Africa such an interdependent and embedded ecosystem

Africa has (always) been separated from the rest of
the world, although being the starting point for everything (and everyone). In 2013,
the world woke up to an Ebola epidemic and consequential crisis, that came to
prove such clear distance. And, as to not oppose this, the history and
development of Anthropology, and its relation to the African country, only
strengthens yet another disparity. Africa, Anthropology, and Colonialism are
objects (and subjects) with such an interdependent and embedded ecosystem that
one can’t help to relate, at least, two as being the same. Through the years
and efforts of the anthropological doctrine to detach itself from the
Colonial(ism) shadow/weight, and through the introduction of development (and
other contemporary subjects, such as activism), this three-part(y) relation
still persists in the eyes of the world. “From a historical perspective, the
profoundly disruptive relationships between Africa and the world are additional
relevant upstream casual factors (…).” (Benatar, 2015: 2). And the eyes of the
world were opened when the dangers of an African epidemic came “too close to
home”.

 

“The epidemic is one of many manifestations of
failed human and social development” (Benatar, 2015: 1)

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!


order now

Although being present in the modern world since 1976,
the virus family of Filoviridae, most
commonly known as Ebola, came to light during an outbreak in 2013. Unfortunately,
the presence of the virus doesn’t correspond to the (lack thereof) knowledge
surrounding it. “Despite more than 25 documented outbreaks of Ebola since 1976,
our understanding of the disease is limited, in particular, the social,
political, ecological, and economic forces that promote (or limit) its spread.”
(Richardson et al., 2016: 115). In this article, Richardson and other scholars
analyse and describe what they believe to be the main causes for a virus
outbreak, and directed them to the understanding of the Ebola one. “Bausch and
Schwarz describe a three-tiered cascade that results in sustained outbreaks: 1)
poverty drives individuals to encroach deeper into forests, making zoonotic
transmission more probable; 2) infections are then amplified by a dysfunctional
health system; and 3) containment is hampered by poorly resourced governments.
(…) Climate change may be another ecological mechanism that contributes to
Ebola outbreaks.” (Ibid:). Another explanation comes from an article dedicated
to “Health, security and foreign policy”, by Colin McInnes and Kelley Lee
(2006), that defend that poor health can contribute to internal instability,
and thus making it harder to control an epidemic, such as Ebola. According to
the authors, “Poor health undermines the economic and social structures of the
state; confidence in the state is reduced if it cannot provide a basic level of
health care and protection against disease; poor health provision may
contribute to social disorder by highlighting inequalities.” (2006:16). McInnes
and Lee also reinforce the idea that “the attention given to the spread of
infectious diseases speaks more to the concern of Western foreign (including
economic) and security policy than it does for the concerns of global public
health” (2006: 12), subject I will discuss further on this essay.

Taking Richardson concept of «biosocial» analysis – “(…)
represents a fluid space between the disciplines of economics, anthropology,
political science, history, ecology, epidemiology and physiology” -, and
applying it to the 2013-16 Ebola crisis, “it allows us to interrogate claims of
causality while insisting on the importance of the right to health.”
(Richardson et al., 2016: 121). Which brings forward the work of
anthropologists in such situations. “It is certain that the cultural traditions
of the people most affected by Ebola, and these charged with responding to it,
have shaped the current pandemic in significant ways; these traditions have
included ways of understanding illness, of seeking care in the absence of a
functioning health system, and in funerary practice in the absence of almost
anything in the way of assistance for family members.” (Ibid: 124).

As it common knowledge in the social sciences,
anthropology plays a part in mediation between cultures/societies. Working as
translator (of language and rites), as well as interpreter (of cultures),
anthropologists have the dual responsibility of being “true” to the culture
their working in, and maintaining a “professional” distance for their employing
agency. In this specific case, western anthropologists working for health aid
and humanitarian agencies needed to balance these relationships, as opposed to
African scholars (including anthropologists) which “took advantage” of the
special situation to start emancipatory movements – that will be analysed later
on this essay. For now, I’ll focus on the primarily concern of this health, as
well as anthropological crisis: the conception of health and illness (or
disease).

