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NT Intervention on the ABC

19 October, 2007

On Thursday the ABC program Difference of Opinion addressed the topic of the Northern Territory intervention.  Entitled A New Deal for Indigenous Australians?, the program featured a panel of Indigenous leaders debated the merits of the Intervention in front of an audience.

The panel was made up of Sue Gordon, Chair of the NT Task Force; Tom Calma, Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner; Olga Havnene, CEO of the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the NT (and Women for Wik organiser); and Lowitja O’Donaghue, Inaugural Chairperson of ATSIC.

The context of the debate was both the NT Intervention and the recent surprise announcement by John Howard that he had suddenly become interested in reconciliation after 11 years of doing everything in his power to undermine any form progressive policies in relationship to Indigenous Australia.

While announcing his change of heart on reconciliation and his willingness to hold a referendum on putting a mention of Indigenous Australians into the preamble of the Constitution (but not into the body mind you). Howard claimed that he had recently discovered the value of “symbolic” gestures, as if a decade of refusing to apologise to the Stolen Generation isn’t a symbolic gesture. 

Actually, I think the move was a symbolic gesture, but more towards the Australian electorate than towards Indigenous Australia. A week before he announced the election it was pretty clear he was trying to demonstrate to the electorate that although he was an old dog he still has some new tricks to play.

Back to Difference, the opinions expressed by the panel were varied, which helped to illustrate that there is certainly no consensus even within Indigenous Australia about the merits, or lack thereof of the Intervention.  As would be expected, Sue Gordon was a lot more upbeat about the Intervention and claimed that people in many remote communities were very happy to have part of their income quarantined.  This was hotly disputed by the other panelists, who emphasised the confusion and lack of information in these communities which has bred a lot of uncertainty and fear about what the government would be doing.  I was particularly impressed by Olga Havnene, who made the point that although the Intervention is ostensibly addressed at protecting children from abuse, there is no mention of children in the new legislation and it is very hard to see how many of the policies are supposed to contribute to child protection. 

A couple of the panelists also pointed out that the real tragedy of this process is that there has been virtually no consultation with Indigenous Australians at large, and specifically with the remote communities being targeted.  Thus even if some of the policies might have some objective benefits for some members of the communities, they don’t contribute to any sense of empowerment or control within the communities themselves.

In any case, there is a strong contrast between Howard’s proposal for “reconciliation” as an essentially abstract notion and the concrete reality of the policies that are impacting on actual Aboriginal communities.  Good ethnographic studies done in these communities would, I think, help to illuminate discrepancies of this kind.

The show’s website is worth a visit.  It includes video from the program, the transcript, online forum and a poll about the Intervention. 

Two recent Chinese articles about China’s role in international development

19 October, 2007

I have been following, off and on, Chinese media articles on China’s participation in international development, a topic I am eventually hoping to do fieldwork on (along with three of our PhD students, from Venezuela to Indonesia). There has been lots of media attention to the topic, but no accounts so far of whether and how the Chinese presence, and the potential clash between Chinese and World Bank approaches, is affecting locals in these places.

Recently I came across two interesting articles on the topic on one of the most popular mainstream Chinese news sites, One is about Burma, published on 10 October, in the immediate aftermath of the violent crackdown on the pro-democracy demonstrations. The article , entitled “China and Burma conduct joint sweep of border zone casinos,” points out that, while “some countries, headed by the West, use the excuse of the political situation to pressure Burma,” they ignore that the Burmese government has been cooperating with China trying to crack down on border-zone casinos, run, according to the article, by antigovernment (I suppose Wa) ethnic militias but patronized by Chinese tourists. It claims that the crackdown has resulted in the reduction of the number of casinos from 149 in 2005 to 28 today. (If true, this raises interesting questions: did Chinese military or police actually cross the border, or was it sanctions against casino-going officials or pressure on the militias that had such an effect? One can more or less rule out the possibility that the closures are the result of Burmese police operations.) The worldview of the article is clear: while the West goes on about democracy, it hinders the Burmese government in carrying out real development — i.e. eradication of vice and imposition of order — that is taking place with Chinese help.

