The Pretence of Neutrality: Religion and the Implementation of Programmes on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

by Brenda Bartelink

In the past decade sexuality has become a centre of contestation and cultural encounter between African and “Western” actors in African societies. Initially tied to contestations over the best ways to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic and halt the virus, human sexuality has come to be seen as a key issue in the transformation to more healthy, equal, and just societies.[i] However devastating, the broader cultural and political dynamics that form the background against which so-called gay bills in countries such as Uganda were proposed cannot be denied. These dynamics are visible in various national discourses that emphasize the destructive influence of the West to create a positive mirror image of moral integrity and good citizenship.[ii]

While much has been written about how religion is entangled in controversies around (homo-)sexuality in African countries such as Uganda, Zambia, Nigeria and South Africa, there is still a gap when it comes to understanding how “Western” humanitarian policies and programmes are informed by specific moralities. Michael Barnett has argued that Western humanitarianism is deeply pragmatic, which presupposes a certain worldview that centralizes scientific knowledge and rational procedures.[iii] As a consequence, western humanitarianism tends to limit the space for faith and personal engagement. Western feminists have pointed out that knowledge is not neutral.  Instead, knowledge is gendered through its construction in predominantly white, heterosexual frames. However ironic, sexual and reproductive health policies and programmes, which have emerged out of a fruitful marriage between Western feminism and the development sector, have a pragmatic focus on evidence-based knowledge about sexuality that excludes consideration of emotions and culture. The dominant masculine discourse has framed emotional and cultural attributes as “feminised” and subsequently also privatized – alongside religion. Continue reading

In the News: Ebola, Western Interventions, and Local Agency

posted by Bangirana Albert Billy

Yet another unique and analytical contribution to the vexing Ebola crisis question. Gregg Gonsalves in “Why rushing off to fight Ebola in West Africa isn’t the right choice” highlights the entrenched complexities commonly ignored but yet critical gaps in the current response to the Ebola epidemic. Quoting the Nigerian writer Teju Cole (2012), Gregg affirms that there are more complex and wide spread problems – both intricate and intensely local that undergird the origins of the epidemic. The solution he argues lies in the commonly ignored notion of local agency. Obliterating the latter and reinforcing “a narrative of African helplessness” could continue to compromise the cause to avert the epidemic.

In the News: “Militarizing Global Health”

posted by Carrie Reiling

When the United States sent army advisors to Liberia to construct clinics in the fight against Ebola in the region, some worried that the deployment was a military overreach for an event that was essentially not a security threat. Others pointed out, however, that the military is the best-resourced organization the United States has to rapidly deploy and operate in response to humanitarian needs globally and that the quickly spreading virus necessitated the military’s involvement.

Alex de Waal, in a Boston Review article titled “Militarizing Global Health,” brings together these two arguments in a critique of how and why the U.S. military developed the country’s best capacity to handle what are essentially non-security events like global health crises. He notes that not only is the military not as effective at addressing public health needs as are civilian programs, but also that using “the language of warfare risks turning infected people and their caretakers into objects of fear and stigma.”

Institutions and Interventions: Putting Ebola in Context

by China Scherz

Media accounts of the current Ebola epidemic often cite culture as a key factor causing the virus to spread. Since the summer, images of funeral practices, bush meat consumption, and villagers fearful of biomedicine have filled the pages of our newspapers. While a nuanced understanding of culture can be helpful in crafting more culturally sensitive interventions, to focus on an understanding of “context” in which “they” are the ones with culture can also serve to racialize and naturalize Ebola. In this vision Ebola becomes attached to a racialized African body and to a set of cultural practices that are seen as highly unlikely to change. As in Charles Briggs’s writings on the Venezuelan cholera epidemic in the early 1990s, such narratives can easily justify the abandonment of the populations depicted as the irrational actors who can be blamed for the epidemic’s spread (Briggs 2001).

This is not to say that culture has not contributed to Ebola’s spread—rather it is a different set of cultural beliefs and practices that we need to consider if we want to understand why this epidemic has spread so quickly, why the medical systems of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea were so profoundly unprepared, and where the vulnerabilities in the American health care system may lie. Understanding the tragic spread of this disease is less a matter of teasing out the cultural logics of funeral rituals than it is a matter of drawing out the beliefs and norms that have shaped the market based development policies that have left Continue reading

In the News: Ebola, the role of NGOs, and Western Media

posted by Tanya Schwarz

Last month, the Independent shared Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s letter calling for the international community to act on the Ebola outbreak. She said:

The time for talking or theorizing is over. Only concerted action will save my country, and our neighbours, from experiencing another national tragedy.

Yet, some have called into question the role of international NGOs and the Sirleaf administration in the crisis. Sisonke Msimang, in “‘There is no Ebola here': What Liberia teaches us about the failures of aid” for Africa is a Country:

Ebola has certainly foregrounded the reality of Liberia’s non-existent health system but the failure of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government to contain Ebola is emblematic of much larger problems of governance, leadership and trust…..

The Ebola crisis in Liberia has also shone a spotlight on the faults of the international development system that has propped up Sirleaf’s political leadership.  In many ways, one could argue that Ebola serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of ignoring cronyism in countries where a government that is friendly to Western governments is in place. Liberia is one of the most dependent countries on Earth: 73% of its gross national income comes from aid agencies and Monrovia, its capital city, is crawling with aid agencies.  There are literally hundreds of international NGOs with offices in the city, and in addition to the 800 million the country receives in foreign assistance each year, the UN spends an additional $500 million annually on maintaining a peacekeeping force.

So one might have expected that the easiest place to contain Ebola would have been Liberia.  There are already 7500 UN troops on the ground who would be able to mount the kind of logistical effort necessary to reach homes and communities with chlorine bleach, to transport the sick and to ensure stability should panic spark violence.  The reality has been the opposite.  From day one, the handling of the Ebola outbreak has been a study in the dysfunction of the aid system.

Continue reading