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Englund, Harri  (2004) Transnational Governance and the Pacification of Youth: The Contribution of Civic Education to Disempowerment in Malawi
Center for Civil Society Research Report 13: 1-35.

Whenever there is reason to highlight the limited rewards of liberal democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, the national elites are usually the first to be accused. The elites may be understood to include not only the Head of State and a handful of other ruling and opposition leaders, but also the wealthiest segments of the commercial class, sometimes complemented with senior civil servants and religious leaders. Critical analyses focusing on elites can be illuminating, exposing those who most conspicuously wield political and economic power (see Good 2001). However, such critiques may also end up obscuring the social and political dynamics involved. They often seem to build on the expectation that if only the self-serving agendas of national elites could be better controlled, transitions to genuine democracy would ensue. The evidence in this paper shows that certain inequalities are more entrenched than these expectations suggest. I also argue that these inequalities cannot be reduced to ‘objective’ class antagonisms. My intent is not to exculpate national elites but to implicate a broader cross-section of agents and agencies – some national, others foreign – in hijacking democracy and human rights.

An exclusive focus on national elites as the enemies of democracy can be challenged on at least three counts. First, especially since the onset of multipartyism, elites must be conceived of in the plural, with the new prospects for competition making earlier reciprocity and mutual interests among elites somewhat obsolete (cf. Bayart 1993). The implications for democratisation are, therefore, rather more complex than what a categorical condemnation of national elites allows for. In particular, little will be achieved if analysis is guided by, in Werbner’s words, ‘a bias, notoriously well established among social scientists, against elites, as if they were the curse of liberal democracy’ (2002: 130). Pluralism fosters a politics of recognition, bringing to the fore the long-suppressed diversity of many sub-Saharan nations (Berman et al. 2003; Englund and Nyamnjoh 2004). Counter-elites emerge to challenge those who pursue particularist interests under the guise of national leadership. Because these processes may yield both liberals and warlords, the actual consequences for democratisation cannot be determined without empirical investigation. Moreover, much as the widespread imagery of political leaders as ‘fathers’ and their subjects as ‘children’ can facilitate exploitation and abuse, the same moral ideas may also direct attention to the rights of dependants (see Schatzberg 2002).

Second, the focus on national elites obscures the appeal of such hierarchical notions among the non-elite. This oversight is especially unfortunate when the analytical purview is extended to non-governmental organisations (NGOs). A conspicuous feature of new democracies world-wide, NGOs have attracted considerable donor support as agencies that are believed to provide independent voices. Although the executive directors of some NGOs undoubtedly belong to the educated and affluent elite, much of their work among so-called beneficiaries, often spoken of as ‘the grassroots’, is conducted by modestly educated and lowly paid officers and volunteers. The evidence in this paper shows that these NGO and project personnel maintain the same distinctions towards ‘ordinary’ subjects as the elites. Despite their cherished ability to criticise power, activists, and not least those claiming to promote the cause of democracy and human rights, are quite as much embedded in entrenched inequalities as anyone else and often fail to resist the seductions of status distinctions. Thus a focus on national elites would miss an important dimension of democratisation as it is being introduced to the populace. Taking activists’ rhetoric for granted, the focus would fail to notice how their practice actually contributes to maintaining inequalities.

Third, the case of NGOs and various human rights projects not only demonstrates the importance of considering agents other than elites, it also indicates how democratisation is embedded in transnational political processes. The focus on national elites is likely to assume specific spatial relations in which power is located in national urban centres (for a critique, see Guyer 1994). Both the masses and NGOs are placed ‘below’ the state, with critics attaching great hopes to a ‘civil society’ that would challenge and resist the elites ‘from below’. Yet the fact is that many NGOs and human rights projects depend on complex transnational links for their material and political survival. As such, they may challenge or, as is the case here, support the state not ‘from below’ but as agencies with capacities that are equal, if not superior, to those of the state (see Lewis 2002; Migdal 2001). A concept of transnational governance is central to the argument of this paper, pointing out the need to understand how African activists and their foreign donors together deprive democracy and human rights of substantive meaning (cf. Ferguson and Gupta 2002; Jenkins 2001).

The shift of focus from national elites to a broader range of agents and agencies should not be seen as a denial of elitism as a central aspect of democratisation in countries like Malawi. On the contrary, the salience of elitism as a cultural disposition appears more clearly precisely when the focus is thus expanded. It is a cultural disposition partially shared by both African activists and foreign donors, a habit of thought and practice that conceals entrenched inequalities in a rhetoric of popular participation. While some aspects of that rhetoric may appear new – such as the appreciation of ‘community’ as the locus of democracy and development – the ways in which it is put into practice frequently suggest historical parallels with both the colonial rule and post-independence autocracy. More precisely, elitism maintains the status quo not by promoting self-professed elites but by associating democracy and development with particular indices and institutions, many of which bear little relevance to the impoverished majority. Those who become, often with support from foreign donors, the vanguards of democracy are the progressive ones, the enlightened few leading the way out of darkness. In contrast to some definitions of democracy, the starting-point is not the actual concerns and aspirations of the people, their particular situations in life and experiences of abuse, but democracy and human rights as universal, if abstract, values. It is the task of this paper to show how this preoccupation with abstraction both fosters elitism and undermines substantive democratisation.