The other article (“Chinese aid to Africa draws Western criticism”, 17 October) is on the topic that has seen most public contention (and World Bank alarm) lately regarding the motives and effects of China’s rapidly expanding investment and development aid commitments. According to the article, the IMF’s representative in Congo-Kinshasa warned the country’s government against taking out a $ 6.6 billion Chinese state loan while negotiating the rescheduling of its $ 8 billion World Bank debt. This came just after the EU’s ambassador to Zambia cautioned the government there not to take “the4 old road to indebtedness.” The article counters that, in fact, the loan is not a loan but the value of three development project agreements, signed respectively by China’s state railway construction corporation, water and electricity infrastructure construction corporation, and China Export-Import Bank, and dismisses Western carping about China being the “new colonialist” as an old record. The story highlights that China is reluctant to use the same terminology as the international development institutions do to describe its projects (precisely to avoid such comparisons), but it is involved in the kind of large-scale, high-impact infrastructural projects that used to be typical for the Western development industry in the 1960s and ’70s, with the exception that it brings its own workers.

The transparent life

18 October, 2007

A little while ago Wired magazine reported on Hasan Elahi, a Bangladeshi-American suspected of being a terrorist. He devised an apparently ingenious method of keeping himself “out of Guantanamo”: he would embark on a project of almost complete self surveillance using digital technology. He takes hundreds of photos of himself every day and sends them to his website so that if the FBI want to find out what he’s doing they only have to look there. Like a human sonar, he constantly sends out “pings” to locate himself, a method reminiscent of Twitter. The article discusses his rationale:

“I’ve discovered that the best way to protect your privacy is to give it away,” he says, grinning as he sips his venti Black Eye. Elahi relishes upending the received wisdom about surveillance. The government monitors your movements, but it gets things wrong. You can monitor yourself much more accurately. Plus, no ambitious agent is going to score a big intelligence triumph by snooping into your movements when there’s a Web page broadcasting the Big Mac you ate four minutes ago in Boise, Idaho. “It’s economics,” he says. “I flood the market.”

Although Elahi seems pretty cheerful about this I wonder if his strategy is a novel method of pre-empting the surveillance of the state, or a model for self-servitude? In some ways it seems to be a very literal application of Foucault’s theory of self-subjectification, except instead of internalising surveillance and control Elahi “externalises” it by making it available the authorities as an ongoing alibi. He has also perfected the surveillance by outdoing the authorities, suggesting that it’s not the presence of the state’s control that is the problem, rather its lacks and lacunae.

To me, Elahi’s approach to his “problem” suggests he is in a state of being always-already guilty. Rather than assuming he is innocent, his energy must go into a constant struggle against that state. The onus is on him to prove that he is not guilty of something rather than on the state to prove that he is. It’s Kafka-esque in a way. Like the protagonist of The Trial he is guilty of a crime but doesn’t know what it is. His life then becomes devoted to proving that he innocent, which is of course can never be achieved.

Anyway, this is a thought-provoking application of ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp, in a post-911 world. It raises the question of whether, as we become ever more connected, the onus will increasingly fall on us to prove our “innocence” in various ways just because we can. I see an echo in a more trivial domain: the reduced tolerance for ambiguity that comes from possessing a mobile phone. Now that it is a technical possibility I find we tend to check up more on each other. For example, if I am slightly late for a meeting with friends I will inevitably get a call asking where I am. Likewise, I’m held to account for not letting my friends know I’m going to be late. It is also a common experience to find that the mobile, Blackberry or whatever blurs the lines between work and leisure, so that the freedome the phone provides means that we are even more thoroughly chained to the demands of the job. In each of these cases the domain of plausible deniability has shrunk and therefore we are forced to self-surveil and contantly “prove our innocence”.

Of course this is not just a product of technology. Even if we are all guilty some people are more guilty than others. An example is Muslim men in the contemporary USA, or Australia for that matter, as the case of Mohamed Haneef more than amply demonstrates.

The Visible Man: An FBI Target Puts His Whole Life Online

Anthropologists and the US Army, yet again

18 October, 2007

As I read the posts on anthropology and the war in Iraq, perhaps because I am currently teaching research methods, I am continually struck by a problem that our field doesn’t seem to be discussing; the fact that the ‘subject’ of the research is hopelessly muddled in the accounts of people like Marcus B. Griffin, PhD. In one of his most recent posts, he makes this very clear. So, although I have moral, ethical, and political reservations about the use of anthropology in war, in this particular case, I also have serious doubts about research design.

