Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor

Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor

Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor

Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor

Synopsis

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 Freedom shows 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.

Excerpt

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. 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 than oppressive denial. Political leaders in the United States have always professed passion for freedom, but few have embraced the concept more fully than George W. Bush. Because of the regime’s claim on the word “freedom,” it has been eliminated to an extent from the vocabulary of the administration’s critics. In 2005, while the Chinese government was enlisting its corporate partner to police the Internet, President Bush opened one of his weekly radio addresses to the nation with these words: “Good morning. Today I can report to you that we are making good progress in advancing the cause of freedom, defeating the forces of terror, and transforming our military so we can meet the emerging threats of the twenty-first century. As I speak, Laura is in the . . .

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