Seeds of real relief

June 21, 2002

Modern anthropology, the study of power in all its forms, is focusing on how elites and institutions affect individual lives and how the alienated can be empowered.

Anthropological research on famine relief is crucial to improving - and continuing to improve - the delivery of international aid, argues Alex De Waal.

In March 1985, at the nadir of the Ethiopian famine, while journalists and aid agencies were counting the numbers of people at risk of starvation in the millions, a group of Ethiopian refugees in a camp in neighbouring Sudan went on hunger strike. They demanded that the refugee authorities and aid agencies permit them to leave the camp and take their children out of the feeding centres and clinics so that they could return home to the Ethiopian highlands. Aghast, relief workers said that this was a suicidal plan: how could starving people turn their backs on food and medicine to face an arduous trek into the perils of war and famine? They called it "the march of death". But the refugees insisted, refusing food rations until at least the men and some families were permitted to begin their journey home.

Seventeen years later, no experienced or informed aid worker - let alone a social anthropologist - would be surprised by such a turn of events. Anthropological research on famine "coping strategies" has revealed the rationale of the refugees' decision. For them, the flight to a refugee camp to throw themselves on the mercy of foreign charity was not their last act of desperation. Rather, it was part of a calculated strategy that, if successful, would enable them to cultivate for the coming year and return to a degree of normality after the famine. Land, seeds and plough oxen awaited them in the highlands, and in March the rains had come. Meanwhile, some family members could remain dependent on relief until the time came for them to rejoin the household.

This striking case illustrates just one of the uses in relief and development work of an empirical, fieldwork-based social anthropology, one holistic and respectful of local people's concepts, priorities and views. Use of this sort of anthropology dictates a radically different approach to the design of famine-relief programmes. In recent years, many aid agencies are slowly getting the message and are beginning to adopt anthropological approaches.

More widely, anthropological research in various elaborate or rapid forms is now recognised as a sine qua non for effective community-oriented aid programmes. Anthropological methods are increasingly being used to develop and refine the "social technologies" of grass-roots development and relief. Assessing food needs in a famine, establishing mechanisms so that assistance reaches the most needy, ensuring that community development programmes are equitable and sustainable - all these require an anthropological input.

One example of a broadly "anthropological" approach to development is farming systems research (FSR). Conventional agricultural research concentrated on increasing the yield of certain varieties of crop. Having developed "improved" varieties, agronomists were frequently faced with the puzzling question of why poor farmers were reluctant to use them. FSR, by contrast, focuses on the entire productive environment of the farmer. It is a holistic approach that integrates the range of decisions a farmer must make. A high-yielding variety of grain crop may not be attractive because it produces less straw for domestic animals, requires more labour at a critical time of year, or cannot be intercropped with another valued product, such as oilseeds.

A second example is respect for indigenous technical knowledge. The wealth of rural people's practical (and sometimes theoretical) knowledge about their environment has never been a secret to ethnographers, but it took until the 1980s for this to be recognised by the development industry, and, characteristically, to be given its own acronym (ITK).

Meanwhile, the anthropologist's reflex - to turn critical scrutiny towards the exercise of power in all its forms - has enabled a different and more subversive theme to emerge. The anthropologist is well placed to study the "developmental" and "humanitarian modes of power" whereby the transnational institutions whose business is to deliver relief and development sustain and justify themselves, exercising political, economic, social and cultural power over the lives of millions of poor and vulnerable people. What preconceptions and interests dictated that aid workers would try to stop refugees from voluntarily leaving a camp? What made them believe that the refugees should accept aid only on the terms dictated by foreign aid agencies?

My own model of "disaster tourism" was developed to explain why suffering was exaggerated during declared famines. Aid workers, journalists and economists (among others) over-estimated imminent deaths in the 1984-85 Sudanese famine by a factor of ten or 20. The explanation lies in a combination of factors, including visiting at the worst times of year, visiting famine camps where the worst suffering is to be found, and meeting the most destitute, combined with a failure to understand coping strategies, a failure to understand the epidemiology of famine mortality, and an inappropriate concept of "famine" based on neo-Malthusian assumptions. Subsequent anthropological study has illuminated how this selective exposure and understanding is further exaggerated in the media and in aid agencies' representations of famine.

Social anthropology is increasingly important to the transnational enterprises of relief and development. To the extent that those enterprises are concerned with assisting poor and vulnerable communities, especially at the grass roots, the anthropological approach has proved to be invaluable.

Moreover, anthropology's contribution will continue. Its foundations in empirical fieldwork, open-mindedness and readiness to embrace heterodox method, and responsiveness to the demands and insights of its subjects, repeatedly prove its relevance.

Meanwhile, the enduring contradictions of the anthropologist's position in relief and development should continue to provide a creative spark for the study of the "humanitarian international" and the transnational development industry themselves. Institutions as powerful as these, operating transculturally, must never escape the anthropologist's critical gaze.

Alex De Waal is a co-director of Justice Africa, a London-based non-governmental organisation.

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