In the anthropologic doctrine, as we know, there’s a
tendency to see everything, every aspect, as separated whilst at the same
seeking connexions (or comparative grounds) between the society, culture, or
community in analysis and the anthropologists own culture and values. Taking
the example of the different conceptions of health V illness, Gwyn (2002) explains
it as a “kind of dualistic framework (health = inner; illness = outer) that
is familiar from a wide range of anthropological studies in many societies (…)
and forms the empirical basis for witchcraft accusations; that is, the
individual will not be sick unless someone is making (the?) sick” (2002: 19). This
“attribution to illness itself of an ‘otherness'” (ibid: 23) reinforces the
ideology of health (or illness) is something that happens outside of the body,
without the will or control of the individual.

Gwyn, again, clearly defines “Health beliefs are culturally located and
culture-specific.” (2002: 17, emphasis added). In the same way that Gwyn
defines health, he does the same to illness, characterizing it as “a social
phenomenon, defined through the interaction of the patient with his or her
relatives, the doctor or health care worker, and society at large:
consequently, it is a behaviour that has to be learned.” (2002: 33). Let’s now focus
on the concept of belief – if health is the oppose of illness, how can there be
any type of belief system in this, apparent, simple dichotomy? “Individuals’
responses to questions about health and illness (…) are constituting a kind
of belief system, categorizes mentally by respondent in such a way as to make
sense of illness and health issues.” (Gwyn, 2002: 59).

Another key distinction is between disease and
illness, best described by Eisenberg as “Patients suffer «illnesses»; doctors
diagnose and treat «disease»” (1997: 9). These concepts and the rites (or
cultures) adjacent led to the development of a new field of anthropology
research: medical. “Medical anthropology had been concerned primarily with the
cross-cultural understandings of health and sickness and the pluralistic
practices of healing and medicine (…).” (Ticktin, 2014: 2). Robbins (2013)
explores the (more) human side of this social analysis, stating that it is “a
way of writing ethnography in which we do not primarily provide cultural
context so as to offer lessons in how lives are lived differently elsewhere,
but in which we offer accounts of trauma that make us and our readers feel in
our bones the vulnerability we as human beings all share.” (2013: 454). For,
what is the point of (specially and specifically) anthropology if not
understanding others as they are ourselves?

Medical
anthropology is, therefore, connected to the health aid industry, as well as
NGOs – that try to establish a particular non-profitable dynamic of help -, and
humanitarian movements and work. The problem lies in “that health aid should be linked not to need –
reflecting the humanitarian motives supposedly underpinning development aid –
but to good governance and democratic reforms. Health aid is therefore
politicised in a manner which may disadvantage yet further those at greatest
need.” (McInnes & Lee, 2006: 17). This brings to the next topic of
discussion: politicisation of health and help.

 

 

“Rather than reinforcing different worlds, the end
goal was ultimately the realization of a shared humanity.” (Ticktin, 2014: 4)

 

