Waylaid Dialectic

July 2, 2013

Ah yes, fetishism…

Filed under: Development Theory — terence @ 8:37 am

Meanwhile in the Third World Quarterly…

The fetishism of humanitarian objects and the management of malnutrition in emergencies

Author: Salessi, Sina

Source: Third World Quarterly, Volume 34, Number 5, 1 June 2013 , pp. 929-941(13)

This paper examines two common objects in humanitarian assistance: a therapeutic food called Plumpy’nut, and a tape for measuring malnutrition known as the muac band. It argues that humanitarian relief has become a standardised package reliant on such objects, which receive excessive commitment from aid workers and are ascribed with almost magical powers. Drawing on the Marxist notion of commodity fetishism, the paper proposes a three-part model for examining this phenomenon, in which humanitarian objects are bound up in processes of concealment, transformation and mystification. First, these objects are perceived as rootless, recent discoveries, allowing the complex history and ambivalent results of technology to be concealed. Second, they facilitate a single-minded attention to efficiency and aggregate survival, which transforms the way humanitarian action is understood. Third, these objects are imbued with a mystical and autonomous spirit, redefined as irreplaceable elements of aid. This ‘fetishism of humanitarian objects’, the paper concludes, prevents a more flexible and people-centred approach to relief.

Ok SOIHARTP* but the abstract reminds me: One of the main problems, I think, with so-called critical development theorists is that their fetish for the trivial. Words. Objects. Bits and pieces. It would be wonderful if such things really did provide insights into why the world is such a mess and what we could do about it. But they don’t. Our problems are much more prosaic. Humanitarian relief is (somewhat) ineffective** not because workers involved suffer from commodity fetishes. But rather because:

1. By definition it happens in places which have significant pre-existing issues (war, conflict, remoteness, lawlessness). It ain’t easy to work in these environments.

2. We don’t Actually. Care. That. Much. We care enough to lift a finger to provide threadbare help and keep people alive. And against the the sad history of humanity that’s something, an achievement, an improvement. But we don’t care enough to actually do anything significant like let refugees into our own countries in large numbers. Or to spend 5% of GDP on funding humanitarian work. Limited compassion means limited effort, means limited outcomes. Oh – and by the way – by ‘we’ I mean you and me. Ok so maybe we’re a bit better than average, I vote for the most pro-refugee party in New Zealand for example, but we all possess the trait of not giving a f..k to some extent, so let’s not be too sanctimonious.

3. Power. Not the power of small packets of nutrition. But the power of wealthy and powerful in our own countries and in aid recipient countries to rig the game to their advantage.

I think you can argue perhaps that we don’t face these three truths nearly enough in development. And that maybe we turn to nifty commodities in search of easier solutions. But, if that’s the easiest thing to do and they work, so what? Some people have to get things done. And there is a division of labour. Academics, for example, could be doing more to reveal the challenges of my three points above…


*SOIHARTP — So I haven’t actually read the paper. You can have a refund.

** But actually much more successful than its critics give it credit for.



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