Some notes on elitism, NGOs, and democracy

November 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

This blogpost is just a quick note on a passage that just jumped out at me from a book I’m reading. Harri Englund’s book Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor (2006, University of California Press) is awesome, and I should have read it earlier. He argues that In countries like Malawi,

elitism maintains the status quo not by promoting self-professed elites but by associating democracy and development with particular indices and institutions, many of which bear little relevance to the impoverished majority. Those who become, often with support from foreign donors, the vanguards of democracy are the progressive ones, the enlightened few leading the way out of darkness. In contrast to some definitions of democracy, the starting point is not the actual concerns and aspirations of the people, their particular situations in life and experiences of abuse, but freedom, democracy, and human rights as universal and abstract values. It is the task of this book to show how this preoccupation with abstraction both fosters elitism and undermines substantive democratisation. (Englund 9)

What is elitism? According to Wikipedia,

Elitism is the belief or attitude that some individuals, who form an elite—a select group of people with a certain ancestry, intrinsic quality or worth, higher intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes—are those whose influence or authority is greater than that of others; whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight; whose views or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities, or wisdom render them especially fit to govern.

Elitism is what Trenton Oldfield was protesting about when he jumped in front of the Oxford-Cambridge boat race last year.


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