Association pour l’anthropologie du changement social et du développement
Association for the anthropology of social change and development

Unpaid Labour in African Development: supplementing, substituting, stretching the state

Auteur(s) : Dodworth Kathy ; Hendriks Tanja ;

English summary

What is the role of voluntary labour in state functioning in Africa? The exacting of unpaid labour in African contexts has been through various iterations within the colonial, post-independence and neoliberal/post-liberal periods, leveraging new or recurring ideas and materialities. In this panel, we explore ethnographically how voluntary work is produced in relation to the state, wherein global repertoires fuse with local realities and historical legacies. Specifically, we explore how unpaid or underpaid workers supplement, substitute or stretch service delivery, often in the wake of prior state retrenchment, and how this is experienced by unpaid or underpaid workers themselves.

English argumentary

The exacting of unpaid labour in Africa has been through various iterations, through the colonial, early independence and neoliberal/post-liberal periods. In this panel, we seek to explore how contemporary ‘voluntary work’ is produced through the fusing of historical and contemporary, domestic and international, repertoires of voluntarism that have meaningful material implications in the wake of state retrenchments across many African contexts. What is the role of voluntary work in state functioning in Africa? How does unpaid (and chronically underpaid) labour produce, supplement and substitute the state and how are voluntarism’s demands navigated, challenged, stretched and indeed contested by workers themselves?

Voluntary work and unpaid labour have been explored in relation to development projects and humanitarian interventions. We contend that voluntarism forms a broader techne of governance, enacting and re-enacting an ‘ethico-political’ process of responsibilization, duty and ultimately  citizenship and statehood. Although voluntary work and labour is becoming better covered in academic literature, its relationship to state-building and state legitimacy has been largely overlooked. Studying motivations for and pathways to voluntary and underpaid labour allow us to explore much broader imaginations and frustrations, of personhood, society and statehood.

In this panel, we disentangle voluntary labour from its often virtuous promotion within global development circles, to historicize and contextualise how such work is enacted within specific contexts. How does voluntary work and un(der)paid labour serve to reproduce the idea of the state itself? How do citizens themselves produce and reproduce the state following prolonged state retrenchment in many contexts? How do state-like relations and materialities extract and produce cheap labour from society, which in turn maintains those power relations and allows further wage suppression? We welcome papers from a variety of disciplines across a range of sectors and settings but which explore these questions with a broadly defined ethnographic and historical sensibility.

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