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

Caring for Citizens in Crisis: the role of affect and emotions in instantiating the state during disaster relief interventions in Malawi.

Caring for Citizens in Crisis: the role of affect and emotions in instantiating the state during disaster relief interventions in Malawi.

Auteur(s) : Hendriks Tanja ;

This paper focuses on the role of affect and emotions in everyday practices of governing during disaster relief interventions in Malawi. Arguably, emotions become more foregrounded during a time of crisis, such as in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai that hit Malawi in early March 2019. However, in contradistinction to conceptualizations of crisis as a suspension of ‘the normal’ and bureaucracy as a chiefly rational process, I will argue that emotions and affective connections are central to the instantiation of the Malawi state – both during and outside the context of disasters.

Although globalization and neoliberalism have reconfigured its power, the state continues to be imagined as the legitimate, sovereign and primary provider of security for its citizens. The increased occurrence of climate change-induced disasters in Malawi thus poses a challenge for the aid-dependent state, as it lacks the capacity and resources to provide adequate disaster relief to its citizens without additional external assistance. Following the work of Mitchell (1991) and Bierschenk & Olivier De Sardan (2014), I conceptualise the state as a structural effect of everyday practices by people that make the state work and (appear to) exist. Malawian civil servants, then, perform their jobs in a working environment that is heavily shaped by the interplay between profound dependency and postcolonial sovereignty. This tension is immanent, but experienced more intensely during a time of disasters because of citizens’ acute and numerous claims for assistance combined with the overwhelming lack of resources and the pressure to adhere to humanitarian principles. In addition, the disaster relief interventions that took place in response to Cyclone Idai coincided with the campaign period for the contested (and recently nullified) national tripartite elections that were held in May 2019.

It is in this context that I conducted one year (January 2019 – January 2020) of in-depth ethnographic fieldwork, studying the everyday practices of governing of civil servants responsible for disaster management affairs in a disaster-prone district in southern Malawi. In their daily dealings with humanitarian actors, UN organisations, other civil servants and (affected) citizens, emotions played a central role in their decision-making processes and the production of information. Feelings of indignation, joy, anxiety, outrage, contentment, frustration, sadness, fear, love, disgust and trust shaped the bureaucratic procedures and interactions that took place during (rapid) needs assessments at disaster sites, as well as the subsequent creation and verification of beneficiary lists that were used throughout the relief interventions. Using empirical examples, this paper shows that emotions and affective connections between civil servants, the wider state bureaucracy, the government, humanitarian actors, (I)NGO’s and (affected) Malawian citizens are inherent to the production of bureaucratic facts and the instantiation of the postcolonial Malawi state.


Mot-clé : civil servants, disasters, émotions, governance, et Malawi
Toutes les communications appartenant au même panel :

Voir le panel Des États de sentiments. Explorer les enchevêtrements affectifs et émotionnels des fonctionnaires et des citoyens / States of Feeling: Exploring Public Servants’ and Citizens’ Affective and Emotional Entanglements

Voir tous les panels du colloque Apad conference 2020