As a cultural disposition, elitism carries historical resonances with colonialism and is one of the ways in which contemporary transnational governance assumes an undemocratic content. Elitism is inseparable from the actual political and economic conditions it helps to maintain. As an illustration, consider how empowerment, a key concept in the current rhetoric, has become vacuous. When the democratic transitions began with the demise of the Cold War, Malawi was one of the countries where empowerment became closely associated with political and civil liberties, human rights defined as freedoms (maufulu in Chinyanja/Chichewa). This definition was understandable after three decades of ruthless dictatorship, but its severely confined notion of rights quickly diminished the significance of the democratic transition. Squabbling over political and civil freedoms, the ruling elite and its non-governmental watchdogs effectively silenced public debates on social and economic rights. An impression of robust democratic processes was thereby created, not least for the benefit of foreign donors, but structural inequalities were hidden behind the notion that ‘poverty alleviation’ was basically a technical issue. Empowerment, in effect, became disempowerment by confining the scope of what could be discussed by using the notions of democracy and human rights.

The above remarks do not seek to trivialise political and civil freedoms; nor are they based on a hierarchy of rights that, for example, the ‘founding fathers’ of newly-independent African states deployed to justify repression (cf. Shivji 1989). The best minds of political philosophy have long since discarded a hierarchy of rights in favour of an appreciation of how various rights and freedoms constitute one another. Amartya Sen (1999: 36), for example, has argued that freedom has both a constitutive and instrumental role in development. Freedom is, in other words, both the primary end and the principal means of development. Sen’s argument takes issue with those who have doubted the importance of political freedoms in ensuring economic development. The instrumental role of freedom reveals how ‘freedom of one type may greatly help in advancing freedom of other types’ (Sen 1999: 37). Moreover, Sen warns against rhetorical assertions of democracy’s contribution to development. ‘The achievement of social justice’, he writes, ‘depends not only on institutional forms (including democratic rules and regulations), but also on effective practice’ (Sen 1999: 159).

Whereas Sen argues with critics and despots who claim that economic prosperity is a more urgent objective than political freedoms, Malawi’s experiments with democratisation represent the opposite extreme. They demonstrate the perils of isolating political freedoms as the essence of democracy. This paper explores civic education as a central arena where the meaning of democracy and human rights is defined in Malawi. Elitism is apparent in the ways in which civic education contributes to making distinctions between ‘the grassroots’ and those who are privileged enough to spread the messages. In 1998, James Tengatenga, a Malawian intellectual and more recently an Anglican bishop, was bold, if not heretical, enough to criticise the patronising attitudes underlying the apparently participatory approaches to civic education in Malawi. Despite their democratic pretensions, he argued, they ‘suggest coming down to the people. Even when [civic education] is referred to as blending or being one with the people, one can’t help but notice the condescension’ (Tengatenga 1998: 188; emphasis original). Tengatenga’s criticism may have been too much ahead of its time, or too politically incorrect, to attract the attention it deserved. This paper takes his criticism a step further by showing how a leading civic education project has marginalised people’s own insights into their life situations. At the same time, well-meaning activists believe that their knowledge of rights has not yet touched the lives of the masses. Activists seek to ‘enlighten’ the masses. They refer to this process with the Chinyanja/Chichewa verb kuwunikira, which connotes the shedding of light. Activists see themselves as the torchbearers, the ones who bring light to the darkness.

The distinction between those who need help and those who can provide help is familiar from the world of charity (see Bornstein 2003; Garland 1999). Here, as in civic education on human rights, the providers of assistance feel that they have something that others lack. Moreover, the objective is not to upset the balance between those who receive help and those who provide it. Charity differs from structural change, whether by legislation or revolution, in that it presupposes a categorical distinction between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. The former help the latter to sustain themselves, while the distinction itself remains virtually intact. In a similar vein, the civic education project on human rights examined here involves little that would actually enable the disadvantaged to lift themselves from their predicament. The fact that this troubling observation is largely unnoticed in Malawi indicates how natural the distinction has become even among human rights advocates.

The purpose of this paper is to show how the distinction underlying civic education is a consequence of active effort, not a natural state of affairs. The crucial question, in effect, is not who does civic education but how they assume their position. In this paper I present observations from my ethnographic research among the representatives of a major civic education project in Malawi. Funded by the European Union, the project has a nation-wide network of salaried civic education officers, while the reach of the project is made even more comprehensive by a large number of volunteers, known as para-civic education officers. Research on how these two groups of people are recruited and trained reveals an emphasis on status that few in the Malawian context can afford to resist. The differentiation of officers and volunteers from the targets of their civic education is a hidden lesson of civic educators’ training. Through certificates, closed workshops, common appearance and human rights jargon (often in English), a commitment to the project and its particular world-view is generated. Crucial to this emerging quasi-professional identity are those disadvantaged and poor Malawians, often known as ‘the grassroots’, who are excluded from the group. The civic education project is, in effect, an instrument of transnational governance. It pre-empts popular protests by maintaining old patterns of elitism.

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