Which brings up the following article about Human Terrain in BBC News that mentions me. What is more, they mention, as do two other articles to date, the same blog entry about my having cut my hair high and tight, lifting weights (with LT Gato) and shooting well with standard small arms weapons. What seems to have been lost on readers, perhaps due to my lack of writing clarity, is that the post was telling my students that in order to do good ethnographic research, one needs to immerse in their culture. And doing so in Army culture was very important to successfully conducting research in Iraq because the culture of soldiers and the American cultures they bring with them to Iraq are very important to understanding the problems that occur during the peace and stability operations currently in place.

I am not ashamed to say I am honored to have been mentored in the weight room, at the range, and in the field here in Iraq by highly professional soldiers. Cutting my hair and taking their instruction seriously by trying my best to shoot well was my way of giving them respect in return. These are rituals of social acceptance and make possible good ethnography. The next blog entry to get latched onto by detractors will probably be an upcoming post regarding the honor of bestowing on me further unit acceptance and recognition for living with them in a combat environment: awarding me the 1st Infantry Division Combat Patch and Coin. As my commander told me on Saturday after I briefed him and the staff on my team’s progress: “Duty First! Continue Mission!”

I am honored by their acceptance and encouragement. There is no shortage of great research that can be conducted with the Army that leads to better human lives. Stay tuned!

Griffin seems to be establishing excellent rapport, approximating himself to the locals, learning to see the world from their perspective — all the things that we hope long-term fieldwork will do. BUT, his subjects are his fellow soldiers, not Iraqis. When it comes to doing research on Iraqis, he approaches them as… well… ‘terrain.’ We learn that he flies over them to do a survey. I mean, I can’t stop giggling about this as an ‘ethnographic’ approach to research. I’ll have to add ‘arial survey’ to my ethnographic methods course (although one can never be sure if the ‘subjects’ might hide from your survey if conducted from a military helicopter).

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Anthropologists and the U.S. Army, continued

17 October, 2007

News outlets continue to pick up the story about anthropologists working with the U.S. army in Afghanistan, but the tenor of the reporting seems to be shifting. Recent articles (such as this 16 October BBC story) are highlighting more prominently the Network of Concerned Anthropologists‘ circulating pledge of non-participation in the U.S. counter-insurgency, and reporting that the majority of anthropologists object to “weaponised anthropology.”

Meanwhile, one of the anthropologist members of the “Human Terrain System,” Marcus Griffin (Ph.D.!) blogs on his own website about his work with the U.S. military. Amidst his (16 October) glowing descriptions of how he got a buzz-cut and was mentored in the weight room by “highly professional soldiers,” I spotted this typo, which gave me a good chuckle:

“I’ll blog soon about an awesome research effort the other team and I brainstormed regarding how to help Internally Displaced People and reduce the damage they are causing water infrastructure and the spread of water-bourne diseases.”

As a savvy commentator over at Savage Minds has observed, Griffin seems to be marketing himself to get a book contract or perhaps a movie deal out of his work for the Pentagon. Perhaps they could call it “The Water-Bourne Conspiracy”?

L.L. Wynn

Another film on human trafficking

14 October, 2007

After the recent success of The Jammed, an independent Australian feature, a new Hollywood film on human trafficking, Trade, is being released worldwide. The production, endorsed by Amnesty International and UNESCO, highlights two trends: the engagement of Hollywood filmmakers in publicizing causes championed by international NGOs (Blood Diamonds is a case in point) and, specifically, the broad appeal of the fight against “trafficking” that reaches from the Christian right to the feminist left.

The problem is that the global anti-trafficking movement, by conflating different forms of irregular migration into a single category that seems unquestionably evil (since it involves illegal profiteering, exploitation, rape and death) makes all of them seem suspect and plays into the hands of governments wishing to eliminate it at all costs. By recasting a diverse array of people — ranging from girls and boys kidnapped and held against their will to economic migrants as well as refugees willingly entering a transaction with migration brokers — as a homogeneous mass of victims of an “evil trade,” it ironically helps to justify their repression and such brutal measures as indefinite detention, denial of due process, or outright deportation to third countries.

Not only Western governments but also states like Thailand and China borrow the rhetoric of “human trafficking” to justify the forced repatriation of Hmongs (to Laos) and North Koreans, despite claims by the former to fleeing from oppression. (The latter have no chance to claim anything, but it is believed that they are punished after being returned to North Korea.)

