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Prisoners of Freedom

Human Rights and the African Poor

Harri Englund (Author)


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In this vivid ethnography, Harri Englund investigates how ideas of freedom impede struggles against poverty and injustice in emerging democracies. Reaching beyond a narrow focus on the national elite, Prisoners of Freedom shows how foreign aid and human rights activism hamper the pursuit of democratic citizenship in Africa. The book explores how activists’ aspirations of self-improvement, pursued under harsh economic conditions, find in the human rights discourse a new means to distinguish oneself from the poor masses. Among expatriates, the emphasis on abstract human rights avoids confrontations with the political and business elites. Drawing on long-term research among the Malawian poor, Englund brings to life the personal circumstances of Malawian human rights activists, their expatriate benefactors, and the urban and rural poor as he develops a fresh perspective on freedom—one that recognizes the significance of debt, obligation, and civil virtues.
List of Abbreviations

1. The Situation of Human Rights: Debating Governance and Freedom
2. Rights as Freedoms: Translating Human Rights
3. The Hidden Lessons of Civic Education: Training the Torchbearers
4. Watchdogs Unleashed? Encountering “the Grassroots”
5. Legal Aid for Abused Labor: Individualizing Grievances
6. Crimes of Exploitation: Dehumanizing a Lorry Boy
7. Human Rights and Moral Panics: Listening to Popular Grievances
8. Redeeming Freedom

Harri Englund is University Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of From War to Peace on the Mozambique-Malawi Borderland and the editor of A Democracy of Chameleons: Politics and Culture in the New Malawi and Rights and the Politics of Recognition in Africa.
"This is an exceptionally interesting and well researched book on a topic of enormous importance. It brings careful ethnographic fieldwork to bear on the new 'culture of rights' that has developed in democratized post-colonial African states such as Malawi, and by doing so develops a powerful and consequential critique."—James Ferguson, Stanford University

"In this exceptionally rich and thought-provoking study of human rights fundamentalism in Malawi, Harri Englund makes an original contribution to debates on democracy, freedom, civil society, and poverty in Africa. His vivid ethnographic prose brings to life Malawian human rights activists, their expatriate benefactors as well as the urban and rural poor. This is a major contribution on a major topic."—Francis B. Nyamnjoh, Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa

Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthroplogy, Royal Anthropological Institutions

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