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

Abstract

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Marian Doss, "Haiti." September 16, 2008 via .

In this article I discuss the unintended consequences of humanitarian and development assistance provided to “victims of human rights abuses” in Haiti in the years following the restoration of democracy in 1994. Such targeted aid was a component of international political and economic development aid intended to facilitate the nation’s postconflict transition. I argue that in much the same manner that witchcraft discourses signify moral struggles over the distribution of resources in small-scale societies, the cultures and moral economies of humanitarian and development aid—well-intentioned activities that nonetheless include opaque bureaucratic practices and competition over knowledge, scarce resources, and institutional territory—can produce similar phenomena as has been described regarding contemporary witchcraft. I draw on the literature on witchcraft, bureaucracy, and secrecy to analyze accusations of malfeasance, scapegoating, and violence directed toward both providers and recipients of humanitarian and development assistance. I characterize such processes occurring in relation to compassion economies by the term bureaucraft.[witchcraft, bureaucracy, bureaucraft, humanitarianism, democracy, insecurity, human rights, Haiti]

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).

Essay Excerpt

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Erica James, "Excerpt." October 19, 2012 via .

“Both MOVI-30 texts revealed the intermingling of rumor, gossip, and misunderstandings about bureaucratic practices that arose within the scarce victim assistance grant economy. These two documents embodied accusations of “bureaucraft” that implicated not only the Rehab Program and Human Rights Fund but also the Haitian state, the “greedy” Haitian bourgeoisie, and the U.S. government, all of which were purported to have engaged in covert activity. But the political leaflet also demonstrated the relationship between bureaucraft phenomena and classic “witchcraft” accusations” (Erica James 2012, 68).

About the Author

Erica Caple James is a medical and psychiatric anthropologist who received an A.B. from Princeton University (Anthropology 1992), an M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School (1995), and a Ph.D. from Harvard University (Social Anthropology 2003). Her research interests focus on violence and trauma; humanitarianism, human rights, democratization, and postconflict transition processes; race, gender, and culture; and religion and healing. Her first book, Democratic Insecurities: Violence, Trauma, and Intervention in Haiti (University of California Press 2010), documents the psychosocial experience of Haitian torture survivors targeted during the 1991-94 coup period and analyzes the politics of humanitarian assistance in "post-conflict" nations making the transition to democracy. The research was supported by a Social Science Research Council-MacArthur Foundation Fellowship on Peace and Security in a Changing World (1998-2000) and NIMH pre- and post-doctoral fellowships. She is working on the manuscript for a second research project,  Charity, Security, and Disparities: Haitian Quests for Asylum , which documents the "biopolitics of charity" through ethnographic research conducted at a "faith-based" organization in the U.S. serving Haitian immigrants and refugees. The project was supported by funding from the NIH Health Disparities Research Program. Her third project,  Governing Gifts: Law, Risk, and the “War on Terror”,  continues her focus on the politics of charity by tracing the impact of U.S. anti-terrorism financing laws and practices on both faith-based and secular NGOs in the U.S. Ongoing projects evaluate the growth of the "alternative" and "complementary" medical sector and the competing notions of embodiment and healing that this domain offers to biomedical health care.  (Taken from MIT’s Faculty Biographies Page, January 10th 2012)

Interview With the Author

Q: 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?

A: 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. Which brings me to your next question...

Q: You write that the overarching insecurity inside the arenas that some NGOs work in cultivates accusations of witchcraft and bureaucraft (2012, 71).  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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Multimedia

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Marian Doss, "Aid." September 8, 2008 via .

“The circulation of rumors, gossip, and scandal may catalyze accusations of witchcraft, sorcery, or magic, as well as episodes of scapegoating that can culminate in violence” (Stewart and Strathern 2004, as seen in James 2012, 50).

“September 1998, I was participating in a Rehab Program therapy group at the Human Rights Fund with women who lived in Martissant” (ibid, 62)

“I knew Bernadette as a beneficiary of the Fund and an outpatient at the Mars/Kline Psychiatric Center. She was always pleasant toward me in our limited encounters. Admittedly, I perceived that she had the comportment that I had come to associate with the schizophrenics the Mars/Kline staff treated on a daily basis” (ibid).

Haiti’s controversial truth commission” (ibid, 65).

Additional Readings

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

2007. Fassin, Didier. "Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life." Public Culture 19(3):499–520.

2004. James, Erica Caple. "The Political Economy of “Trauma” in Haiti in the Democratic Era of Insecurity." Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 28:127–149.

1991. Kleinman, Arthur, and Joan Kleinman. "Suffering and Its Professional Transformation: Toward an Ethnography of Interpersonal Experience."Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 15(3):275–301.

2003. Mbembe, Achille. "Necropolitics." Libby Meintjes, trans. Public Culture 15(1):11–40.

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

2006. Ticktin, Miriam. "Where Ethics and Politics Meet: The Violence of Humanitarianism in France." American Ethnologist 33(1):33–49.

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 is – in the words of Herzfeld – nationalism to bureaucrats what religion is to sorcerers (1992, 62)?

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

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