The trafficking discourse portrays illegal migration as a highly organized “evil trade” (Tony Blair) firmly controlled by transnational crime syndicates. But my own research among illegal Chinese migrants in Europe (Transnational Chinese, Stanford University Press, 2004) shows that most of them rely on an informal and loose network of migration brokers, some of whom perform legal services (such as applying for a passport or visa) and others illegal ones (such as smuggling a person across a border or falsifying a passport). The process is more like the airline industry, with many contractors and subcontractors, than like a mafia plot. As Sverre Molland shows in his research on Lao prostitutes in Thailand, the assumptions of the trafficking model do not work here either: recruitment back in the villages is most often done by friends of the new recruits; the girls are rarely forced or sequestered, and most know they type of work they are going to perform.

I do not doubt that there are workers, among them Chinese in Europe and Lao women in Thailand, who are genuine victims of violence, deception, and false imprisonment. Indeed, a number of such cases have been documented in England alone. But most of those Chinese I spoke to who had been mistreated see it as cases of bad luck with unscrupulous service providers. Scotland Yard officers in charge of London’s Chinatown I spoke to described people smuggling as “disorganised crime”, and the most-cited expert on the issue, Ko-lin Chin, has conceded that, against his earlier position, the involvement of organised crime in illegal Chinese migration cannot be documented.

The fundamental problem with the proposition that all illegal migration is produced by this invisible global criminal network is that, like the story about global networks of terrors, is — as Sverre remarked — unfalsifiable: if individuals deny the involvement of such a network, that only appears to confirm their cunning to those who believe in the conspiracy. Ironically, people are much less likely to challenge “experts” on the subjects of terror and crime than on the subjects of science or the environment (where specialist knowledge is in fact much less accessible to the layman), because they accept that the source of the information must be kept secret. This is particularly so today, when governments can justifies sweeping policies by referring to security needs. Yet it often turns out that such “insider” information is based on unsubstantiated media reports. Once in the early 2000s, a visiting Scotland Yard official informed his audience of Hungarian police officers that there were 40 thousand illegal Chinese migrants in Hungary, waiting to go on to the West. This caused great consternation. Later it turned out that the figure had come from a 1994 article by an American author who had quoted a 1993 Hungarian media report, which had in turn cited … me. Except what I said referred to legal migrants and to 1991!

More on the dreaded Intervention

10 October, 2007

I feel like it deserves capital letters — The Intervention — such is the gravity of the recent government push to restructure the way remote indigenous communities are managed. Already a number of the more dubious policy changes seem to be bearing fruit.

For example, one of the more disastrous aspects of the Intervention would appear to be the dismantling of community-based employment projects that have provided government subsidised work in remote communities. Anthropologist Jon Altman has written this article criticising the scrapping of the Community Development Employment Programmes (CDEP). The article also provides some background on the rationale for setting up the scheme in the first place.

Accounts are emerging of the damage scrapping the CDEP is causing. For example, an anthropologist who recently returned from doing fieldwork in Arnhem Land, Jennifer Deger, has cited cases of people who have had community-based roles for many years, such as collecting the garbage, and have effectively been left without jobs since the CDEP funding ran out. There also doesn’t seem to be any plan in place for replacing such vital services or offering similar sorts of employment opportunities. Instead, Aborigines are being forced onto Work for the Dole schemes, a move which would seem to increase welfare dependency rather than providing any meaningful employment.

On a larger scale, entire projects have been scuttled by the sudden shift in the management of employment and community development. Margaret Carew, a lecturer from Alice Springs writes:

I don’t know how you are all feeling about the intervention, but the reports coming in are making me angry, sad and sick to the stomach. We keep hearing of terrible stories from places like Titjikala (Successful tourism enterprise forced to close) Utopia (existing training doesn’t fit into new compulsory work for the dole being introduced on 29 Oct) and Tennant Creek (Pink Palace Arts Centre is closing its doors because they have abolished CDEP).

It seems pretty obvious that these sorts of developments are going to negatively affect communities. I also don’t understand what scuttling the CDEP has to do with the original issue which set off The Intervention in the first place, the protection of children from abuse.

