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‘Our Own Poor’: Transnational charity, development gifts, and the politics of suffering in Sylhet and the UK



Based on fieldwork in Bibiyana, northeast Bangladesh, this article compares the transnational charity offered to known individuals by migrant, UK-based families with the philanthropic efforts of the multinational company Chevron, which operate a large gas field in the neighbourhood. Applying Fassin's notion of the ‘politics of suffering’ to both types of exchange, the article argues that the two types of giving are underlain by incommensurate moral economies. While in instances of transnational charity, social inequality and the compassion felt towards the suffering of known people, or ‘our own poor’, underscore the exchanges, in the philanthropic efforts of ‘community engagement’ the inequality of giver and receiver is repressed and the exchange is animated by a moral economy. The latter is rooted in Christianity, in which compassion guides actions towards the suffering of unknown, anonymous strangers.

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1 Fassin, D. 2012 Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, p. 9.

2 Gardner, K. 2012 Discordant Development: Global Capitalism and the Struggle for Connection in Bangladesh. London: Pluto Press.

3 In 2014 the Bibiyana field expanded further and now has a capacity for producing 300 million cubic feet of gas a day.

4 cf. Gardner, Discordant Development. Gardner, K. 2015Chevron's gift of CSR: moral economies of connection and disconnection in a transnational Bangladeshi village’. Economy and Society 44 (4), December, pp. 495518 .

5 Bornstein, E. 2009The impulse of philanthropy’. Cultural Anthropology 24 (4), pp. 622651 . Bornstein, E. 2012 Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

6 Parry, J. 1986The gift, the Indian gift and “the Indian gift”’. Man 21 (3), pp. 453473.

7 Gardner, K. and Ahmed, Z. 2009Degrees of separation: informal social protection and relatedness and migration in Biswanath, Bangladesh’. Journal of Development Studies 45 (1), pp. 124149.

8 Benthall, J. 1999Financial worship: the Quranic injunction to almsgiving’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 5 (1), pp. 2742.

9 Fassin, Humanitarian Reason, pp. 3–4.

10 Adams, C. 1987 Across Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers: Life Stories of Sylheti Pioneers in Britain. London: Tower Hamlets Arts Project . Choudhury, Y. 1993 The Rootes and Tales of the Bangladeshi Settlers. Birmingham: Sylhet Social History Group .

11 cf. Zeitlyn, B. 2012Maintaining transnational social fields: the role of visits to Bangladesh for British Bangladeshi children’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 38 (6), pp. 953968 . Zeitlyn, B. 2015 Transnational Childhoods: British Bangladeshis, Identities and Social Change. London: Palgrave Macmillan . Gardner, K. and Mand, K. 2012 ‘“My away is here”: place, emplacement and mobility amongst British Bengali children’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 38 (6), pp. 969986 .

12 Gardner, K. 1995 Global Migrants, Local Lives: Migration and Transformation in Rural Bangladesh. Oxford: Oxford University Press . Gardner, K. 2008Keeping connected: security, place and social capital in a Londoni village in Sylhet’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute NS 14, pp. 447495 . Gardner, K. 2009Lives in motion: the life course, movement and migration in Bangladesh’. Journal of South Asian Development 4, pp. 229251 .

13 Toufique, K. and Turton, C. 2002 Hands not Land: How Livelihoods are Changing in Rural Bangladesh. Dacca: Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies.

14 Vertovec, S. 2009 Transnationalism. London: Routledge.

15 Gardner, Discordant Development.

16 The three gas fields which Chevron operates (in Bibiyana, Moulavi Bazzar, and Jalalbad) provide around 50 per cent of the country's natural gas. The gas is sold to Petrobangla, the national oil company. For more information, see Chevron Bangladesh, ‘Our Businesses’,, [accessed 27 November 2017].

17 Fassin, Humanitarian Reason.

18 Bornstein, E. and Redfield, P. (eds). 2011 Forces of Compassion: Humanitarianism Between Ethics and Politics. Santa Fe, New Mexico: School for Advanced Research Press . Redfield, P. 2012Bioexpectations: life technologies as humanitarian goods’. Public Culture 24 (1(66)), pp. 157184 . Fassin, Humanitarian Reason. For a review of the anthropology of humanitarianism since the 1980s, see Ticktin, M. 2014Transnational humanitarianism’. Annual Review of Anthropology 43, pp. 273289 .

19 Fassin, Humanitarian Reason, p. 250.

20 Redfield, ‘Bioexpectations’.

21 Bornstein, ‘The impulse of philanthropy’, p. 628.

22 Reid-Henry, S. M. 2014Humanitarianism as liberal diagnostic: humanitarian reason and the political rationalities of the liberal will-to-care’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39 (3), pp. 418431.

23 Rajak, D. 2011 In Good Company: An Anatomy of Corporate Social Responsibility. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

24 Shever, E. 2012 Resources for Reform: Oil and Neoliberalism in Argentina. Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press . See also Welker, M. 2014 Enacting the Corporation: An American Mining Firm in Post Authoritarian Indonesia. Berkeley, California: University of California Press . Zalik, A. 2004The Niger Delta: “petro violence” and “partnership development”’. Review of African Political Economy 31 (101), pp. 401424 .

