Civic education in progress

Talk of hard-won freedom can be a threat to the very freedoms being celebrated. Harri Englund, a University Lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology, examines the experience of liberal democracy in Malawi over the past 15 years.

Freedom, like development and democracy, is something that no-one in their right mind would wish to call into question. Politicians and human rights activists in the southern African country of Malawi often talk about Malawians’ ‘hard-won’ freedoms. Their reference is no longer to the liberation from the yoke of colonial rule but to the civil and political liberties achieved after the end of Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s autocratic rule in the early 1990s. British citizens, concerned about the future of their own hard-won freedoms in the context of a war on terror, may wish to support Malawians’ quest for freedom wholeheartedly. Yet unthinking endorsements of ‘freedom talk’ can seriously curtail the scope of freedom itself.

Freedom is by no means an invention of contemporary neo-liberalism, but the specific form the idea has taken in many parts of the world during the past decade is inseparable from neo-liberal reforms. The post-Cold War public policy environment has been overwhelmingly in favour of reforms that promote market economies and diminished involvement by the state in the lives of individuals.

Malawi provides clear evidence of how these reforms have been driven less by national governments than by international financial institutions, foreign aid agencies and transnational non-governmental organisations. One fallacy of freedom talk is, therefore, its failure to reflect on the current situation, when for the first time in their history, Malawians hold regular competitive multi-party elections while all major macro-economic decisions affecting the country are still made elsewhere.

Further fallacies of freedom talk await those who deploy social anthropological methods to explore how the new situation is experienced by Malawian activists and impoverished citizens. Without sustained fieldwork based on competence in Malawian languages, the freedom talk spoken by eloquent human rights activists could become unduly persuasive. The Malawians certainly have impressive achievements to show to foreign observers and aid donors. Politicians’ commitment to liberal democracy appeared erratic during the new president Bakili Muluzi’s decade of rule. Human rights organisations, often in collaboration with churches, halted politicians’ retrogressive moves and supplied the independent media with critical voices. Yet their interest in civil and political liberties did little to focus public attention on the causes of impoverishment and exploitation among Malawi’s majority.

Activists’ narrow view of freedom was apparent in their translation of the concept of human rights. In Chichewa, the national language of Malawi, human rights came to be defined as maufulu – freedoms – a concept that became the focus of non-governmental organisations’ civic education efforts among the rural and urban poor. The cry ‘you can’t eat freedoms!’ was a common response to this civic education. It arose from chronic food shortages, an overburdened school system and salaries that were below even the pitiful minimum wage. Activists were selective in hearing what the targets of their civic education wished to express: popular claims to entitlements and obligations were precluded by activists’ stubborn insistence on human rights as individual freedoms.

The material trappings of human rights activism were only one, albeit important, aspect of activists’ reluctance to engage with the concerns of the poor. For example, the European Union spent millions of Euros to support a civic education project whose district offices ran budgets that exceeded those of many government departments. Decent salaries combined with international connections to make the non-governmental sector look particularly attractive to young graduates. At the same time, the new talk about freedom became an aspect of the entrenched elitism that formal, Western-style education had nourished in Malawi. Time and again, civic educators would attribute popular doubts about freedom to low-levels of education, if not outright ignorance, a condition that made civic education appear indispensable. The ability to talk about freedom was a mark of sophistication and cosmopolitanism, never mind its actual parochialism.

While freedom talk imprisoned the minds of human rights activists, their personal lives could not escape the popular concerns their civic education usually ignored. As resourceful people, activists were firmly placed in the networks of familial obligations among the kinds of people they encountered during their civic education. The salaries of the non-governmental sector supported business ventures among disadvantaged relatives, paid school fees and contributed to wedding and funeral ceremonies in home villages. No-one talked about freedom when these arrangements were negotiated, and yet it was only through such obligations that freedom could have a meaning in the lives of the Malawian poor. Civic education defined freedom as a state of being that could be achieved once and for all. The everyday lives of activists and their rural relations indicated that freedom could only be exercised in situations; it came in moments.

When observed as an aspect of Africans’ everyday practices, freedom appears to have far brighter prospects than suggested by Afro-pessimism, the crippling conviction that Africa’s ills are irredeemable. The challenge of identifying those prospects is as much intellectual as practical. The universalism of current freedom talk should not obscure the particular interests it serves. Nor should the general import of particular claims, such as those made by the Malawian poor, escape our attention. They compel a fresh recognition of obligations as a source of freedom, a recognition that may carry significance far beyond Africa.

Harri Englund is University Lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge. His latest book Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor has recently been published by the University of California Press.

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