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Capitalizing Community: Waste, Wealth, and (Im)material Labor in Kampala

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 July 2019

Jacob Doherty*
University of Oxford


Biomass briquettes have emerged as a development silver bullet, supposedly converting waste to wealth and tackling crises of unemployment, urban waste management, and rural deforestation. Briquettes have captured the imagination of international environmental NGOs operating in many African cities who promote briquette production, partnering with local Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) to improve urban livelihoods and sanitation. Based on ethnographic research conducted in Kampala, Uganda, this article examines the entanglement of material and immaterial labor in the production of briquettes. The outcome of these production processes is to capitalize Community, transforming everyday socio-spatial relations into an agential entrepreneurial subject fit to receive aid and carry out development. This has the additional effect of exacerbating differences of gender and education within the CBO, alienating the CBO from the rest of Bwaise, and reproducing the racial hierarchies of the development economy.

Copyright © International Labor and Working-Class History, Inc. 2019 

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1. Briquettes additionally combat deforestation in rural areas insofar as they provide an alternative domestic fuel-source to wood-based charcoal.

2. Per an agreement with my research collaborators in Bwaise, the names of BWATUDA and its members are pseudonyms to protect their anonymity.

3. In the remainder of this article I use the upper-case “Community” to designate this idealized notion of Community deployed by development projects, and the lower-case “community” otherwise.

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6. This formulation of Community as capital draws on work on human capital by Wendy Brown and Michelle Murphy. In their analyses, human capital (along with related concepts like personal branding and discourses reframing education, health, and personal relationships as investments in the self) refigure the self as a portfolio of investments speculatively managing risks to maximize future returns. This process of “economization,” they argue, has detrimental effects on both personal wellbeing and on the possibility of democratic politics. Community in the NGO economy emerges both as a collective subject capable of rational planning and action precisely as it is enacted as a form of capital that must attract further investments. See Brown, Wendy, “Sacrificial Citizenship: Neoliberalism, Human Capacity, and Austerity Politics.Constellations 23 (2016): 314CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Murphy, Michelle, The Economization of Life (Durham, NC, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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