Taking advantage of and, at the same time, growing
with medical anthropology, in recent years there’s been a big leap (of development)
in the humanitarian industry. Also in close relation to development issues,
humanitarianism is a changing process (and still in a project phase) that is
helping anthropologists understand – not only, but also – past and present
situations and, once again, their place in all of it (see Ticktin, 2014). One
of the past’s paths that anthropology had to follow was, as aforementioned,
colonial imperialism over societies and their cultures, which influenced deeply
the work of social scientists. “(…) this anthropological position is a
difficult and fraught balance being critical and yet accepting the principles
of justice that drive humanitarianism. By situating themselves at this
threshold, anthropologists have offered some of the most potent analyses of the
often unintended or unexpected consequences of humanitarian interventions.”
(Ibid: 5). Ticktin (2014) criticises, in name of anthropologists, the part that
“humanitarian interventions in conflicts zones”, although being of great
importance, “actually restructure the political order rather than keeping the
status quo, as their principles would suggest.” (2014: 7). And from the
acknowledgement of the involvement of politics in subjects of health, grew a
wave of social movements and activism. “A great deal of contemporary activism
is constituted by experimental, reflexive, critical knowledge-practices, all of
which are meant to reflexively, and even recursively develop «better» or more
effective politics.” (Osterweil, 2013:
600). But, “(…) a good deal of work done by social movements can be considered
theoretical, analytical, and critical – mirroring many academic practices and
values – the divide between academia and activism blurs, creating a novel space
for rethinking the boundaries of engaged or political anthropology, in turn
broadening our view of efficacious political action.” (Ibid: 601).

Charles Hales (2006) brings to light a clear
distinction in the work (and workers) in this ‘situation’: activist research and cultural critique. The first is define as “a
method through which anthropologists we affirm a political alignment with an
organized group of people in struggle and allow dialogue with them to shape
each phase of the process, from conception of the research topic to data
collection to verification and dissemination of the results” (Ibid: 97). The
latter are “driven by the search for ever-greater analytical complexity and
sophistication, (…) focusing on how political commitments transform research methods
and at times prioritize analytical closure over further complexity” (Osterweil, 2013: 602). Continuing his own analysis, Osterwiel states
that the creation of “both activist
research and cultural critique “was
one of need of response to “the increasing recognition of anthropology’s role
in maintaining systems of oppression and colonization that were unintentionally
harming the marginalized communities’ anthropologists were working with.”
(Ibid: 601); and the relationship that bloomed out of this new part was mostly
considered an “intersection – of knowledge and practice where the recognition
that a great deal of political practice today involves their work, and (…)
where our potential for new forms of engagement lies” (Ibid: 618).

But there are also
some hard critics to the humanitarianism “boom”, and what it changed. For
example, Haskell (1992) states that “some have argued that humanitarian
sentiment came into being in its modern formation with the rise of capitalism
in the eighteenth century” (see in Ticktin, 2014). This apparent relation
between humanitarianism and political grounds (and growths) puts, once again,
anthropology and all areas that “follow” the humanitarianism trend into a
biased situation, not being able to fully detach themselves from political
ideologies and conflicts.

Osterweil defends that, unfortunately, we persist on
differentiating “the textual and the real, political action and intellectual
work, failing to take seriously the other worlds, ways of knowing and alternate
realities deconstructing dominant entities as the state, economy, and the
individual both entail and require” (2013:
613). But, in that same year, Robbins assumes and defends that what we should
focus on is on learning through cultural models of change that “people are at
times able to construe the realization of the good as a genuine possibility”
(2013: 457). This is, besides analysing all sources, anthropologist, activist
(or any other) researchers should concentrate on the main subject – the people
-, and their ability to create «good».

 

 “When it came to
define a humanity without borders,(…) anthropologists found a foundation for
their science that allowed them to dispense with the notion of the other
completely.” (Robbins, 2013: 453)

 

Through the course
of time, somewhere along the way, a new branch of anthropology grew. With its
roots set on humanitarianism, “(…)
anthropology of the good can (…) helping us do justice to the different ways
people live for the good, and finding ways to let their efforts inform our
own.” (Robbins, 2013: 458). This collation between anthropology and
humanitarianism developed into a new doctrine, was established long before the
epidemic crisis, referenced throughout this essay. “The decolonizing movements in
the 1960s and 1970s and the various postcolonial critiques of anthropological
and other representations of Otherness threw the field of anthropology into a
form of crisis and self-doubt. The turn to the «suffering subject» in the 1990s
responded to this crisis, giving anthropology a new, politically and ethically
acceptable object of study, while simultaneously responding to reflecting the
growing presence of discourses and institutions that represented and protected
a universal, «global humanity». Looked at through this lens, the study of
humanitarianism plays a central role in the direction of anthropology, giving
it new life.” (Ticktin, 2014: 3).

