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Naomi Haynes


The Perils and Power of Charity

Or, In Praise of Small Acts.

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Scherz's treatment of the Franciscan Sisters of Africa, whom she seems to like very much, allows her to trouble theoretical accounts of charity that see it as a form of structural or symbolic violence. In these treatments, charity is unrelentingly hierarchical and inherently degrading, steeped in the sort of power relations that have so concerned social scientists in recent decades. In contrast to these interpretations, which depend on a Western model of personhood defined by autonomy and agency, Scherz makes a convincing argument that, at least in the Baganda context, charity is not an act of violence. This is because ties of dependence like those that have historically been associated with wealth in people are central to local models of personhood; in other words, people become people in relationships, perhaps especially relationships of dependence. In making this point Scherz is expanding on an emerging theme in the ethnography of southern and central Africa, in particular, which highlights the desirability of asymmetry, the good found in dependence—a notion that can be very troubling to those for whom personhood is defined by independence. Seen from this angle, "development's failure to produce locally meaningful outcomes comes not from creating dependence but from attempting to avoid it."

Having connected the problems of sustainable development to its failure to produce long-term exchange relationships, Scherz concludes her argument by addressing other critiques of charity, whether of the kind practiced at Mercy House or the sort of "small acts" extolled in Arnold's film. Central here, at least in anthropology, has been the possibility that both development and charity obscure the true nature of poverty: by making it something that can be overcome through small acts or even large programs we obscure poverty's political and structural aspects, "rendering [it] technical" in Tania Li's fine phrasing.2 Against this interpretation, Scherz argues that, far from obscuring the political forces in play, the Catholic sisters' refusal to submit to the logic of sustainable development is itself a political act. More specifically, their approach underscores the inability or unwillingness of the state to act on behalf of its citizens, rather than assuming, as other development projects naïvely do, that the state is in fact working for the betterment of all Ugandans. In addition, the Franciscan Sisters of Africa, unlike their counterparts in other places, go so far as to eschew participation in things like debt cancellation campaigns, because they believe that any benefit deriving from such state-level interventions will never reach the people they feel called to care for.

It is on the basis of this dual critique of both politically oriented action and of regnant ideas about sustainable development that Scherz seeks to redeem the status of "small present-oriented acts of care." In the final paragraphs of her book, Scherz urges readers who are concerned with helping the poor to position themselves in such a way as to make relationships of dependence possible, to "[be] someone others might attach themselves to." This is a radical revaluation of the term "dependence," which has so long been the bugbear of development efforts. Rather than willing those in poverty to be able to help themselves, one commits to being a helper; rather than decrying such assistance as unsustainable, one commits to sustaining it. Here small acts emerge as compelling because they are socially productive, giving rise to the sort of relationships that have the power to effect real change—change that, importantly, resonates especially well in many of the places where development projects are positioned.

Naomi Haynes is a Chancellor's Fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. She has recently completed a monograph entitled Moving by the Spirit: Pentecostal Social Life on the Zambian Copperbelt. She is a co-curator for anthrocybib, the Anthropology of Christianity Bibliographic Blog.

1. A Small Act, written and directed by Jennifer Arnold. HBO Documentary Films, 2010.

2. Tania Li, The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics (Duke Univ. Press, 2007).

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