The motivation for making these changes seems to be designed to maximise government control and leverage rather than being based on sound social or economic policy. According to Altman, the key objectives of this change are to increase the coercive power tying welfare payments to certain behaviours, such as parents sending their children to school, and to neutralise the political power of Aboriginal organisations. He writes:

One part of the agenda seems to be to sacrifice CDEP positions, many that generate extra hours of work and extra income, to bring participants and their earnings under the single system of quarantining that will apply to welfare payments. It is as if the Government is happy to sacrifice work and income to deal with a perceived expenditure problem: cash is spent on unacceptable goods.

Another part of the agenda seems to be to further depoliticise Indigenous organisations, in this case robust CDEP organisations, perhaps to give government-appointed community administrators greater powers.

In other words the policy is designed to reduce Aboriginal independence, centralise power, and create more docile subjects. This is of course in accordance with other moves, such as doing away with the permit system that gives Aboriginal communities control over who enters their land.

If readers would like to express concern about the Intervention I recommend the Women for Wik website, which has been following developments and also includes a petition against The Intervention.

MANA’O – New Open Access Repository for Anthropology

9 October, 2007

The Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa is launching a new Open Access repository for anthropology. This is an exciting step towards increasing access to anthropological writing. Here’s the announcement from Alex Golub over at Savage Minds (and the University of Hawai’i at Manoa):

It is with great pleasure that I request submissions for MANAO—an Open Access repository for anthropology sponsored by the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. In Hawai’ian “mana’o” means thoughts, ideas, knowledge, or opinions—when making decisions together people in Hawai’i often ask for each other’s mana’o. The Mana’o project combines anthropology’s commitment with the ideal of ‘open access’ with open source software’s focus on free technology. The goal is to provide tools that allow scholars to better communicate with each other and with the world.

Mana’o will ‘soft-launch’ in late-November 2007 during the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington D.C. We are currently inviting early adopters to submit work that will be featured in this launch. At the moment we are specifically interested in:

BA Theses
MA Theses
Ph.D. Theses
Articles in peer-reviewed journals
Papers given at academic conferences
Digitized books

If you would like to deposit your work with us, simply email it to and our staff will process it and deposit it in Mana’o. If you already have your publications online, simply send us the URL and we will process the material ourselves.

Please note that we can only deposit documents that are in the public domain, documents for which you clearly hold the copyright, or documents for which the copyright owner (typically, the publisher) permits authors to deposit their work in a repository such as this. Unfortunately, this does not include PDFs of your dissertation created by UMI (unless you have used the UMI Open Access publishing option). We can, however, accept the electronic documents that you submitted to UMI when you deposited your dissertation with your university library. If you are unsure who owns the copyright to the work you wish to submit, we can work with you to determine your rights.

Anthropologists have long been concerned with making their world available to the public, including the communities with whom they have lived and conducted fieldwork. Mana’o represents an important step forward in creating concrete open access solutions for anthropology. I hope that you will be part of our initial program, and I look forward
to receiving your submission!

Please circulate this call for submissions as widely as possible. If you are interested in volunteering for the project, please do not hesitate to contact me at

Thank you,
Alex Golub, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
University of Hawai’i at Manoa

I hope that Culture Matters readers/writers will join in submitting and making their own writing more widely accessible (and hopefully more widely read)!

L.L. Wynn

Anthropologists in Iraq: new article in New York Times

5 October, 2007

Our Master of Applied Anthropology alumnus Jesse Dart just forwarded a link to a new NYT article on the Human Terrain Team, “an experimental Pentagon program that assigns anthropologists … to American combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq” that “has won the praise of officers who say they are seeing concrete results.

 See the article here.

The Cycle of Ethics Review (Ethics review part 4)

4 October, 2007

Part of my continuing series on Ethnography and Ethics Review at Macquarie University (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

At Macquarie University all applications to the Ethics Review Committee (Human Research) go through a vetting process that can send them along several tracks for consideration. For the moment, two tracks for consideration exist, but there is the possibility that a third is arising (a couple of applications have been recommended for a new trajectory in the past month as the Committee responds to language in the National Statement on Research Ethics that allows us to shorten review of applications with no perceptible risk).

In this posting, I want to help clarify for students what the two review trajectories are, how long they take, and what are the factors that will likely lead an application to be sent along one or the other. As our own records show in the Ethics Committe (and is on the diagram) over three-quarters of all applications are now handled through the Expedited online review, which seems to be speeding up the process (in addition to getting rid of the previous system of monthly deadlines so that applications are rolling).

MU ethics process diagram medium

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