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

  • Jacob Doherty (a1)


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.



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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.

4. On these dynamics in East Africa, see Dill, Brian, Fixing the African State: Recognition, Politics, and Community-Based Development in Tanzania (New York, 2013) and Lie, Jon Harald Sande, Developmentality: An Ethnography of the World Bank-Uganda Partnership (New York, 2015).

5. In the United States, community development policies and community participation directives have played a similar role in channeling radical politics and efforts at self-determination (such as those of the Black Panthers) towards bureaucratic state programs to manage racialized poverty. See Goldstein, Alyosha, Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action During the American Century (Durham, NC, 2012). These programs were part of a global Cold War policy concern with preempting insurrection and otherwise mitigating the political risks of extreme inequality. See Roy, Ananya, Schrader, Stuart, and Crane, Emma Shaw, “‘The Anti-Poverty Hoax’: Development, Pacification, and the Making of Community in the Global 1960s.Cities 44 (2015): 139–45.

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): 314 and Murphy, Michelle, The Economization of Life (Durham, NC, 2017).

7. Hardt, Michael, “Affective LaborBoundary 2 26 (1999), 94.

8. Ibid, 91.

9. Yanagisako, Sylvia, “Immaterial and Industrial Labor: On False Binaries in Hardt and Negri's TrilogyFocaal 64 (2012): 1623, 18.

10. On the role of affect in the production of material goods, see Shever, Elana, Resources for Reform: Oil and Neoliberalism in Argentina (Stanford, CA, 2012) and Bear, Laura, Navigating Austerity: Currents of Debt Along a South Asian River (Stanford, CA, 2015). On the role of material systems in the production post-Fordist economy, see Cowen, Deborah, The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade (Minneapolis, MN, 2014) and Starosielski, Nicole, The Undersea Network (Durham, NC, 2015).

11. See, for example, Malkki, Liisa, The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism (Durham, NC, 2015); Fechter, Anne-Meike, “Aid Work as Moral Labour,” Critique of Anthropology 36 (2016): 228–43; Timmer, Andria, “Constructing the ‘Needy Subject’: NGO Discourses of Roma Need,” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 33 (2010): 264–81; and Muehlebach, Andrea, “On Affective Labor in Post-Fordist Italy,” Cultural Anthropology 26 (2011): 5982.

12. Whyte, Susan Reynolds et al. , “Therapeutic Citizenship: Belonging in Uganda's Projectified Landscape of AIDS Care,” in When People Come First: Critical Studies in Global Health, ed. Biehl, João and Petryna, Adriana (Princeton, NJ, 2013): 140–65. Navigating these norms of reciprocity, dependence, hierarchy, and “heart” are also central to commercial practices across Kampala, as William Monteith shows in his ethnography of traders and waste collectors in one of the city's central markets. See Montieth, William, “Showing ‘Heart’ While Making Money: Negotiating Proximity in a Ugandan Marketplace.Africa 88 (2018): S12–30.

13. Moore, Erin, “Postures of Empowerment: Cultivating Aspirant Feminism in a Ugandan NGO,” Ethos 44 (2016): 375–96.

14. Ganda refers to the majority ethnic group in Kampala and Central Uganda from whom the country's name is derived.

15. Scherz, China, Having People, Having Heart: Charity, Sustainable Development, and Problems of Dependence in Central Uganda (Chicago, 2014).

16. Dolan, Catherine and Rajak, Dinah, “Speculative Futures at the Bottom of the Pyramid,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 24 (2018): 233–55.

17. Bornstein, Erica and Sharma, Aradhana, “The Righteous and the Rightful: The Technomoral Politics of NGOs, Social Movements, and the State in India,” American Ethnologist 43 (2016): 7690.

18. On cleaning as world making, see Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York, 1966); and Burke, Timothy, Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodifications, Consumption and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (Durham NC, 1996). On the marginalization of cleaners, see: Medina, Martin, The World's Scavengers: Salvaging for Sustainable Consumption and Production (Lanham MD2007); and Samson, Melanie, “Forging a New Conceptualization of ‘The Public’ in Waste Management,” WIEGO Working Papers (Cambridge MA, 2015).

19. On colonial planning in Africa, see: Curtin, Philip, “Medical Knowledge and Urban Planning in Tropical Africa,” American Historical Review 90 (1985): 594613. On Kampala, see Fredby, Jenny Appelblad and Nillson, David, “From ‘All for Some’ to ‘Some for All’? A Historical Geography of Pro-Poor Water Provision in Kampala,” Journal of East African Studies 7 (2012): 4057 and Omolo-Okalebo, Fredrick et al. , “Planning of Kampala City 1903–1962: The Planning Ideas, Values, and Their Physical Expression,” Journal of Planning History 9 (2010): 151–69.

