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Brokered Dreams, Broken Hearts

Fantasy and mixed signals aren’t just the stuff of romance—they’re also part of international altruism, as Susan Cotts Watkins ’60 and Ann Swidler discovered over years of research in Malawi, a tiny country with a massive AIDS epidemic.  

Their new book, A Fraught Embrace: The Romance and Reality of AIDS Altruism in Africa (Princeton University Press), explores the complicated love triangle of global donor organizations, impoverished Malawian recipients, and local “brokers” who serve as salaried go-betweens.

“We saw that, like a romance, all parties dream of finding a perfect partner,” Watkins explains, “but then there are difficulties, disappointments, and betrayals.”

In shabby motels in rural Malawi, where bun-and-soda breaks punctuate donor- sponsored, broker-run training sessions, Watkins and Swidler were amazed to discover a fraught disconnect between dreams and realities.

“These trainings on AIDS emphasize human rights, especially the empowerment of women, personal autonomy, and gender equality, but if the donors knew anything about the villagers, they would see how little sense these make in the lives of most Malawians,” says Watkins. “Rural Malawians must depend on each other to survive, and African women are far from the passive victims that donors imagine.”

In the end, the authors conclude, these supposedly “sustainable” programs sustain only the jobs of the westerners who plan the projects and the salaries of African brokers.

This led to Watkins forming a romantic vision of her own: that her book will open the eyes of donors.

“They are too far away to understand the circumstances and motivations of the villagers they want to help,” she says, “and too far away to understand all the things that are likely to go wrong when their dreams are actually implemented.”

Motel Ethnography in Africa

This is the story of two sociology professors, who spent a lot of time in grubby motels in rural Malawi trying to understand what constituted foreign aid for AIDS. Despite unpredictable electricity, showers with a bucket of water and a plastic cup, cockroaches, and deep-fried eggs for breakfast, staying in shabby motels was heaven for us. What we learned was sometimes heartening, sometimes disappointing, and sometimes even funny. Our book, A Fraught Embrace: The Romance and Reality of AIDS Altruism in Africa is available from Princeton University Press.

The AIDS epidemic in Malawi, a small country in south-central Africa, attracted many dollars and many altruists: it is one of the poorest countries in the world and one of the most afflicted by AIDS. For researchers like us and for the flood of volunteers and non-governmental organizations that came to help, it also has the advantage of being peaceful--there is no war and little crime--and English, learned in secondary school, is the official language (a blessing for us.)

Beginning in the late 1980s, the horror of the AIDS epidemic in Africa called forth an outpouring of compassion. From wealthy institutional donors such as USAID that sent billions of dollars to Malawi to end the epidemic to ordinary individuals and church groups who volunteered or donated money, there was a ferment of altruism.

We met visitors from the West on the plane from Johannesburg and in the visa line at the airport. But mostly we met them in motels and guest houses. On one of our first visits we stayed at the Catholic Women’s Association guesthouse in a dusty district town. There we met members of a church group who had come to help a grandmother who was caring for orphans: they put a roof on mud hut and gave her bags of grain to make porridge for her grandchildren. We met individual altruists, such as a pastor who came to preach the Gospel but also to distribute a few laptops and a “zapper” the eliminated “pathogens.” We also encountered kooks, such as a man who had come to Malawi to promote is “his miracle mineral” cure for AIDS (which, we learned later, was a toxic solution akin to bleach). We also got to know educated Malawians who worked in small satellite offices of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). They appeared at the Catholic Women’s Organization—and at the other rural motels where we stayed over the years—to offer the multitude of “trainings” through which donors sought to reverse or meliorate the ravages of AIDS. 

Their task was to connect donors in far-away world capitals to poor villagers whose lives the donors aimed to transform: they were go-betweens (more formally, “brokers”). All the brokers we met aspired to benefit from the compassion—and the largesse—of the behemoth donors. 

At the Mpaweni Motel we saw groups of young people sitting on the grass having a vigorous discussion; we saw them taking over the dining room for lectures by a broker with a flip chart that listed the topics to be covered: “Socio-cultural values related to HIV and AIDS transmission,” “gender inequality,” and illustrations of how the egg passes through the fallopian tubes and how semen passes through men’s sexual organs. To leaven the lectures, the broker led them in children’s games, and there was a ritual break for buns and sodas in mid-morning and mid-afternoon. This was a “training,” we learned.

Our spellcheckers won’t let us treat “a training” as a noun, it lights up in green. But over the years, we learned that trainings are actually the central technique of the altruism of major donors, whether the object is to teach people how to prevent AIDS by making good decisions and resisting peer pressure or to be resilient to climate change, or anything else on a donor’s agenda. After the training, participants are to be volunteers, transmitting what they learned to those in their villages, who in turn should spread the information to others, thus making the projects sustainable—i.e. there are no further costs to the donors.

