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The virtues of dependency

Which is better, sustainable development aimed at reducing dependency and the inherent inequalities of aid, or charity aimed simply at meeting the immediate needs of the poor? For most people in the North the answer is simple: sustainable development. The practices used to achieve this and the discourses they involve, such as training, empowerment, micro credit, capacity building, seem to be unquestionably ‘good’, both in terms of their assumed effectiveness and the moralities they imply. Who, after all, wants to be dependent?

The answer is that in many parts of the world dependency is a positive rather than a negative state, involving notions of support, moral and ethical good and relationality. In Having People, Having Heart China Scherz shows how in Uganda the values and practices of inter-dependence are at odds with Northern funded development projects that stress self reliance and sustainability. As with other recent ethnographies of Africa (Daniel Jordon Smith’s A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria springs to mind) her informants’ shifting views are understandably ambiguous. Modernity and ‘development’ are desired, but aspirations of democracy and transparency jostle with the demands and moralities of kinship and other social obligations. Like other recent ethnographies of ‘development’ (e.g. see Karim 2011; Elyachar 2005), Scherz’s book provides us with more evidence of the ambivalences and contradictions caused by neo liberal development initiatives which promote individuality and self reliance as social goods whilst providing none of the structures or services enjoyed in the North. As part of the wider anthropological project of pushing beyond contemporary development orthodoxies to reveal the complex ethical-moral terrains in which programmes and policies are played out, the book is a significant addition.

Having People, Having Heart is based around Scherz’s fieldwork in two organisations in Central Uganda. The context is one of high levels of poverty, in which the lives of many have been destroyed by HIV/AIDs. The first organisation, a Franciscan mission called Mercy House, is dedicated to meeting the needs of poor and orphaned children. The second, the NGO Child Hope, offers sustainable development programmes for young people, children and their carers. Child Hope has an excellent reputation amongst international donors. Dedicated to training sessions, workshops and development centres aimed at ‘empowerment’, it has moved a long way from its earlier work of ‘child saving’. With its participatory programmes, and systems of monitoring, evaluation and budget keeping, it has become an exemplary model of best practice. Self reliance, participation, empowerment and – most importantly – sustainability, the organisation ticks all the boxes of the international development zeitgeist and is rewarded by considerable donor funding. Yet rather than approval within Uganda, many criticise Child Hope’s enthusiastic adoption of the new style of development work. The workshops are a ‘waste of time’ according to a national politician, whilst Rosemary, a participant in the programmes, simply asks: “We wonder sometimes ‘You find me with nothing. You say you want to help me, but you are saying I have to invest first. Now where do I get the money from? If you are to help me, do it unconditionally’.”

Placing this paradox at the centre of her book, Scherz sets out to explain why the injunctions of self reliance and independence are so at odds with historically and culturally produced Ugandan ethics of interdependence, philanthropy and spirituality. In her careful and theoretically nuanced analysis of these contrasting, conflicting and yet often interlinked ‘ethico-moral’ assemblages she has made an important contribution to a new anthropology of development that emphasises morality, ethics and spirituality and seeks to interrogate the motivations of those who work within local charities and development organisations rather than simply critiquing development work as the imposition of Northern domination over the South or turning to cultural difference to explain ‘why projects don’t work.’ Indeed, the point is that Hope Child’s programmes do work, or at least in the terms of those who fund them, both for their embrace of bureaucratic auditing procedures and their ability to find participants who embody the new development ideal: self reliant, strong and willing, as opposed to weak, needy and worst of all, dependent.

