The Emotional Worlds of Development and Aid Workers
There is increasing recognition of the importance of considering emotions as part of anthropologists’ attempts to unpack and understand development processes (Wright 2012; Peck, 2023). Through the lens of emotions, anthropologists can consider relationships between different stakeholders who operate in the field, question, challenge, and enhance our understanding of the social dynamics, inequalities, politics, and systems of power in which processes of development are embedded. The proposed panel will explore the emotional worlds of development workers who “make” such development processes, and ask how do affective environments, political atmospheres, gender, age and positionality in the field, all shape and produce development work.
While anthropological engagements with development have often considered the ‘system’ or the structures which make the development world or the encounters of recipient communities with these systems (Ferguson 1990; Anders 2005; Li 2007, Escobar 2012; Englund 2006; Mosse 2005; Fassin 2011; Feldman 2018), far less attention has been given to the subjective experiences of workers who ‘make’ these worlds. The proposed panel will be dedicated to exploring the subjective experiences of local field practitioners at work, their emotional worlds and their spectrum of affect.
As fieldworkers, local development personnel are often situated between their employer, “the developer”, and their own “developing” communities. The paradoxical nature of such work, which aims at improving livelihoods, but at the same time may also sustain or enhance existing powers, is not immediately apparent to outside observers or even to leaders of organisations and/or other colleagues. Working in areas of extreme poverty, violence, injustices, conflicts and heavily loaded political atmospheres may invite confrontations between different, and often highly contradictory, values. How do local fieldworkers explain and relate to such dilemmas? How do they work out the tension between demands of professional ethics and their belonging as felt and/or expected by others, in local moral worlds?
While studies have often focused on resistance and hidden political motivations behind failed development interventions (Scott, Ferguson, Li, Escobar, to which we referred above), a focus on the mediation of emotions and sentiment-charged exchanges can reveal a different underbelly in how the “development machine” is conceptualised and functions in practice. The global extension of neoliberal values, as reflected in the popularisation of private-public sector partnerships, further presents new demands, expectations, and stresses on local aid workers.
The panel is an invitation to inquire and reflect on what can be learned from local workers’ liminal positions in development projects, and their affective experiences. Moreover, it will discuss the ways in which workers’ emotional worlds may point to changes in attitudes towards the practice of development and its changing or consistent nature.
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