Local Capacity Building in "Dysfunctional" Times: Internationals, Revolutionaries, and Activism in Postwar El Salvador

Article excerpt

Travel punctuated my ethnographic research in postwar El Salvador. Dusty from the number 125 bus ride from the department of Chalatenan-go to the capital of San Salvador, and still slightly woozy from the jolts of the potholes on the Troncal del Norte, I would begin my "break" from fieldwork in the rural countryside.1 Tired, alone, and wondering if I was doing right as an engaged anthropologist in the making, I often stopped first at a low-key expatriate café-one of the emerging hangouts for "shoulder-rubbing" (Coles 2002, 7) between foreigners and Salvadoran middle-class, progressive intellectuals and cultural elites.2 Here, I would sit by the window, unwind, and think outside of my everyday participant observation with former revolutionaries and their increasing questions about the neoliberal reconstruction that further marginalized their communities. And here I would meet and compare experiences with a transitional, new group of international workers comprising what scholars of postconflict reconstruction have termed a "peace industry" (Pearce 1998).

New York, spring 1998. My return from El Salvador to the academy was marked by a sense of dislocation in part because of an activistinspired anthropology rooted in the everyday nature of witnessing, of being present to testimony, of engaged listening. In search of connection, I maintained correspondence with many people, Salvadorans and international workers, from across my field sites. I was intrigued by the experiential statements made in the letters by members of a fluid expatriate community and my complicity in these constructions-constructions at once personal and national and that, like recovery after war, balanced remembering and forgetting (Minnow 1998).

In this essay, I analyze the role of the international actors who compose the bureaucratic, tiered peace industry, working to bring development and democracy to El Salvador.3 I focus on peripheral, everyday field-based workers, marked by their close encounters with Salvadoran former revolutionaries turned "beneficiaries." This captures a particular moment in El Salvador's early to intermediate postwar period (1993-98), a shift away from the labors of the solidarity movement of the 1980s to early 1990s (see Smith 1996) to a new wave of actors called upon to strengthen and professionalize local capacity articulated through NGOled reconstruction. However, what follows is neither an ethnographic analysis of Irish and Australian volunteer organizations nor a study of the work of these volunteers/workers in their respective NGOs. Rather, it is an ethnographic move to theorize a created temporal and spatial community of engagement and suffering as activism. Specifically, I explore the everyday aid worker's embodied experiences of El Salvador. I attend to how narratives of, threats of, and rumors of violence are gendered, raced, sexed, and classed and how they circulate in an expatriate community that I became part of. I suggest that these localized experiences and understandings of violence shape the possibility of postwar development and activism for these practitioners. In analyzing ethnographic interviews, I address what I term "ambivalent activism" and the "professionalization of solidarity" that takes place on the margins of institutional spaces. Emerging discourses and practices position El Salvador as a "bad" and dangerous place, where women rank-and-file development volunteers, in particular, describe their lives as chaotic at best.

My account of these self-identified volunteers is in dialogue with my own positioning as a United States-based ethnographer/scholar in formation with inflections of Argentine-ness and how this affects the friendships and subsequent interviews that I conducted with young women and men aid workers. Ultimately, I argue for a process-oriented understanding of activism that elides facile categorization and raises questions about which practices and sites count as activism. …


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