In this project of excavation, revealing, in Foucault’s terms, the genealogies of charity, sustainable development and Kiganda ethics of interdependence, Scherz joins anthropologists such as Erica Bornstein in pointing to the spiritual rather than secular underpinnings of charities and NGOs especially in the context of African Christianity (Bornstein 2005), perspectives which have been taken up by two recent volumes of ‘Aidnography’ which focus in part on the religious and ethical motivations of aid workers (Mosse 2011; Fechter and Hindman 2011). The historical and cultural context of Scherz’s work is particularly compelling. As she argues, Development’s injunction to create sustainable change and its explicit rejection of dependency ignores the ways in which being a dependent is valued in Uganda, providing an avenue for social mobility rather than creating impermeable hierarchies. In pre colonial Buganda, patrons used their wealth to mobilise clients who could expect charity and support in return for their labour. In Scherz’s analysis the exchanges were reciprocal rather than exploitative; if not satisfied, clients could simply give their labour to someone else. Today, creating relationships with potential patrons is vital for those in need, a situation that has been exacerbated by HIV/AIDs. Moreover the moral disposition of mutima or ‘having heart’, extending generosity to those with whom one has no obligation, means that some people are disposed to help needy others without an expectation of reciprocity.

Whilst Hope Child has taken on the ethical assemblage of sustainability with little regard to the actual needs of the poor, the Franciscan nuns at Mercy House follow an ethics of unsustainable charity, offering help to all comers and running their affairs with little regard for book keeping, trainings or audit. As Scherz insightfully demonstrates, rather than Christian charity being concerned with development time which imagines an improved future in the secular here and now, for the Sisters of Mercy charity is primarily directed at their relationship with God, an end in itself, aimed at the spiritual development of the nuns as much as at the improvement of those receiving the charity (p.72).

In contrasting the work of Hope Child and Mercy House, Scherz arrives at the crux of the matter. Whilst supporters of Hope Child dismiss the work of Mercy House for being unsustainable and creating dependency, the Sisters of Mercy regard mainstream programmes of sustainability as wasting money which should be spent on material benefits. Yet rather than attending to the needs of the poorest, an endeavour directed at God’s invisible accounting, Hope Child’s efforts are put into the ‘visible ethics of audit’ (p.112), creating quantifiable proof of success via reports that list the numbers of trainings and workshops held, institutional capacity building and visual evidence of strong and willing community volunteers. Here, one is reminded of David Mosse’s perceptive analysis of an Indian development project in which he argues that the performance of success and the social relationships created via this performance was its underlying rationale (Mosse 2005).

Scherz’s observations of the positive values of dependency chime with my own research in Bangladesh, in which programmes funded by Chevron in the villages surrounding a large gas field operated by the corporation echo the values of those of Hope Child in Uganda: sustainability, participation, entrepreneurship and self reliance. For the local poor, however, dependency and patronage are central to their survival. Reliant upon the ‘help’ of transnational neighbours and kin who have obligations of support towards their ‘own poor’, local people expressed anger and dismay at Chevron’s programmes of self help. As one man put it: “Say you have a big disease, yet all that Chevron are offering is a Paracetemol!” What local people wanted in order to cure their ‘big disease’ were health services, connection to the gas supply and jobs, all of which the corporation had, in their analysis, failed to provide (Gardner 2012). Here, whilst injunctions of sustainability and self help fitted with the corporation’s ‘ethic of detachment’ (Cross 2011) as well as fashionable development practice, they contradicted Bangladeshi ethics of connection and relationality in which hierarchical dependency is an accepted aspect of long term support by known patrons. What people most wanted was connection, either to the corporation via employment or to charitable patrons via social relationships. Meanwhile programmes aiming at sustainability and self help offered the opposite, neither inclusion in global capitalism, nor the charity of supportive patrons. In my book Discordant Development I term these programmes ‘disconnected development’; in the Egyptian context Julia Elyachar (2002) calls similar neo liberal projects of micro entrepreneurship ‘Antidevelopment development.’

What are the ethical and political implications of these insights? Scherz’s book concludes that the sustainability programmes of Child Hope constitute a retrogressive anti-politics, reinforcing the neoliberal scaling down of social services and welfare schemes overseen by donors and the Ugandan state. Whilst there is no shortage of anthropologists deconstructing neo liberalism’s hollow promises of sustainability, self help, micro entrepreneurship and so on, it is her conclusions regarding charity that are more interesting. Suggesting that the Sisters of Mercy’s refusal to engage in politics might be read as a form of protest, Scherz argues against Bourdieu’s rendering of the charitable gift as a form of structural violence, suggesting that in the Ugandan context dependency on those who offer charity might not be such a bad thing. As she reminds us: ‘We move from the abstract “how can we bring about the end of poverty?” to the personal “what ethical possibilities are open to me in my particular position?’” (p. 140).