25 Cross, J. 2011Detachment as a corporate ethic: materializing CSR in the diamond supply chain’. Focaal 60, pp. 3446 . Gardner, K., Ahmed, Z., Bashir, F. and Rana, M. 2012Elusive partnerships: gas extraction and CSR in Bangladesh’. Resources Policy 37 (2), pp. 168174 .

26 Scott, J. C. 1977 The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

27 Garibpur was founded by leaders from Talukpur in the late 1960s who rehoused their servants on nearby khas (government) land. Directly adjacent to the gas field, people from here have become the major supply of casual labour for the construction of the plant, leading to extreme tensions with Talukpur: see Gardner, forthcoming.

28 Gardner, Global Migrants.

29 Ibid.; Gardner, ‘Lives in motion’; Gardner, Discordant Development.

30 Portes, A., Escobar, C. and Radford, A. W. 2007Immigrant transnational organizations and development: a comparative study’. International Migration Review 41 (1), pp. 242281 . Opiniano, J. M. 2005Filipinos doing diaspora philanthropy: the development potential of transnational migration’. Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 14 (1–2), pp. 225241 . Sidel, M. 2008 ‘A decade of research and practice of diaspora philanthropy in the Asia Pacific region: the state of the field’. U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper (08–09). Johnson, P. D. 2007 Diaspora Philanthropy: Influences, Initiatives, and Issues. Boston, Massachusetts: The Philanthropic Initiative , Inc., and the Global Equity Initiative, Harvard University.

31 Gardner, Global Migrants.

32 See also Grima, B. 1992. The Performance of Emotion Among Paxtun Women: ‘The Misfortunes which have Befallen Me. (Vol. 17). Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.

33 See Islamic Aid, ‘How money is spent’:, [accessed 27 November 2017].

34 I did not meet any Londonis who gave to international Muslim charities, since all had their ‘own poor’. This may well be different for younger, British-born Bangladeshis, whom this research did not include.

35 Benthall, ‘Financial worship’. Benthall, J. and Bellion-Jourdan, J. 2003 Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World. London: I. B. Tauris.

36 Bornstein, Disquieting Gifts.

37 Cornwall, C. 2010Introductory overview—buzzwords and fuzzword, deconstructing development discourse’ in Cornwall, A. and Eade, D. (eds). Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords. London: Practical Action Publishing, pp. 119 .

38 Chevron. 2008 Bibyana Gas Field, First Anniversary Report, p. 11.

39 Prno, J. and Slocombe, D. Scott. 2012Exploring the origins of “social license to operate” in the mining sector: perspectives from governance and sustainability theories’. Resources Policy 37 (3), pp. 346357 .

40 Mosse, D. 2005 Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice. London: Pluto Press.

41 For a wider discussion of the centrality of this phrase to development, see Ferguson, J. (2015) Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution. Durham: Duke University Press.

42 Personal communication from a field officer working for a regional NGO.

43 A scooter rickshaw, run on natural gas.

44 Bibyana Gas Field First Anniversary Report, p. 39.

45 Gardner, Rana, Bashar and Ahmed, ‘Elusive partnerships’. See also Zalik, ‘The Niger Delta’.

46 Chevron Bangladesh Newsletter, Year Y, Issue 2, July 2008.

47 Scherz, C. 2014 Having People, Having Heart: Charity, Sustainable Development, and Problems of Dependence in Central Uganda. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press .

48 Elyachar, J. 2002. ‘Empowerment money: the World Bank, non-governmental organizations, and the value of culture in Egypt’. Public Culture 14 (3), pp. 493513 . Karim, L. 2011 Microfinance and its Discontents: Women in Debt in Bangladesh. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press . Pattenden, J. 2010A neo-liberalism of civil society? Self-help groups and the labouring class poor in rural South India’. Journal of Peasant Studies 37 (3), pp. 485512 .

49 Interview notes, 2010.

50 Bornstein, ‘The impulse of philanthropy’, p. 629.

51 Benthall, ‘Financial worship’.

52 Bornstein, ‘The impulse of philanthropy’.

* The article is based on a three-year research project involving myself and a team of researchers from Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka. Running from 2008–2011, this was funded by the ESRC-DFID to whom I am grateful for their support. Fieldwork involved detailed household case studies conducted in Bibiyana by my colleagues Masud Rana and Fatema Bashir, interviews with local leaders conducted by Zahir Ahmed, and interviews in Dhaka, Bibiyana, and the UK with Chevron officials and transnational villagers, carried out by Zahir Ahmed and myself. This work was supplemented by a series of short visits I made to Bibiyana, an area where I have been conducting fieldwork since 1987.

‘Our Own Poor’: Transnational charity, development gifts, and the politics of suffering in Sylhet and the UK



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