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Life/History: Personal Narratives of Development Amongst NGO Workers and Activists in Ghana


Widespread assumptions about the extractive and self-serving nature of African elites have resulted in the relative neglect of questions concerning their personal ethics and morality. Using life-history interviews undertaken with a range of Ghanaian development workers, this article explores some of the different personal aspirations, ideologies and beliefs that such narratives express. The self-identification of many of those interviewed as ‘activists’ is examined in terms of the related concepts of ‘ideology’, ‘commitment’ and ‘sacrifice’. Much recent work within history and anthropology uses the ‘life-history’ as a way of introducing ‘agency’ that is purported to be missing in accounts focusing on larger social abstractions. Yet it is the very opposition between abstractions such as ‘history’ and ‘society’ and their own more ‘personal’ lives that such narratives themselves enact. The article thus interrogates the various ways in which development workers variously imagine their lives in relation to broader social and historical processes.

Les idées répandues sur la nature extractive et intéressée des élites africaines ont conduit à un désintérêt relatif des questions concernant leur éthique personnelle et leur moralité. À travers des entretiens de récits de vie menés auprès d'un éventail d'agents de développement ghanéens, cet article explore les différentes aspirations personnelles, idéologies et croyances qu'expriment ces récits. Il examine l'étiquette d'activiste que se donne un grand nombre de personnes interrogées, en termes de concepts liés d'〈idéologie〉, d'〈engagement〉 et de 〈sacrifice〉. Beaucoup de travaux récents menés en histoire et en anthropologie utilisent le 〈récit de vie〉 comme moyen d'introduire l'〈action〉 qui est censée manquer dans les récits centrés sur des abstractions sociales plus larges. C'est pourtant l'opposition même entre des abstractions (comme l'〈histoire〉 et la 〈société〉) et leur propre existence plus personnelle que ces récits interprètent eux-mêmes. L'article interroge ainsi les différentes manières dont les agents de développement imaginent leur existence par rapport à des processus sociaux et historiques plus larges.

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M. Andrews (1991) Lifetimes of Commitment: ageing, politics and psychology. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

J.-F. Bayart (1986) ‘Civil society in Africa’ in P. Chabal (ed.), Political Domination in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

P. Caplan (1997) African Voices, African Lives. London: Routledge.

N. Denzin (1989) Interpretive Biography. London: Sage.

W. F. Fischer (1997) ‘Doing good? The politics and antipolitics of NGO practices’, Annual Review of Anthropology 26: 439–64.

K. Fortun (2001) Advocacy after Bhopal: environmentalism, disaster, new global orders. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

T. C. McCaskie (2000) ‘The consuming passions of Kwame Boakye: an essay on agency and identity in Asante history’, Journal of African Cultural Studies 13: 4362.

P. Nugent (2004) Africa since Independence. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

J. Weiner (1999) ‘Afterword: the project of wholeness in anthropology’, Canberra Anthropology 22: 70–8.

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  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
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