Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Surprising ways of fulfilling the responsibility to protect?

One of the highlights of attending the Law and Society Association annual meeting was having the chance to catch up with my friend and fellow Duke cultural anthropology grad student Jatin Dua. Jatin, one of the most brilliant people I know, is studying piracy in the Horn of Africa, and he specifically looks at how the region's modes of governance turn on the fusion of protection and profit. As he writes (in an abstract of his research),

Western Indian Ocean piracy may be seen as an attempt to produce protection from global poaching and dumping and from the surveillance of regulators more generally, and signals a shift from the purchase of protection through taxes, tariffs and bribes to collecting rents through a form of capital-intensive armed entrepreneurship. As such, piracy as a system of protection competes with a variety of state and non-state forms of protection in this area.”

Both the pirate-cum-coast guard (the Somali Coast Guard has apparently renamed itself the Somali Sovereignty Protection Unit; shape-shifters with much in common with the the highway bandits/rebels in Central Africa, these armed Somali seafarers often play both pirate and coast guard roles) and the maritime insurance agent at Lloyd's describe their actions as important forms of protection. A form of coerced rent collection has taken on an important role in the region's political economy, similarly to the way that Charles Tilly described the history of the state as a the evolution of organized protection rackets. Jatin will soon start fieldwork on the Kenya coast, in Somaliland, and in London, and as he learns more the synopsis I've just offered here will prove increasingly simplistic, but it at least outlines certain contours of what he will be looking at.

Jatin's analysis fascinates me for several reasons. For one thing, through the R2P doctrine (Responsibility to Protect) “protection” has become the organizing principle of humanitarianism, and the main fault assigned to places like CAR (or Somalia) is their failure to protect their citizens. I have myself had a hand in perpetuating this line of analysis through publications with titles like “Still Waiting for Justice and Protection.” And, maybe especially on a visceral level, such accounts have a high degree of explanatory power. As Achille Mbembe pointed out in his contribution to Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, in parts of Africa government forces and the rebel groups that oppose them more often attack civilians than their putative enemies. Upon meeting peasants who have recently been racketed by highway robbers or cattle thieves or poachers or “rebels” or soldiers or any of the other kinds of militarized entrepreneurs, the lack of protection does indeed appear a defining feature of the region's politics.

And yet, as an anthropologist, I find this analysis deeply unsatisfying. Anthropologists have long been in the business of countering/completing the analyses that identify how people and places fail to measure up to certain theoretical principles derived from the intellectual history of the West by instead studying social systems as they actually work. (For a contemporary incarnation of this argument, Alex de Waal, himself an anthropologist by training, made an impassioned case in his Christen Michelsen lecture last year.)

This is partly why I found Jatin's description of the existing Horn of Africa protection regimes, which turns the aspirational humanitarian vision of the term upside down, so stimulating. Given the similarities between piracy and highway banditry and the like in Central Africa, I wonder in what ways the model of protection that Jatin describes might be working here. In my simplified model of his reasoning, it could possibly be distilled as

rent-based mode of governance + profits/entrepreneurship = protection

The CAR is also home to a profitable, rent-centric mode of governance. But where and how might protection enter into the equation? What kinds of protection (rackets) do we see here? I'm finding it hard to get out from under the humanitarian model of lack.

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