Re)Formation in India” (2006), and Peter Redfield’s “Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis” (2005).

Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on humanitarianism. See, for example, Didier Fassin’s “The Humanitarian Politics of Testimony: Subjectification through Trauma in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (2008), Nancy Rose Hunt’s “An Acoustic Register, Tenacious Images, and Congolese Scenes of Rape and Repetition” (2008), and Ilana Feldman’s “Difficult Distinctions: Refugee Law, Humanitarian Practice, and Political Identification in Gaza” (2007).

Author Interview with Joshua Friesen

Joshua Friesen: Terror economies derive part of their authority from the irrationality and impulsiveness of their administrations. Could the same thing be said for compassion economies? Do compassion economies thrive, in other words, upon irrational and impulsive generosity?

Erica Caple James: I wouldn't describe a terror economy as either irrational or impulsive. From my interviews with victims of violence in Haiti and review of their case files, and from my understanding of what little public information exists on the FRAPH documents and materials, the data suggest that the campaign against the prodemocracy sector was planned, implemented in a calculated manner, and included acts of egregious violence that were explicitly intended to dehumanize Haitian activists and their families. That such acts appear to have been supported financially by Haitian political factions opposed to the Lavalas movement for democracy and were likely supported in some capacity by actors external to Haiti, suggests that there was little "irrationality" (in the psychological sense) involved in these covert processes. Similarly, I would not use the term "irrational" to describe the compassionate impulses that motivate individuals to give to others in need. To some degree, an "impulse to philanthropy," as Erica Bornstein called it recently, may be guided by religious obligations to be charitable, but also by the tenets of a number of secular, professional discourses that attempt to identify the causes of and in some cases alleviate suffering and injustice. Depending upon whether one is responding to an/other's proximal or distant need, one may act directly or through a number of intervening agencies that have begun "rationalizing" or regulating charity and justice through bureaucratic means.

Aid. Photo by Marian Doss.

JF: You write that the overarching insecurity inside the arenas that some NGOs work in cultivates accusations of witchcraft and bureaucraft. Is it also possible for what you call “secular theodicies” to generate these accusations? Theistic theodicies were (and still are) criticized for providing schizophrenic justifications of scarcity and suffering in the face of supposedly benign Gods. Are the secular theodicies of human rights and etc. also vulnerable to such mixing of messages?

ECJ: It is not just an environment of insecurity that generates accusations of hidden or occult malfeasance. In part the scarcity of resources and opacity of the mechanisms for the distribution of fortune or misfortune play a role in how such situations unfold. I believe that the article itself, particularly the latter examples of accusation made against institutions involved in distributing aid to viktim provide an answer to your question. Both the BPS and the Fund were secular institutions engaged in reparative or restorative activities that required that the prospective aid recipient engage in a number of technical activities to authenticate the "causes" or roots of suffering in the malevolent actions of state actors. As described more fully in the book from which these examples are drawn (Democratic Insecurities), such performances led to partial restitution or rehabilitation for victims and only in rare cases to justice. Taking a human rights paradigm as a form of secular theodicy, the Fund required verification that a victim's status was the result of state or governmental sponsored violation of the civil and political rights rather than more complex intersubjective conditions described later in the book. The selective application of any criteria used to determine the causes of suffering, illness, and inequality can give rise to what you are calling "schizophrenic" rationales for societal injustices and inequalities.

JF: Your article suggests, I think, a relationship between resource scarcity and witchcraft-type (malpractice) accusations leveled at NGOs. Is it possible to link scarcity with a particular sort of interpersonal suspicion, or must we consider people’s reactions to scarcity in terms of their unique context?

ECJ: In part what I hope the article suggests is that interpersonal or intersubjective suspicion, rumors, gossip, and related phenomena can arise in connection to the competition for resources that economies of scarcity may generate, but are also inextricably linked to the heightened perception of risk or ontological vulnerability under conditions of emergency or insecurity. Although in Martissant (and other contexts described in my book) such dynamics involved "witchcraft" or idioms of "sorcery," among international aid actors these dynamics appeared to have evolved in relation to scarcity in the grant economy amidst other conditions of "insecurity" --without a specific occult or witchcraft idiom but in very much the same pattern as what I saw among viktim outside these aid institutions. I hypothesize that similar dynamics could emerge in other settings that do not have "witchcraft" as a component of social understandings of suffering that would nevertheless still involve conspiracies of hidden, malevolent acts to accumulate resources illicitly at the expense of the accuser.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1) What is a “compassion economy”?

2) Can you think of ways that “compassion economies” have contributed to or augmented power structures within your own communities?

3) If bureaucratic processes have something in common with magical processes, then how might (in Michael Herzfeld’s words) nationalism be to bureaucrats what religion is to sorcerers?

4) Can you think of any contemporary secular theodicies, or systems of justification that explain the unequal distribution of goods and services, that you have personally experienced?

Additional Readings

Appadurai, Arjun. 1986. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fassin, Didier. 2007. "Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life." Public Culture 19, no. 3: 499–520.

James, Erica Caple. 2004. "The Political Economy of “Trauma” in Haiti in the Democratic Era of Insecurity." Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 28: 127–49.

Kleinman, Arthur, and Joan Kleinman. 1991. "Suffering and Its Professional Transformation: Toward an Ethnography of Interpersonal Experience."Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 15, no. 3: 275–301.

Mbembe, Achille. 2003. "Necropolitics." Libby Meintjes, trans. Public Culture 15, no. 1: 11–40.

Terry, Fiona. 2002. Condemned to Repeat: The Paradox of Humanitarian Action. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Ticktin, Miriam. 2006. "Where Ethics and Politics Meet: The Violence of Humanitarianism in France." American Ethnologist 33, no. 1: 33–49.