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Prisoners of Freedom

Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor

Harri Englund
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 260
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  • Book Info
    Prisoners of Freedom
    Book Description:

    In this vivid ethnography, Harri Englund investigates how ideas of freedom impede struggles against poverty and injustice in emerging democracies. Reaching beyond a narrow focus on the national elite,Prisoners of Freedomshows how foreign aid and human rights activism hamper the pursuit of democratic citizenship in Africa. The book explores how activists' aspirations of self-improvement, pursued under harsh economic conditions, find in the human rights discourse a new means to distinguish oneself from the poor masses. Among expatriates, the emphasis on abstract human rights avoids confrontations with the political and business elites. Drawing on long-term research among the Malawian poor, Englund brings to life the personal circumstances of Malawian human rights activists, their expatriate benefactors, and the urban and rural poor as he develops a fresh perspective on freedom-one that recognizes the significance of debt, obligation, and civil virtues.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94009-3
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    Politicians’ fervor either to denounce or to claim freedom can have surprisingly similar consequences for public debate. In the People’s Republic of China, denunciation has led to attempts to eliminate the concept itself. In 2005, the regime made it impossible for its citizens to use the words “freedom,” “democracy,” or “human rights” in weblogs or diaries posted on the Internet.¹ A new software package, developed by an enterprise in which Microsoft was reported to hold a 50 percent stake, produced automatic denials of these contentious concepts.

    Regimes sometimes choose to exercise control over hearts and minds through earnest approval rather...

  6. CHAPTER 1 The Situation of Human Rights: Debating Governance and Freedom
    (pp. 25-46)

    A Malawian human rights activist resisted my interest in the national language of his country by asking a sarcastic question. “Where will you go with it?”(mupita nacho kuti?), he asked, using Chichewa for the first time during our conversation, rather than English, Malawi’s official language. The activist saw little value in a foreigner’s efforts to master a language that was, in his view, confined to a small and predominantly poor population. Whereas English opened out a world of opportunities, Chichewa appeared to close it. It seemed natural for foreigners and educated Malawians to converse in the language of opportunities...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Rights as Freedoms: Translating Human Rights
    (pp. 47-69)

    Contemplating human rights in the abstract is a luxury that only the most isolated occupants of the ivory tower can afford. People generally articulate, claim, and resist human rights in real-life situations. Moral or cultural relativism does not need to underlie the view that the understandings of human rights are particular. Their particularity is evident not only in relativist arguments but also in the ways in which official definitions of human rights can be highly selective. Whereas the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, recognizes civil, political, social, and economic rights alike, various governments have emphasized only some rights...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Hidden Lessons of Civic Education: Training the Torchbearers
    (pp. 70-98)

    The translation of human rights documents is only a preliminary step in spreading the new messages. In countries where illiteracy is common and even the literate have limited access to reading materials, human rights advocates must devise various methods in order to get their messages across. These methods are deployed in civic education, a major component in the work of human rights advocates across Africa. Civic education during Malawi’s first decade of democracy targeted ordinary people as citizens whose awareness of human rights was deemed to be deficient. Its methods attempted to create a spirit of informality, stressing the need...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Watchdogs Unleashed? Encountering “the Grassroots”
    (pp. 99-122)

    During the time I conducted the fieldwork for this book, the National Initiative for Civic Education held public meetings on its five thematic areas (local democracy, the environment, food security, gender development, and HIV/AIDS and health), led by its representatives but actively soliciting contributions from participants, known as the grassroots. Few could deny that the five themes appeared to be of immense relevance to Malawi. Food security was precarious in many rural and urban households, partly because of adverse environmental and climatic conditions and partly because of new agricultural policies that had removed subsidies. The country’s incidence of HIV/AIDS was...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Legal Aid for Abused Labor: Individualizing Grievances
    (pp. 123-144)

    Civic education is by no means the only domain of human rights discourse worth critical consideration in Malawi and Zambia. In both countries, human rights NGOs and projects often combine awarenessraising efforts with more tangible interventions. Some of these interventions are highly visible in the public sphere, while others are less dramatic actions taken on behalf of particular disadvantaged individuals. The most high-profile interventions have included press releases and public demonstrations against ruling politicians’ attempts to undermine democratization. As has already been mentioned, NGOs, in collaboration with church and other religious groups, voiced public protests that subverted the ruling politicians’...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Crimes of Exploitation: Dehumanizing a Lorry Boy
    (pp. 145-169)

    Legal-aid officers at the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation assumed elitist habits in their interactions with clients, but there was no conspiracy to maintain the exploitation and abuse of Malawian workers. Officers shared with other activists at the CHRR a strong rhetoric against injustice in Malawi. They were keen to hear, in particular, cases involving disputes with employers of Asian origin. There was no shortage of such cases, because vast tracts of Lilongwe were owned by shopkeepers and investors whose forefathers had come from India and Pakistan. “We show no mercy to them,” an officer insisted to me at...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Human Rights and Moral Panics: Listening to Popular Grievances
    (pp. 170-192)

    Toward the end of 2003, several primary schools in Lilongwe became the sites of a moral panic. Parents rushed to collect their children and take them back home, ordered them not to attend school at all, or demanded that the schools’ management provide greater security. The reason was a perceived rise in the abductions and abuse of children in the capital. Strangers had been reported to wait for children outside schools to entice them away. Further rumors quickly provided a context for the scare. The abducted children were said to be killed, their body parts sold during President Bakili Muluzi’s...

  13. CHAPTER 8 Redeeming Freedom
    (pp. 193-204)

    Cultural relativism has long hampered intellectual and political engagement with human rights discourse. At best a delightfully iconoclastic pursuit, cultural relativism all too often subverts not only its own justification but also the authority of those in whose name it ostensibly speaks. If everything is culturally relative, then the various cultural others have little else to offer than passing instants of bewilderment and thrill, the stuff that the connoisseurs of cultures can build their prowess on.¹ This book has shown, by contrast, how human rights discourse compels careful consideration of who has the authority to participate in it. The idea...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 205-224)
  15. References
    (pp. 225-242)
  16. Index
    (pp. 243-247)