20. Brown, Stephanie Terreni, “Planning Kampala: Histories of Sanitary Intervention and In/Formal Spaces,” Critical African Studies 6 (2014): 7190.

21. Vermeiren, Karolien et al. , “Urban Growth of Kampala, Uganda: Pattern Analysis and Scenario Development,” Landscape and Urban Planning 106 (2012): 199206.

22. Wyrod, Robert, AIDS and Masculinity in the African City (Berkeley, CA, 2016).

23. Newell, Stephanie, “Dirty Familiars: Colonial Encounters in African Cities,” in Global Garbage: Urban Imaginaries of Waste, Excess, and Abandonment, ed. Linder, Christoph and Meissner, Miriam (London, 2015).

24. Felfli, Felix Fonseca et al. , “Biomass Briquetting and Its Perspectives in Brazil,” Biomass and Bioenergy 35 (2011): 236–42.

25. Other organic wastes with sufficient caloric content such as corn husks, sugar cane fibers, and cassava peelings were also suitable, but much less prevalent. The NGOs and CBOs involved in briquette production that I encountered all referred to matooke peelings as their primary input.

26. On Re-Use value, see Labruto, Nicole, “Re-Use Value and Re-Use Economies: Notes on Rummaging and Waste Work.Anthropology News 53 (2012): 1415.

27. The largest briquette producers in Uganda at the time of research were an internationally funded eco-business operating a large-scale production facility in a neighboring town. They hired dozens of young promoters to stand outside city supermarkets to market briquettes to the city's middle class and familiarize them with this all new product. Even with this effort, it was a struggle to carve out a niche.

28. Alvaré, Bretton, “‘Babylon Makes the Rules’: Compliance, Fear, and Self-Discipline in the Quest for Official NGO Status.PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 33 (2010): 178200.

29. Bernal, Victoria and Grewal, Inderpal, eds., Theorizing NGOs: States, Feminisms, and Neoliberalism (Durham, NC, 2014), 10.

30. Ferguson, James, Global Shadows: African in the Neoliberal World Order (Durham, NC, 2006), 89112.

31. Sharma, Aradhana, “The State and Women's Empowerment in India Paradoxes and Politics.” in Theorizing NGOs: States, Feminisms, and Neoliberalism, ed. Bernal, Victoria and Grewal, Inderpal (Durham, NC, 2014), 94.

32. Kyomuhendo, Grace Bantebya and McIntosh, Marjorie, Women, Work and Domestic Virtue in Uganda, 1900–2003 (Athens, OH, 2006).

33. On encompassment, see Ferguson, James and Gupta, Akhil, “Spatializing States: Toward an Ethnography of Neoliberal Governmentality,” American Ethnologist 29 (2002): 9811002.

34. Bernal and Grewal, Theorizing NGOs, 10.

35. Dill, Fixing the African State.

36. Ferguson, Global Shadows.

37. Green, Maia, The Development State: Aid, Culture & Civil Society in Tanzania (Rochester, NY, 2014), 119.

38. Gould, Jeremey, “Timing, Scale, and Style: Capacity as Governmentality in Tanzania,” in The Aid Effect: Giving and Governing in International Development, ed. Mosse, David and Lewis, David (Ann Harbor, MI, 2005), 6184; and Li, Tania Murray, “Images of Community: Discourse and Strategy in Property Relations,” Development and Change 27 (1996): 501–27.

39. Dill, Fixing the African State.

40. Das, Veena and Randeria, Shalini, “Politics of the Urban Poor: Aesthetics, Ethics, Volatility, Precarity,” Current Anthropology 56 (2015): S3–14.

41. Samson, “New Conceptualization,” 19.

42. Fechter, “Aid Work.”

43. Gidwani, Vinay, “Subaltern Cosmopolitanism as Politics.” Antipode 38 (2006): 721.

44. Harvey, Penny, “The Material Politics of Solid Waste: Decentralized and Integrated Systems.” in Objects and Materials: A Routledge Companion, ed. Harvey, Penny et al. (New York, 2014), 6171.

45. See Li, “Images;” and Cleaver, Frances, “Paradoxes of Participation: Questioning Participatory Approaches to Development,” Journal of International Development 11 (1999): 597612.

46. Hardt, “Affective Labor,” 89.

47. Amorim, Henrique, “Theories of Immaterial Labour: A Critical Reflection Based on Marx,” Work Organisation, Labour & Globalisation 8 (2014): 88103.

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

  • Jacob Doherty (a1)


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