Knowing best? : an ethnographic exploration of the politics and practices of an international NGO in Senegal
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This thesis explores the social and political relations of an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Senegal. NGOs and international development have been the subject of research from a number of different perspectives, including the politics (and anti-politics) of development, post-development, structural violence and the ‘everyday lives’ of NGO participants and workers (Ferguson 1990; Escobar 1995; Farmer 2004; Bornstein 2005; Hilhorst 2003). The present study builds on this scholarship through an ethnographic exploration of the networks of people involved with Tostan, an American NGO based in Senegal whose developmental objective is to engender social change among rural groups in Senegal (particularly those that practice female genital cutting), using a human rights education framework. Through identification and scrutiny of the organisation’s macro- and micro-level social relations, I critically examine how ‘development’ operates as a cultural and political process. I focus analytically on conceptions of knowledge and ignorance, particularly the ways in which these constructions are acted upon and utilised by different actors within the organisation. I argue that, as an NGO (and thus a ‘moral actor,’ Guilhot 2005: 6) within the contemporary donor-driven development industry, a key preoccupation for Tostan as an organisation is the management of perception, or a concern for the ‘spectacle of development’ (Allen 2013). Flowing from this argument is the assertion that the activities carried out by actors at every level of the organisation to produce and re-produce particular narratives through strategic knowing and unknowing are as significant (if not more so) as the formal programmatic activities implemented by the organisation ‘on the ground.’ As David Mosse argues, development involves not only social work, but also the conceptual work of ‘enrolment, persuasion, agreement and argument that lies behind the consensus and coherence necessary to sustain authoritative narratives and networks for the continued support of policy’ (Mosse 2005: 34). As I argue here, NGO actors work to (re)produce, project and protect particular narratives, through the strategic exercise of knowledge and ignorance, in order to access or consolidate positions of power within the politics of aid. Drawing on critical theories of development and human rights (e.g. Sachs 1992; Escobar 1991, 1995; Guilhot 2005, inter alia), within a political context succinctly described by Ellen Foley (2010: 9) as ‘the neoliberalization of just about everything,’ I explore how actors across the organisation are linked in a web of cultural and political presuppositions, values, and motivations.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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