- Domesticating Democracy: The Politics of Conflict Resolution in Bolivia by Susan Helen Ellison
The American public might presume that American- and European-funded NGOs in the global South are simply engaged in good works but scholars of the global South know better. Domesticating Democracy: The Politics of Conflict Resolution in Bolivia contributes to the conversation about the political role of NGOs by demonstrating how neoliberal reforms have affected the daily lives of average Bolivians. Anthropologist Susan Helen Ellison examines the purpose, function, and effect of alternative dispute resolution organizations on the development of democracy in this context. Ellison demonstrates, for example, how NGOs create a "discursive assemblage" by providing funding for alternative [End Page 433] dispute resolution organizations, legal aid, and conflict resolution for the residents of El Alto. The author builds a complex analytic framework for understanding how and why Bolivians use alternative dispute resolution. She tracks how donor organizations have shifted away from reforming institutions and toward reforming citizens, arguing that this shift was part of a new wave of neoliberal reforms. Ellison builds her argument by highlighting the importance of historical linkages to the contemporary moment. She elucidates the process of urbanization in El Alto, where miners resettled after the state privatized its mines and rural Bolivians fled to escape drought, as the social history of neoliberal reforms. El Alto is often portrayed as conflictive and Ellison's ethnography exposes how the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s led to the rise of these "conflictive" citizens. Citizens who choose conflict over conciliation challenge the concepts of good citizenship US and European NGOs promulgate. NGOs believes that if alternative dispute resolution can be used to resolve interpersonal conflicts, then it can surely be scaled up to help resolve conflicts before they become full-scale protests and blockades.
The failure to fully reform institutions in the service of neoliberal capitalism led NGOs to focus on the individual. Thus, alternative dispute resolution programs aim to reform Bolivian citizens' interactions with state bureaucracies and global capitalism. Using Michel Foucault's analysis of the concept of governmentality as a set of technologies designed to create self-disciplining citizens, Ellison shows how microfinancing and alternative dispute resolution help produce the "entrepreneurial citizen."
The 2003 protests that eventually toppled the presidency of Gonzalo Sanchez unleashed this focus on the entrepreneurial citizen. Ellison relates how the protests began as a result of the state's efforts to sell the rights to mines and export natural gas to foreign multinational corporations. The Bolivian public viewed this as the exploitation of the national patrimony by and for the benefit of neoliberal capitalists. The protests, the subsequent violent repression, and the overthrow of Sanchez—a series of events known as the Gas Wars—compelled donor institutions to seek better ways to creating citizens who will not seek redress through conflict. Ellison shows that donor nations and NGOs were unprepared for "conflictive" citizens and the repression that followed and traces how NGOs specifically target individuals to with the goal of reforming their participation in the economy and in politics. [End Page 434]
Ellison argues that in the view of NGOs, the ideal citizen will choose alternative dispute resolution as a mechanism for resolving disputes at every level. NGOs believe that if citizens choose alternative dispute resolution strategies for small disputes (debts, loans, and interpersonal conflicts), then they will choose them in large-scale conflicts such as state reduction of benefits, price increases, devaluation of currency, and the selling of national resources without consulting the nation. However, training Bolivian to become alternative dispute resolution professionals has had consequences that NGOs and donor nations did not intend. For instance, one aspect that could have been further developed was the notion that alternative dispute resolution and blockades belonged to a continuum of action rather than in parallel strategic toolkits. Ellison observes that most Bolivians resist the pedagogical model called conversatorios (conversation sessions); they prefer to transform conversatorios into contestatorios (talk-back sessions). Thus, the deployment of alternative dispute resolution highlights the technologies donor states and NGOs use to...