One day we asked a 24-year old man what he had learned so far. “Decision-making,” he said. We had a hard time keeping from laughing. “Didn’t you make decisions before?” He said “Yes, but I didn’t know it was called ’decision-making.’” He was delighted to learn the lingo of the donors—it made him more cosmopolitan, which might eventually lead to a salaried job as a broker, rather than remaining an unpaid volunteer. He, and others we talked with, were happy to be at the Mpaweni: in addition to the fun and games they got a per diem of 400 Kwacha (about $2.50) just for being there. That’s a large amount for villagers but a tiny amount for the big donors.

The trainings on AIDS emphasize human rights, personal autonomy, and gender equality, but if the donors knew anything about the villagers, they would see how little sense these make in the lives of most Malawians.

Let’s take gender equality, a persistent theme of the big donors. From their perspective in Geneva or Washington, African women are powerless and thus particularly vulnerable to AIDS. We learned, however, that African women are far from the passive victims that donors imagine. To the contrary. African women are assertive, divorcing husbands who don’t measure up and fighting aggressively to maintain their claims on husbands who provide support.

Here’s an example, from a large body of ethnographic journals we collected from local villagers, high school graduates who were asked to write up conversations about AIDS they heard or participated in. The conversations occurred on mini-buses, at a bar, while walking to a funeral and during daily activities, such as getting clean water from a borehole near their home. (You can read them here.)

Although the conversations the ethnographers heard were in their own language, they wrote in idiosyncratic English. In the following excerpt from an ethnographer’s journal, she writes of an outraged wife who was defending her claims by attacking her husband’s girlfriend.

This morning I went to Mangochi Turn Off where I found women fighting and after investigation, I heard that the fighting was between three people.

A certain business man is married and has got four children but he has also a sexual partner who is well known for having sex with married men. Today the man went to chat with the girl friend who has spent the night [with him] at Isha Allah Rest House…. He thought that nobody has seen him because he used a certain path which is behind the market… [T]he friend of his wife who was going to the market saw the man entering the rest house and she rushed to her friend and tell her the whole story that her husband has entered the rest house.

When the wife and her friend see the couple coming out of the rest house “holding hands,” “talking lovely,” laughing and kissing, they start after the girlfriend, whereupon the husband skedaddles.

Many people rushed to the scene of the incident and supported the two women. The two women beat the girl seriously and tore her clothes. The girl cried with pain for she had several wounds on the face and she managed to cut the finger of the wife of her boyfriend leaving it about to fall down and the wife cried with pain then she touches the breast of the girlfriend and cut it with her mouth….

Both wives and girlfriends understand well that a fight over who should be having sex with whom is also a fight about how a man’s resources should be distributed. Women’s rights are not abstract “human rights” but a moral issue: a wife has a right to defend what is hers and her children’s.

Global organizations want to empower woman, and more generally to help Africans become more autonomous, more independent (they should “resist peer pressure” to prevent HIV), better at making their own decisions. But on the ground, such ideals make little sense. Indeed, where life is always insecure—crops fail when the rains don’t come, grain runs out before the next harvest, a parent dies leaving orphans behind—interdependence, or indeed dependence, makes much more cultural sense than the “independence” so valued in the West.

Why then do the international organizations get it so wrong? Why do they so often offer solutions that make little sense to Africans, both morally and in practical terms? The short answer is that western aid organizations want to believe that they can make their projects “sustainable.” They want to persuade Africans to avoid the dangers of “dependence” both because independence is a core value in the West and because aid organizations want to believe they can create transformative social change on the cheap, by training volunteers who will work for free. In the end, these supposedly “sustainable” programs sustain only the jobs of the westerners who plan the projects and the salaries of African brokers.

Great good has come from AIDS altruism. Small scale altruists did help grandmothers with orphans, and successful efforts by large scale donors provided drugs that treat, if not cure, AIDS, thus extending the lives of millions. AIDS altruism, however, also inspired powerful fantasies. Just as donors in wealthy countries imagine that they can protect Africans by transforming them, their fantasies were reciprocated by the African brokers, who imagine not only the possibility of a paying job with an NGO, but also induction into the broad culture of modernity.

AIDS altruism’s quest for transformation of others constitutes the essence of a romance. Western altruists and African brokers also enact a romance in another sense. Each has fantasies about the other, and each often suffers frustration and heartbreak. Sometimes there is even an eventual consummation—if not a perfectly happy ending.

In the end, we learned that the foreign aid for AIDS in Africa is where donor dreams meet African realities, in the grubby rural motels where lofty-sounding projects turn out to mean three or four days of buns, sodas, flip charts, and lectures.