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(2016-7) Dialogue through anthropological approaches

By Marisa Bell, Connor Davies, Lars Holdgate, Julian Wong

This blog aims to show how NGOs, in particular Oxfam, can benefit from ethnographic approaches in tackling poverty in the UK. Anthropological approaches are able to create a more equal dialogue between givers and receivers of aid. Ethnography can be beneficial to policy makers in providing them with a rich and varied description, which would help build upon quantitative data.

Whilst poverty issues may appear to be similar, their root causes and therefore solutions may vary geographically and socially. The qualitative nature of ethnography would therefore be useful in policymaking and campaigning, in providing the government with a greater understanding of the specific needs of its population and providing those who often feel inferior to governmental institutions with a vocalised sense of empowerment.

The direct intervention by NGOs often produces unintended power structures between ‘those developing’ and ‘those being developed’. It can create a relationship of inequality between giver and receiver where the latter’s felt obligation to repay cannot be fulfilled. Through anthropological research, the relationship imbalances between the NGO and aid recipient becomes more visible, creating an opportunity between acting parties to re-evaluate methods and strategies.

Anthropology in practice actively promotes, amongst peers and between disciplines, an open dialogue between subjects and concepts. Much development research adopts a journalistic approach seeking to disrupt policy and challenge influential figures. Ethnography, however, encourages dialogue between parties integrating discourses of power, culture, history and economy when tackling global issues such as poverty. Its cross-cultural approach supports humanitarian efforts in revealing comparisons of how we each live, as well as particular social and economic conditions which accelerate income inequalities relative to the part of the world civilians are in. For example, poor educational attainment amongst young girls in the North West of England who are unable to attend school because they do not have access to necessary sanitary products may be tied to their specific poverty inequalities, relative to their social economic conditions. Here, ethnography may unveil hidden causes, effects and individual experiences of seemingly unrelated problems, across a wide spectrum of individual cases.

NGO work is motivated by a desire to help as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. This time-pressured incentive may influence the approach to research and subsequent resulting data. Results aimed toward fulfilling this goal may prioritise macro rather than micro, and be less reflexive in its analysis. By incorporating anthropological perspectives, however,  we may see the inter-relations between macro and micro problems, gaining a relational understandings within the framework of a particular social group, combined with outside and historical factors leading up to the cause.

Through its capacity to animate and contextualise data, NGOs such as Oxfam should consider drawing on anthropological perspectives to supplement their work, as a means of developing fluidity to the research process, a reflexive post project analysis, and an internationally comparative dialogue between causes and effects.