However, “in
trying to understand humanitarianism, earlier anthropological work attempted to
distinguish between humanitarianism and other projects that want to «do good»,
such as human rights and development, even while showing that the boundaries
are slippery and always being reworked” (Ticktin, 2014: 8). So, as in every
relationship, anthropology and humanitarianism depended, to some extent, on
each other, and developed together.

 

Although there
have been improvements and an awareness, in academia, regarding the best way to
analyse and treat – in all senses – health, in anthropology, there’s still some
problems with the political world. McInnes & Lee promptly wonder how
(recent) attention to public health issues is going to make any difference in
the world, as the “social policy and development agenda puts it into the
realms of foreign and security policy” ? (2006: 6) Firstly, we need to
undercover and understand the actual agenda, to which the authors provide us
with the next explanation:

1)     “the agenda has
been dominated by two issues, the spread of selected acute and potentially epidemic
infections and the risk of bio-terror” (2006:9)

2)     “the increased
attention to infectious disease as a ‘new security risk’ has largely been
focused on selected infections that have the potential to move from the
developing to industrialised world” (2006: 11)

3)     “The spread of
acute and potentially epidemic infections from the developing world more
generally, including Ebola (…) has also heightened concerns within the security
community over risks to the health and economic well-being of citizens and communities
in Western countries.” (2006: 8)

 

According to this,
the authors defend that the way that these issues regarding public health have
started to blossom among the “foreign and security agendas reflects more the
concerns of the latter than those of public health” (2006: 9), specially the
western countries. Lastly and, to my understanding, McInnes & Lee, assume
that “(…) by constructing the link between infectious disease and security in
this manner, the global health agenda risks becoming inappropriately skewed in
favour of the interests of certain populations over others.” (Ibid: 11), which
will hinder, and perhaps damage, anthropologists, as well as humanitarians or
any other type of social research and/or movements, work and ability to help
those in need.

 

Conclusion

“Rather
than allowing our theorizing and analysis of radical alternatives to remain
locked in the troubled dichotomy between textual practices and practices in the
real world, we need to develop a better understanding of how these practices
intersect and overlap.”
(Osterweil, 2013: 616)

As it has been mentioned over time – and over this
essay -, there’s a close and dangerous relation of anthropology to
controversial topics, and eras, like colonial imperialism. One of the constant
fears among the academia is the relativity and subjectivity – contrasting with
the hard sciences accuracy – that the social sciences face. And so, concerns
regarding the real production of knowledge, and truth, perpetuate and force
anthropologists to detach themselves from everything, whilst trying to be a
part of everything. The relation between humanitarian work and the aid industry
is only separated by the role of anthropologists. “The aid industry thus serves
as an «anti-politics machine», which effectively casts problems of outbreak
containment in apolitical, ahistorical, techno-managerial terms, while
disguising the underlying political and economic causes.” (Richardson et al.,
2016: 122). But, is it completely detached from colonial purposes? “Is current
Ebola aid (…) enough to redress the path-dependent influence of colonial
institutions that have facilitated the current pandemic? Is this aid a form of reparation disguised as altruism?” (Ibid: 122,
emphasis added)

In trying to answer
this demanding question, “my” best option is to declare the development of an “anthropology
of the good” as the most suited solution. “The construction of notions of the good, the attempt to put them into
practice in social relations, and the elaboration of models of time and change
that support hopes for success in such endeavours (…); if the light of the great cultural problems shines just a little more
brightly on this terrain, we might be able to draw a route that connects them
all, and that in doing so we might add a new way of doing anthropology to those
we already have.” (Robbins, 2013: 457, emphasis added). So, in accordance
with Robbins, I believe that the path of anthropology is forced to take is to
always renew and improve itself, in order to transform the doctrine for the
better – of cultures and people