Here, then, the focus is upon context. As a growing body of work in the anthropology of development demonstrates (eg Stirrat and Henkel 1997; Rajak 2011; Yeh 2012) charity and development gifts might have strings attached but these vary enormously, from the injunctions towards sustainability and capacity building that accompany grants given to Hope Child, to the inter-dependence which exists between nuns and the children they care for at the Sisters of Mercy convent. As this conclusion suggests, in taking seriously what our informants tell us, anthropologists working in contexts of poverty must strive to go beyond received notions of what is and is not ‘good’. As I describe in Discordant Development, finding that I have my own ‘own poor’ who expect material help and money from me in the village where I have been working since the late 1980s may have made me uncomfortable, but was seen as highly beneficial by those who sought my support.

I wonder, however, if conclusions regarding cultural relativity and context go far enough. Whilst understanding the agency, rationalities and moral orders of poor people seeking patrons is important, so too is an excavation of the factors that keep them reliant upon the good will of others. Here we must return to politics, not only to explain ‘why’ but also to envisage the ‘how’ of making things better. In my Bangladeshi research I used the metaphor of connection to imagine what a connected development might look like. For my informants, inclusion in the formal economy, access to justice and rights and a functioning state which could be trusted to provide social welfare were important elements of the connectedness they desired. We must also be wary of simplistic distinctions between self reliant and independent Northerners and ‘dependent’ Southerners. The people of Britain, for example, are as dependent upon others as those of Uganda for the provision of certain services and assistance; the difference lies in the form in which these good things come and the relationships they involve. What, one wonders, would be the reaction of the British public if rather than receiving medical attention, education or rubbish disposal from the state (however precarious and threatened by privatisation these services are), they were told to stop being dependent and ‘help themselves’, or offered workshops so that they might articulate their needs more clearly? In lieu of state or even corporate schemes of health, social security or education it seems obscene to suggest that the poor should take recourse in schemes of ‘self help’. As this implies, the analysis of dependency cannot take place without an analysis of the politics of provision. And as Scherz’s book shows, so long as the state fails to provide basic services, charities and patrons – and the inter personal dependencies that they involve – will remain a vital aspect of the survival strategies of the world’s poorest people.


Jordan Smith, D. 2007. A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria. Princeton University Press.

Bornstein, E. 2005. The spirit of development: Protestant NGOs, morality, and economics in Zimbabwe. Stanford University Press.

Cross, J. 2011. Detachment as a corporate ethic: Materializing CSR in the diamond supply chain. Focaal 60:34-46.

Elyachar, J. 2002. Empowerment money: the World Bank, non-governmental organizations, and the value of culture in Egypt. Public Culture 14(3):493-513.

Elyachar, J. 2005. Markets of dispossession: NGOs, economic development, and the state in Cairo. Duke University Press.

Fechter, A. M., & Hindman, H. (eds.). 2011. Inside the everyday lives of development workers: The challenges and futures of Aidland. Sterling, VA: Kumarian Press.

Gardner, K. 2012. Discordant Development: Global Capitalism and the Struggle for Connection in Bangladesh. London: Pluto.

Karim, L. 2011. Microfinance and its discontents: Women in debt in Bangladesh. University of Minnesota Press.

Mosse, D. 2011. Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid, Policy and Practice. London: Pluto Press

Mosse, D. (Ed.). 2011. Adventures in Aidland: The anthropology of professionals in international development (Vol. 6). Berghahn Books.

Rajak, D. 2011. In Good Company: An Anatomy of Corporate Social Responsibility. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Stirrat, J. & Henkel, H. 1997. The development gift: the problem of reciprocity in the NGO world. In Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 554:66-80.

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