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

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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.