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Poverty and Obligation

Malawi Extreme poverty of the kind that is common in the global south is more than a condition of material and physical deprivation. It raises moral dilemmas, not only in the affluent north but also among those living with such deprivation. Funded by the British Academy, this project by Professor Harri Englund examines the ways in which those able to assist are made aware of their obligations towards the poor. His ethnographic research focuses on a provincial radio station in Eastern Zambia as a key site where such claims are framed and made. The research takes place in a country where economic growth is not translating into a large-scale creation of new jobs.

Across different radio programmes, the station and its popular presenters bring on air grievances and seek responses to them from government officials, politicians, employers and non-governmental agencies. By studying closely the uses of the Chinyanja language on these programmes, as well as what goes on off air, Professor Englund is able to show how claims are often more effective when they evoke obligations among authorities rather than the rights of the poor. The category of ‘the poor’ is less common in these claims than various idioms for interdependence in which well-being and justice rest on the moral authority of those with resources to help. The contested, contingent nature of obligations in this context challenges scholars to consider morality as an argument in which multiple, unequal voices participate.

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