Sunday, July 17, 2016

Analiese Richard's "The Unsettled Sector"

Analiese Richard is Associate Professor of Anthropology and International Studies at University of the Pacific.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Unsettled Sector: NGOs and the Cultivation of Democratic Citizenship in Rural Mexico, and reported the following:
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have taken on an increasingly important global role as both representatives of “civil society” and providers of humanitarian aid and social services. In Mexico, the NGO “boom” of the 1990’s and 2000’s was hailed as an indicator of democratic change. But what does the growth of this “third sector” comprised of NGOs mean for the future of citizenship?

The Unsettled Sector examines the contradictions that emerged as NGOs became institutionalized within the complex terrain of Mexican politics. Through a multi-sited ethnography of rural development NGOs in the Tulancingo Valley of Mexico, it contextualizes their role in helping rural people to claim their rights as citizens, highlighting the complex relationships between these new organizational forms and earlier historical models of civic action and social solidarity. Each chapter tells the story from a different angle, beginning with the history of rural cultures of citizenship, and moving through the perspectives of NGO workers, rural project participants, international funding partners, and so on.

In the 1990s, poor Mexican farmers came to be regarded as iconic victims of structural adjustment and free trade policies. The countryside was losing its traditional political importance as both a source of votes and a symbol of national identity, at the same time that NGOs were becoming more involved in both development and civic engagement projects in rural communities. In recent decades, cycles of drought and flooding driven by climate change have combined with the effects of North American economic integration and the privatization and corporatization of Mexican agriculture, to create new forms of political, economic, and social risk for participants in the rural development projects.

Page 99 describes the way political subjectivities in rural Hidalgo have been affected by these changes:
The disaster is interpreted locally through a discourse of desiccation, which diagnoses the premature death of the countryside as a result of human failures to maintain systems of reciprocity. This perceived rupture of a total system has produced a cataclysmic consciousness among many campesinos. Although they resist government attempts to naturalize the disaster by pointing out its origins in changing strategies of rule, the erosion of collective rural institutions leaves them to confront an uncertain future as individuals all the same.

It has become commonplace for Mexican journalists, political commentators, and activists to refer to the countryside as a disaster area. Some have even christened a new category of crisis: the governmental disaster. This term has been used to highlight the social and political implications of recent natural disasters, as well as to provoke discussion around the role of national and local governments in precipitating them. Contrasting governmental disasters to natural ones, Carlos Montemayor of La Jornada emphasizes the increasing use of public power to secure private profit in ways that cause harm to citizens and violate national laws. He suggests that “the disasters occurring within Mexican territory continue to stem not only from natural forces, but from the irresponsibility of the authorities” (Montemayor 2005). Hence misuse of political power and public authority is categorized as a hazard, alongside natural forces like hurricanes and droughts. Rural society is constantly referred to as suffering catastrophic crisis, but the popular mobilizations in 2003 and 2006 demonstrate that many Mexicans reject the notion that the demise of the countryside is simply the result of backwardness or inefficiency on the part of campesinos.
Far beyond a failure of state agencies to prevent or manage natural catastrophe, governmental disaster entails an active reordering of subjectivities and forms of rule. This quote from page 99 shows how at same time that Mexican NGOs were trying to organize rural communities for economic improvement and foment new forms of collective political consciousness, national-level political and economic reforms were eroding the collective basis for rural life. This not only made the work of development harder, but also contributed to the vulnerability of this new sector and of the forms of active citizenship it sought to cultivate.

The “Page 99 Test” is a partial success in that this passage describes the changing political consciousness in rural Hidalgan communities at the beginning of the 21st century. The perspectives of other key actors, however, remain out of view due to the structure of the book.
Learn more about The Unsettled Sector at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue