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  • Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor
  • Paul D. Ocheje
Englund, Harri . 2006. Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. 247 pp. $55.00 (cloth); $21.95 (paper).

A wave of democratization is popularly acknowledged to have swept through Africa since the 1980s. While students of African politics agree that the "third wave" was facilitated by complex, contradictory, uncertain, but momentous political transformations, there is little agreement about what the emerging democracy might mean to Africa's poor. Would it result in a deepening of the democratic project beyond the rhetoric of freedom to the full enjoyment of human rights? Or will a particular elitist translation of democracy conceal entrenched inequalities and impede the struggle against poverty and injustice? What are the appropriate parameters by which the progress of the emerging democracies of Africa may be judged? Harri Englund takes on these questions in this particularly well-researched and provocative ethnographic study of Malawi.

Liberal expectations of democracy are that the enjoyment of universal human rights will lead to competitive market economies and an economic prosperity that will lift all citizens from poverty. In Prisoners of Freedom, Harri Englund argues that these expectations have been endangered in Malawi by a particular language of politics, one that defines human rights only as civil and political freedoms, to the exclusion of social and economic emancipation of the impoverished majority. In spite of the so-called democratic transition, indicators of human development, such as health, education, sanitation, and the infant mortality rate, have continued to plummet in Malawi while the ruling elite has remained less and less accountable. The book draws a striking parallel between the nationalist project in Africa, [End Page 124] sometimes called the "first wave" of liberation, in which the edge of international disapprobation of the excesses and failures of Africa's first generation of leaders was blunted by the expectations of democracy, to the current transition to democracy, in which the same expectations seem to be encouraging a tolerant approach to the shallowness of democratic consolidation.

How and why have human rights, conceptually universal, come to be defined in such limited ways in Malawi? The wealth of evidence compiled by this study points to local and international dynamics and processes as the purveyors of this particular brand of democracy in Malawi. Historical factors and transnational political processes produced an elite that associates democracy and development, not with the actual concerns and aspirations of the people or their situations in life and experiences of abuse, but with particular indices and institutions, "many of which bear little relevance to the impoverished majority" (p. 9). The preoccupation with freedom, democracy, and human rights as abstract universal values thus undermines substantive democratization in Malawi, and those who orchestrate and nurture this preoccupation are "prisoners of freedom." They include human-rights activists, volunteers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs, local and international), donors, churches, politicians, and political-party leaders. The study shows (in chapter 2) how an undemocratic process of translation, in a country where the majority depend on a national language for effective communication, defines human rights narrowly—as political and civil freedoms. In chapters 3 and 4, the study demonstrates how a nationwide civic-education project organized by human-rights activists, volunteers and NGOs, ostensibly aimed at empowering the masses, effectively disempowers them. This contradiction between rhetoric and practice is demonstrated through the provision of legal aid, providers of which treated claimants as individuals, rather than as people whose grievances emanate from similar structural foundations (chapters 5 and 6).

An investigation of the structure of grievances and needs might uncover the power relationships that beget poverty, inequality, and injustice. In tandem with the exertions, prescriptions, and exhortations of foreign donors and governments, the local aversion to the structural approach meshes neatly with a human-rights paradigm that accords priority to civil and political rights at the expense of social and economic rights. This, in turn, produces a brand of democracy in which the rhetoric of freedom forecloses attention to the material needs of an impoverished population. As the author notes rather starkly, "Neoliberal economic reforms and a particular brand of...


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