Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor

By Abrahamsen, Rita | African Studies Review, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor


Abrahamsen, Rita, African Studies Review


LAW AND HUMAN RIGHTS

Harri Englund. Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 247 pp. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $55.00 Cloth. $21.95 Paper.

At a time when democracy and human rights seem the panacea for all the world's ills, and salvation for Africa's poor is to be found in participation and partnership, Harri Englund's contention that "new freedoms entail new prisoners" is as important as it is heretical. Against prevailing wisdom, Englund shows how ideas of freedom and human rights have become a disempowering discourse, impeding struggles against poverty and injustice. While dissent may be more readily tolerated than in the one-party era, this book shows how the association of democracy and human rights with political and civil freedoms has effectively silenced public debates about inequality and marginalization in democratized African states such as Malawi.

Englund's theoretical framework is drawn from the literature on governmentality, while rich ethnographic fieldwork ensures that his critique is not focused merely on abstract concepts, but on the production and conduct of the actual subjects who put the concepts to specific uses. Englund's setting is postcolonial Malawi, where more than a decade of multipartyism has brought little change for the majority of people. The reasons for this are in large part to be found in the manner in which democracy and human rights have been interpreted by donors and human rights activists alike. Fluent in Chichewa, the national language of Malawi, Englund demonstrates how translations of key human rights documents in both Malawi and Zambia systematically translate "rights" as individual freedoms, silencing references to "entitlements" and social and economic rights. Thus the human rights discourse becomes not only largely irrelevant to the poor majority, but also actively disempowering, in that it neither allows for the formulation of claims toward the state or the international community, nor facilitates collective action. …

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