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A Fraught Embrace:
The Romance and Reality of AIDS Altruism in Africa
Ann Swidler & Susan Cotts Watkins

Hardcover | 2017 | $35.00 | £27.95 | ISBN: 9780691173924
304 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 10 halftones. 7 line illus. 2 tables.
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The complex relationships between altruists, beneficiaries, and brokers in the global effort to fight AIDS in Africa

In the wake of the AIDS pandemic, legions of organizations and compassionate individuals descended on Africa from faraway places to offer their help and save lives. A Fraught Embrace shows how the dreams of these altruists became entangled with complex institutional and human relationships. Ann Swidler and Susan Cotts Watkins vividly describe the often mismatched expectations and fantasies of those who seek to help, of the villagers who desperately seek help, and of the brokers on whom both Western altruists and impoverished villagers must rely.

Based on years of fieldwork in the heavily AIDS-affected country of Malawi, this powerful book digs into the sprawling AIDS enterprise and unravels the paradoxes of AIDS policy and practice. All who want to do good—from idealistic volunteers to world-weary development professionals—depend on brokers as guides, fixers, and cultural translators. These irreplaceable but frequently unseen local middlemen are the human connection between altruists' dreams and the realities of global philanthropy.

The mutual misunderstandings among donors, brokers, and villagers—each with their own desires and moral imaginations—create all the drama of a romance: longing, exhilaration, disappointment, heartache, and sometimes an enduring connection. Personal stories, public scandals, and intersecting, sometimes clashing fantasies bring the lofty intentions of AIDS altruism firmly down to earth.

Swidler and Watkins ultimately argue that altruists could accomplish more good, not by seeking to transform African lives but by helping Africans achieve their own goals. A Fraught Embrace unveils the tangled relations of those involved in the collective struggle to contain an epidemic.

Ann Swidler is professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Organization Without Authority and Talk of Love, and the coauthor of Habits of the Heart and Inequality by Design. Susan Cotts Watkins is professor emerita of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and a Visiting Scholar at UCLA. She is the author of From Provinces into Nations and the coeditor of The Decline of Fertility in Europe.


"A Fraught Embrace presents an extraordinarily informative depiction of the links, intermediaries, and inconsistencies between the international development system and local Malawian villages, with the AIDS industry as the focal example. This book will greatly interest anyone concerned with the global-local contradictions in contemporary society."--John W. Meyer, Stanford University

"This splendid account of development aid explores how reality confronts donors' dreams of effective altruism and recipients' dreams of a better life. Swidler and Watkins show how a combination of ignorance, incomprehension, and conflicting aims brews the ‘working misunderstandings' behind an enterprise that suits everyone yet fails to meet its nominal purpose."--Angus Deaton, Nobel Laureate in Economics

"In this pioneering book, Swidler and Watkins draw on their vast Malawian experiences to throw an intense spotlight on external aid projects and the entangled relationships between donors and the local brokers and facilitators on whom donors are so reliant. Exceptionally insightful and sensitive, A Fraught Embrace succeeds brilliantly in upending our comfortable assumptions about ‘making a difference' in post-independence Africa. It deserves a place alongside the most inspired classics on the nature of altruism and exchange."--Caroline Bledsoe, Northwestern University

"Using a detailed study of the actions and reactions regarding AIDS in Malawi, this fantastic book describes essential features of the current system for delivering humanitarian assistance. Swidler and Watkins look at the role of brokers who connect international donors with beneficiaries, examine the altruists who operate within a moral universe that leads them to be out of touch, and offer a compelling takedown of common humanitarian cultural practices and notions of sustainability."--Lant Pritchett, Harvard Kennedy School

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Table of Contents:

Preface vii
1 Introduction: Altruism from Afar 1
2 Fevered Imaginations 19
3 Lumbering Behemoths and Fluttering Butterflies: Altruists in the Global AIDS Enterprise 36
4 Cultural Production: A Riot of Color 57
5 Getting to Know Brokers 78
6 Brokers’ Careers: Merit, Miracles, and Malice 106
7 Themes That Make Everyone Happy: Fighting Stigma and Helping Orphans 123
8 Themes That Make Everyone Anxious: Vulnerable Women and Harmful Cultural Practices 138
9 A Practice That Makes Everyone Happy: Training 166
10 Creating Success 183
11 Conclusions: Doing Good Better 198
Acknowledgments 215
Notes 219
References 247
Index 269

Another Princeton book authored or coauthored by Ann Swidler:

Other Princeton books authored or coauthored by Susan Cotts Watkins:


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